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I am a bit obsessed with NPR radio personality and host of All Songs Considered Bob Boilen.  But honestly, what’s not to love? He has a smooth, attentive voice.  He listens to all the best music, goes to all the best shows. He has a laugh that forces me to stifle a foolish grin as I listen to his show walking through the park.  I’m sure passersby wonder what the hell is so funny, but it is only because they aren’t hearing the sweet charm and infectious laughter of DC’s most talented music personality. Most importantly, Bob constantly challenges me to find the best (defined as whatever is interesting and appealing to me at the moment) music in whatever city I am visiting or inhabiting.  And Belfast would definitely not disappoint Mr. Boilen.

I started realizing Belfast was a great place for music when I began making the open mic night rounds with my housemate.  Unlike my American experience with such events, which are usually 90% guys wailing some Nirvana cover forcing me to hit the bar more than usual, the open mic nights in Belfast weren’t bad at all.  In fact, some nights I found myself in disbelief that I hadn’t paid for such a great show.  My favorite open mic spot in Belfast is the John Hewitt where on any Monday night you can experience the upcoming singer/songwriter trying out some new material as well as old favorites like Dylan and Guthrie.

My most current bit of music madness has been the Empire‘s blues night where every Thursday, free of charge, Rab McCullough and his band play a show that could only be better and more bluesy if the bar was serving hurricanes and throwing out beads.  The Empire’s blues night even has a dancer in residence, Jumpin’ Jack, a thrilling older gentleman who bursts onto the dance floor with a cartwheel and attracts ever female in the bar to shimmy up next to him.  Jack alone is worth the trip.

For the classical music enthusiast, Belfast won’t disappoint.  After two grand performances I can say with some authority that the Ulster Orchestra is worth a night on the town.  At Christmas, Adam and I went to see their performance of Handel’s Messiah at Waterfront Hall, which is a great venue beside the Lagan.  Last week Larry and I saw the orchestra perform Britten at Ulster Hall with its romantic muralled walls.  The best part about the orchestra is their incredibly cheap 3gbp student tickets. The second best part about the orchestra is their close proximity (in both venues) to Nando’s.

Belfast is also home to the Odyssey complex, where usually one can catch a Giant’s hockey game, go bowling, or dance in one of the many clubs, but ever so often the Odyssey is transformed for headline shows.  In the fall Beyonce and Toby Keith came through.  Neither of which I could afford to see, but I did see Gaga there two-weeks ago, and like any good arena, it was packed.

Just across the street from my flat is Mandela Hall, a great venue in the Queen’s Student union.  In the fall, Ben and Adam and I went to see Dublin born Imelda May and her rocker-billy fans tear it up.  Thinking of Dublin born artists, back at Thanksgiving Trina was sweet enough to get all the Mitchell’s tickets to Irish soul songstress Laura Izibor who I had unknowingly been listening to in movie soundtracks such as P.S. I Love You and Tyler Perry films.  Her show was great, though I think she might be more appreciated back at home, and her album ‘Let the Truth be Told’ is equally good.

Belfast also hosts some pretty good music festivals.  Almost every month there is some festival that fills the pubs with free and cheap shows. The end of February saw the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival.  I was on retreat most of the week but I did catch a decent show at Stormont. At the end of this month is the Moving on Music Festival and I’m hoping to catch a few shows.

When I’m not out listening to great music in Belfast I’m listening to great UK and Irish music at home, walking through the park, in the gym, on the way to class, in the library, basically everywhere.  I’d listen to music in my sleep if I could.  My good friend Larry is busy exposing me to as much ‘local’ music as he can. So far he has led me to UK based Laura Marling whose melodies have brought some of my favorite musicians to their knees and Cara Dillion, from Derry, whose clear, pure tone utterly transports you.  Both ladies will be in or near Belfast in the next few weeks and I’m definitely going to be there.

So all of this is to say that Bob should come be with me in Belfast so I can listen to even more quality music and get that commentary only public radio can provide.

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. . . (all resolutions need a little breaking) I’m finally blogging a bit more about life here in sunny Ireland. In the last month I’ve had a few great adventures, but I won’t bore with the details. I’ll let the accompanying pictures tell most of the stories, but I will hit a few highlights.

Scotland: I went searching for the Loch Ness monster in Scotland and all I came back with were these ridiculous pictures.

The Bike Ride from Hell: Snow is the enemy of any bicyclist, for obvious reasons.  I especially hate snow when I’m utterly exhausted, but decide nonetheless to set off with my bike from Portrush to Bushmills and beyond. It started out a brilliant idea.  I’d meet the Mitchell scholars, who were up visiting Northern Ireland, at Bushmills and then spend the night with them in their rented cottage.  But it turned out to be one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had.  First, I didn’t realize how incredible hilly the path was, made worse by the snow and ice that covered the winding farm roads that make up the cycle route.  I went between cursing while pushing my bike up an icy bank to praying and screaming while sliding down the other side.  After I finally made it to Bushmills I got lost on the journey to the cottage and ended up at the Giant’s Causeway, a great place to get stranded.  Eventually the other scholars came and stuffed a very muddy, wet and grumpy Bre and her bike into their tiny rental car and carried me to the warmth of their cottage and Alec’s fresh made bagels.  While the ride was miserable, it was some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.  I’d be just cycling along and bam, there’s another castle.  I will defiantly go back- when it’s warm and pleasant, and next time I’ll be in a car. *Note* Since this experience I haven’t touched my bike, even with the sunny weather of this week.  I think I am slightly traumatized.

Gaga in Belfast: Months ago, 6 of us Mitchells bought tickets to Lady Gaga.  Though I appreciate Gaga in the club I wouldn’t say that I’m a passionate Little Monster.  If anything, I figured a Gaga concert was an awesome way to kick off my birthday week.  I was completely right.  It was incredible.  Gaga was amazing, but more than anything it was a visually stunning production.  And I mean production.  The stage was circular with a runway jutting out into the middle of the arena (we stood near the end).  Periodically a circular curtain would drop, allowing for set and, of course, costume changes, and these incredibly artistic projections would play.  Most of them were Gaga in outrageous outfits, but a few were crazy like Gaga eating a heart.  But it was a spectacular performance and I was so glad to be there with good friends.

23 on the 23rd: I love the number 23.  It’s my birthday. It appears in almost every number identification I’m ever given.  It is my lucky number, winning me the occasional small lottery pool.  It’s always the locker I chose at the gym.  I just love the number.  So you can imagine my excitement at turning 23 on the 23rd!  I’m just going to say it was a night to remember.  *For pictures see Adam.

Castle Leslie: Last weekend, the Mitchell scholars, including myself, got to finish our retreat at Castle Leslie in Monaghan.  [Check out their site!] It was an absolutely spectacular estate with a sparking river and lush garden. But the best part was Sir John Leslie, the 94 year old Baronet and cousin to Winston Churchill, who took up clubbing in his 70’s.  Sir John took us to his favorite clubs where he schooled us all on the dance floor and kept us out until about 3am.

The coming weeks have a few more adventures in store.  St. Patrick’s day is approaching, as is a Mitchell excursion to Brussels.  I will try my best to be better about documenting the details.

Next up- The Belfast music scene.  I’ve been waiting to write about that for a while.  Next week. Promise.

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