Music City, a dawn-to-dawn festival celebration of music and performance that took place this past summer solstice weekend in Derry-Londonderry, UK's City of Culture. A day when people seemed to just miss work with a relaxed swagger and reinforce the notion, that in Derry, there is no such thing as a plan.
I have always maintained that the best parties are the unplanned ones. I once organised a Christmas sing-song at my house, complete with band and audience. The idea came to me at 11am one Sunday and by 4pm we were packed to the rafters with drinks in hand, singing 'Rock and Roll Christmas'. It was the best party ever. Chaotic, funny, haphazard. Little was I to know that it would stand me in such good stead during my 'Musician in Residence' year. For this is exactly the approach that the people of Derry naturally adopt. Any London-learnt idea of schedule and planning is out of the window. All will be fine. In fact it will be better than fine. Free of schedule and expectation, the spirit shines through. And that surely is what music, culture, the arts are about.
The Music City day was no different. I had a vague idea of where I was to be and at what time. Beyond that... who knew? My morning began at 4.30am, woken by a very noisy wedding party in the middle of a four day Irish wedding throng outside my hotel door. I was immediately worried that I wouldn't last the day. Try as I might I couldn't get back to sleep. Anyway, music had already begun in every single theatre, pub, club, supermarket, hotel foyer and fast food restaurant, so what chance did I have? Breakfast came and went in a haze so I welcomed with relish my first very loose appointment.
Making my way to the Nerve Centre, (the music/arts multiplex that keeps the city buzzing with new music makers and my base for the year) I met up with Martin 'Marty' McGill. If there is such a thing as a man with a plan, then it's Marty. The man I rely on for everything here. A true diamond and a dedicated youth music worker. He knows to point me in the right direction and to leave the rest to chance.
By mid morning, Marty had chaperoned me into the heart of the city centre where I discovered several hundred children with ipads, drums, and microphones, all poised to sing Emeli Sande's 'Next to Me' to a captive audience. I happened to play piano on Emeli's recording of that song, which is presumably why it had been picked. In a last minute city such as this, a tune that I already knew and therefore didn't have to rehearse was a wise idea. Sure enough, the city residents gave it a rousing rendition, along with my fellow band mates Rex and Evan who learnt the tune from their iphones on the walk up the road. Smiles and high fives were in abundance as well as a fairly embarrassing mobbing from the local schoolchildren!
One quick ice cream and a dash later, we were leaving the Guildhall area to the sounds of 'Danny Boy' being sung by a massive collection of the cities voices. We were due at St Augustine's church, a very pretty church just inside the famous city walls. This is where my band 'Neil Cowley Trio' were to play with the newly formed 'Molehill Voices'. Put together from local choirs especially for this day and lead by Siobhan Shiels, they were to sing specially prepared arrangements to accompany us. Barely rehearsed it made for more thrilling seat of the pants stuff.
Sitting back, post gig and sipping a celebratory glass of wine, I heard a rumour that I was due back at the church for a live BBC Radio Foyle performance. Imagine my surprise when I strolled up to the venue to see a full audience and choir and I'm due on in five minutes! Bearing in mind the aforementioned glass of wine I was a little nervous that I might not be on the finest form, but I managed to survive. I played The Face of Mount Molehill, the title track from our last album. A tune which seems doomed always to be cut short in favour of the news. Three times I have performed it solo on radio and on every occasion I've been cut short by a producer sweating profusely as the second hand advances towards the hour. I'm becoming an expert at the false ending as a result. But then what should I expect? After all, a composed three minute tune is just so....how should I say.....pre- planned?