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Bhi Bhiman – Black Box, Belfast


The Black Box’s Green Room with curtains closed and candles lit is the intimate setting as Bhi Bhiman takes to the stage looking casual, sporting the confidence of a guy enjoying plenty of praise at the moment.

His first song, ‘Kimchee Line,’ gives you a pretty good idea of what Bhi is about; a sound plucked straight from his native San Francisco’s cherished old blues, and lyrics which paint a picture of destinations from around the world – in this case North Korea.

Bhi has said in interviews before that he tries not to sound like someone impersonating others, at least not when doing his own songs. That said, songs like ‘Its Cold Out Here’ sound inspired by Angie-esque ballads by the Rolling Stones, which is never a bad thing. Bhiman must also be praised for being strong-minded enough to seemingly play whatever songs he thinks fit the mood on any given performance, with ‘Will You Be There’ from the film Free Willy an example. It’s definitely not expected and is certainly unique and quite refreshing; Bhiman laughing off the odd mistake so calmly that nobody seems to mind, even getting a couple of seconds into a song before deciding just to stop and play something else.

You would get the impression from seeing his press pictures in suits, and praise from the Washington Post (he has been labelled such things as the ‘Sri Lankan Woody Guthrie’ and ‘the most exciting thing from San Francisco in years’), that his performances would be tight, serious affairs. But it is just the opposite, which is a fun surprise.

The comic lyrics in Bhi’s songs are perhaps his most unique stamp on the traditional folk and American country that he clearly takes solace in during his spare time. “So, this next one is about two lesbians who kill a guy and then go on the run,” explains Bhi as he begins a song called ‘Ballerina.’ He also breaks out some songs from his covers album such as a cover of ACDC‘s ‘Highway to Hell’, in the style of the Carter Family. It is at least an interesting take on the song, albeit quite corny. It is followed by covers of The Troggs and the Talking Heads, which are a slight improvement, but Bhi is markedly better when doing his own material; the covers seeming sort of like an attempt to pad things out.

One thing we learn about Bhi is his ability to do the most marvelous, tone-filled whistle, like something cut-and-pasted from a Clint Eastwood film. You can see someone at almost every table glancing at who they are with, as if to simply say ‘wow, that’s the whistle of a champion.’

Bhi saves his two most familiar songs for the end. ‘Guttersnipe’ gets the best reception of the night, followed by the final song, ‘Walk of Life’ by Dire Straits, for which the whole room provides the whistling. Bar this last cover, you feel when Bhiman has a stronger base of his own material, people will really start to take notice of his idiosyncratic talents. Ryan McMurtry