Little Bear @ Groove Festival by Sean Smyth (6-7-13)-3Little Bear at Whelan’s, 3rd of October 2013

On a night when the gig-going population of Dublin is thinly stretched across the city, and with some of the best acts in the country and a few international crowd-pleasers to compete with for attention, a half-filled Whelan’s is no mean feat for four lads from Derry without even an album to their name yet. Still, the night offers up a challenge to Little Bear, to do what any band that has ever reached greatness has done; make a half-empty room feel like it’s two times full.

First up onstage is fellow Northeners The Jepettos. They are a husband and wife duo who we are to understand are down a couple of members for the evening, but it’s no harm and you’d hardly notice. They open their set with a melodica, which is a great instrument at the worst of times and it’s certainly not misused in any sense here, but their song Gold Rush is the highlight of their set. It’s a strange little number that jumps in and out of a waltz and showcases some great male-female vocals, the second best sounding thing in music after the melodica. Could the missing cello really add much to this sound? Hopefully Dublin will find out some day soon.

For many of us Little Bear first came to our attention when they filled in last-minute for Two Door Cinema Club at Other Voices earlier this year. That brought them to our attention, but they stuck around thanks to their songs, for which we get a first-hand account tonight. The gig opens with an almost post-rock sound into which a finger-tapping riff eventually drops and at that moment you’re quite sure you chose the right gig to attend on the night. The aptly named second track Second In Line shakes you where the first track grabbed you and is not only admirable for how it makes its chorus its quietest moment, but for how it navigates the entire force spectrum from calm to frantic with the kind of sure-footedness usually reserved for mountain goats.

This happens to be the band’s strongest point, not just being able to write great songs, which they obviously can, but being able to write slow songs that are equally as good as their upbeat ones, and sometimes mixing the two flawlessly in the one tune. For the cream of the slow songs I’d Let You Win must be the one. The lyrics tell of a hope for rekindling lost love, but the melody lets you know the chances are slim. And they also do a kind of song they “don’t usually do” we are told, called Race With The Tide which with its piano-based waltz is a noticeable departure from the other songs, but very much in a good way. In fact it’s towards the end of the gig, when they play what singer Steven McCool calls their “old songs” that things begin to drag slightly, and we start to hear riffs, break downs and the kind of forceful singing we’ve heard already in the gig only done better.

You could start to feel a bit hard done by at this point, but if you left you’d be kicking yourself because first they announce the final song, then Few And Far Between begins to play and then suddenly the floor that’s been empty for the night fills up with people, like cockroaches from behind plasterboard when you start banging it. The song is a knock-out and when the crowd wants more they claim not to have any more to give so taking the term ‘encore’ back to its true meaning they play – the again aptly titled – Second In Line again, and it’s even better than the first because finally they’ve done that thing that all great bands know how to do. Next time they will surely do it to a full house.