Having relocated to the sprawling expanses of Ormeau Park from the old Botanic Gardens site, this year’s Tennents Vital (held August 21-22) is quite clearly grasping at grandness; certainly it’s the largest outdoor concert in Belfast and Northern Ireland in many a year. Unfortunately the choice of today’s headliner, Razorlight, singularly fails to excite. However, there are, by way of consolation, all manner of interesting bands further down the main stage bill, or playing in the Radio1 tent.
Bands like* Steer Clear, full of flair and quixotic ambition, their keyboard bolstered rock proving fiercely dramatic. Songs such as_ ‘No, You Hang Up’_ are emotionally high-strung and quickly captivating. For these dapper young pups, sartorial smartness is matched by the intelligence of their music. One act never knowingly overdressed are *The Hold Steady. They may look like car mechanics, but they sure know how to get the crowd motoring, blasting through their main stage set with muscular purpose._ ‘Chips Ahoy’ is fast-paced, guitars churning like a storm thrashed ocean. At times, most notably during a stirring rendition of _‘You Can Make Him Like You’, frontman Craig Finn resembles a wildly gesticulating marionette, passion pulling his strings. He is a compelling focal point around which his bandmates rally with gusto and unstoppable intent.
Oppenheimer’s performance is as sharp as a pint of snakebite, their songs combining the purity of the finest pop music with the bullishness of rock, keyboard and drums meshing with guitar and delicate, slightly bruised vocals. They enjoy a deservedly rapturous response from a packed Radio1 tent. Alongside the sugar-spun gorgeousness of songs such as ‘Saturday Looks Bad To Me’ and ‘This Is Not A Test’ they take the opportunity to give a hometown debut to tracks from their forthcoming second album. Of the new material, the preposterously titled ‘I Don’t Care What Anyone Says, I Think You’re Alright’ stands out. It is vehemently forward-charging, hinting at a more abrasive future direction.
The celebratory air is maintained by The Rumble Strips (pictured, left). They play with real zest, their music exhibiting an enviable capacity for love and joy. Saxophone and trumpets create bold, vibrant sounds, perfectly complementing the rattling drums and ragged guitar. Out on the main stage and the* Manic Street Preachers *are plundering their back catalogue to deliver a set that is welcomed for its familiarity as much as the quality of the performance. There are moments of delicious déjà vu - ‘From Despair to Where’ _and ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’_ are as keen and effortlessly affecting as they ever were - but the fact that the polemical punk-rockers must keep casting ever further back, summoning past glories, in order to catch the audience’s attention tells its own story.
The hip-swaggering Gallic genius that is Justice allows for a devastating conclusion to day one of Vital. Those who’ve foregone the more pedestrian pleasures of Razorlight and squeezed into the Radio1 tent are amply rewarded for their choice. In the beginning is_ ‘Genesis’_ and from here on it’s relentlessly grooving fare, served up on a platter of ‘fuck you very much’ beats and intergalactic samples. Versions of tracks from the duo’s debut, most notably a fist-pumping ‘Waters of Nazareth’ and vamped-up ‘D.A.N.C.E.’, are brought into riotous collision with cuts from their record collection. It all creates a profanely enjoyable smorgasbord of sound, its creators gazing down like benevolent gods as the audience stomp and thrash. Allez Les Bleus.
_ “Hello cocks and pussies.”** Albert Hammond Jr.** (pictured, right) is in impish mood. Cut loose from the confines of The Strokes he seems invigorated, propelling his band through a pulse-pumping garage-rock set. The use of three guitars on a number of songs imbues real grit and dynamism, quite a contrast to the mannered angularity of his full-time outfit. There’s a full-throttle cover of The Cars’ _‘Don’t Cha Stop’ _and a lovely, whimsical rendition of ‘101’_. As the first main-stage act of the day, Hammond Jr. succeeds handsomely in getting the old synapses firing.
Maybe it’s the unrelenting glare of the early evening sun, but The Shins’ performance evaporates into hazy insignificance. They’re unfailingly polite to the audience, exuding a certain geeky charm, but the music is all too slender, a dehydrated husk compared to the vivid, heart-embracing loveliness of their records. Only_ ‘Phantom Limb’ and ‘Sleeping Lessons’ _caress with any degree of vigour; all else is negligible. Where the Shins were slight and ethereal, so* Mark Ronson *and band are dynamic and full-blooded. The good-time exhortations are altogether too exuberant, but often it’s a stirringly enjoyable ride with the large cast of players creating a vibrant sound.
The lager boors, of which there are plenty, surge towards the stage as the bad-tempered beats of ‘Shoot The Runner’ signal the arrival of* Kasabian* (pictured, main). The man in front of me spends an inordinate amount of time sniffing his armpits, an unusual gesture of appreciation, but I have to agree with the sentiment: Kasabian’s live performance warrants our approval. They’re a band whose aggressive ego-rattling, general lack of tunes and ludicrous self-righteousness I’ve always detested. However, it is this same surly swagger that enables them to connect with an audience of over thirty thousand._ ‘Reason Is Treason’_ is, yes, quite magnificent whilst_ ‘Processed Beats’_ - a dervish of swinging, sledgehammer percussion - delivers a concussive punch. Tom Meighhan stands arms outstretched like a lad-rock lightning rod; Serge Pizzorno, all neat goatee and sharp hat, plays the role of dandy guitarist. It’s all a little studied, the gestures undoubtedly grand, but Kasabian’s overblown antics succeed in filling the moment.
Not to be outdone in the grandstanding stakes,* The Killers *bring the full industrial light and magic show to Ormeau Park. This small corner of Belfast has become a retina scorching replica of Las Vegas, neon glare lighting and head-spinning visuals spangling the night sky. The performance is wild, overblown and ridiculously riveting. This is not music as art; it’s music as sheer dizzying spectacle, entertainment that diverts, even if it leaves us emotionally undernourished. There is much to admire in what is a seamless, spirited show. Certainly Brandon Flowers (pictured, left) is an intriguing frontman, flailing about the stage, throwing himself into all sorts of curiously imploring shapes. Songs such as_ ‘Mr Brightside’ and ‘Somebody Told Me’_ prompt the inevitable, beery sing-alongs, whilst a rendition of Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay’ is received with sheer incomprehension. They close by reprising ‘When You Were Young’, it is flamboyant and pleasingly overstated. The Killers may not win our hearts, but for a few hours they’ve enthralled the senses. For tonight it is enough.