While the blades of a police helicopter whirled noisily in the grey skies above the Black Box, inside was a thing of beauty and light.

Belfast has long been a bipolar city and Saturday showed both sides of its character. Outside, loyalist rioters were throwing petrol bombs, stones and fireworks at police with reports too of gunfire.

But that was only one aspect of the city. Another was the Out to Lunch festival which had fiddler Zoe Conway and husband.guitarist John McIntyre playing to a packed venue.

Simply put, the music was sublime, kicking off with the old favourite Music for a Found Harmonium before the couple got into some of the tunes from Zoe and John’s new album, Go Mairir i bhFad (May you live long).

Thanks to an Arts Council grant, the pair were able to commission twelve composers of traditional tunes for fiddle and guitar and the result shows the stunning creativity of the guardians of our national music but also what can be done with that music in the hands of talents such as Zoe and John.

Some of the composers sent the tunes electronically to Zoe and John, others called to the house but the pair really get into the skin of the music. They must have been mad asking Andy Irvine to compose a tune as they must have known Andy would come up with a complicated Balkan-inspired melody with a weird time signature  and so it came to pass with the brilliant Lago Puelo/Twenty-Two. However, after many hours of practice, the duo made light and sense of it all with a beautiful rendition.

My other favourite tune was the Steve Cooney-composed pizzicato-inflected dreamscape Capaillín Dubh ina Thaibhreamh, its sound lifting us out of ourselves and into somewhere beautiful and peaceful as did the two songs (there might have been more but I had to leave the gig early), Zoe’s solo Táimse mo Chodladh and John’s Bríd Óg Ní Mháille with stunning harmonies from the missus.

So, a day of contrasts in Belfast and a wonderful affirmation of the power of music to keep us all sane.

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