Billy Ocean | Gig Review
Waterfront, Belfast • Saturday 13 May 2017
By John Patrick Higgins • Photography: Tremaine Gregg
Billy Ocean’s an interesting guy. He’s been around forever; he has a handful of sublime pop singles, an aching pang in his voice which renders nonsense poetry. But who is his constituency? Does anyone self identify as a “Billy Ocean fan”? Well, as the Waterfront will attest tonight, flipping loads of people do – and they aren’t shy either! Billy is beset by catcalls and declarations of undying love throughout his set and it really isn’t hard to see why: this is the most joyful gig I’ve been to in a very long time and Billy Ocean is a consummate pro. There is something deeply satisfying about watching someone do something really well, whether it’s glass-blowing, mixing a cocktail or a casual back-flip. Billy Ocean makes leading an auditorium full of strangers through a call and response singalong of his entire back catalogue look like putting out the bins!
Cork’s Shookrah are on first with a slightly over-complicated blend of psychedelic soul and smooth R n B. Lead singer Senita Appiakorang’s voice is a creamy dollop of wonder, but there are sound issues and some of the high end harmonies sound strangulated and shrill. Still ‘WOMAN’ has vintage wah wah trills and Hammond frills, and single ‘Our Own Way’, intersperses splodges of prog synth with hip hop beats and waves of ‘Albatross’ guitar. There’s detail and cleverness here but it seems lost on the crowd. It’s a shame really as Shookrah are an interesting band trying interesting things. They are perhaps not best served by a support slot as part of the Billy Ocean reminisce-package.
The opening of Billy’s set is staggeringly portentous: the band emerging under cover of darkness to a soundtrack of Gothic grumbles and industrial bleeps. Billy sang backing vocals on Scott Walker’s famously difficult Climate of Hunter album, and I had joked before the gig about requesting ‘Sleepwalker’s Woman’ or ‘Track Three’. From this beginning it seems suddenly far less unlikely. But then Billy appears in a powder grey suit which is colour coordinated to match his dreads and goatee, opening with ‘Upside Down’ and he is in immaculate voice. There’s something of Sam Cooke’s honeyed soulfulness in there, but also a cracked, parched quality that lends his singing weight. It’s an extraordinary instrument and all the more astonishing when you consider that he is brushing seventy years of age! He is faultless: as we slip seamlessly into song two, ‘Innocent’, Billy is singing, dancing and sending out inspirational messages: “We are gathered here with a purpose – to have a good time!” There should be a Billy Ocean installed in every workplace, productivity would skyrocket!
There are no sound problems for the star; his vocal soars above a growling bass, subtly flashy guitar, pristine backing vocals: this is an industrial level funk groove, the band bedecked in no nonsense black while Billy shimmers in front of them. We are somewhere between The Rhythm Nation and an Alexander O Neil video.
Audience participation breaks out with a vengeance during ‘The Colour of Love’, as Billy starts throwing kisses to the crowd when it’s their turn to sing. They eat it up and dancing in the aisles begins in earnest.
Then it really kicks off as Billy launches into a triple whammy of ‘Love Really Hurts without You’ ‘No Woman No Cry’ and his masterpiece ‘Red Light Spells Danger’. If there is a more dramatic, more impassioned, more tailored song in Billy Ocean’s canon than ‘Red Light’ I haven’t heard it. Nothing has the mop-the-floor impact of that song. When it is over there is an exodus to the bar because, really, no matter what the next song is it won’t be ‘Red Light Spells Danger’ and after a song like that you need to assess your fluids situation!
And then it just seems to be an endless succession of hits: ‘Suddenly’ a slow dancing cousin to Lionel’s ‘Hello’ reminds you just how good a song it is. ‘When The Going Gets Tough’ comes with a built in call in response and nobody needs any prompting. ‘Get out Of My Dreams (Get into My Car)’ complete with “vroom vroom” and braking noises is both ridiculous and magnificent. He holds back ‘Caribbean Queen’ for the encore because he can and because you almost don’t miss it – he has so many hits!
By this time his grey suit is black with sweat and he has been singing and dancing, with no sign of flagging, for an hour and a half. He leaves us with his biggest hit, rapturous applause, some unselfconscious and ungainly dancing (my own included) and having witnessed the silver fox captain a revue that truly is a machine for making happiness. It’s raining outside in Belfast. No one cares.