I left Joseph Arthur’s small and intimate gig at The Errigle Inn, in Belfast, speechlessly quiet in my half yard of spiritual solitude. And it wasn’t the gig, though we’ll get to that. After the gig as this lanky, arty and obviously laid big dude just sat down at a table alone, someone asked about product. Not for Joseph the table at the back strategy. No he got up almost hesitantly and opened a bag full of EPs, some on CD but some on 12” vinyl with individually sketchings by the man himself. I stood in line, two from the front and one from the back, and when it came my turn I asked my prepared question.
During the gig I could not help, as a Presbyterian minister, be aware of the copious amounts of spiritual references. When he asked what people do for fun in Belfast and one, inebriated to the point of loud wag, shouted ‘Church’ and everyone laughed. Joseph said that after his 10 mile 4am run he always went to Mass. When asked what Americans do for fun he replied that he just sat in front of the TV and smoked pot. There seemed to me to be a great deal of irony in both statements and so my question stuttered out, “So, does the spiritual depth of your lyrics come from going to Mass or smoking pot in front of the TV?”
Arthur’s laid back eyes gained a sparkle and we began to converse about faith. He chatted excitedly about how it is his subconscious coming out and how it is his search and struggle and holding on to faith when the world suggests giving it up. I shared the frustrations of a preacher, the lines of whose picture are always too confining to really get to the soul of the human experience like a singer can; like he had just done. Immediately he proved my point, had the house sound switched off, lifted his guitar and sang to the thirty of us who remained a new song called Redemption’s Son that was simply breathtaking. It was all about Jesus being the only one who really knew him and the struggles of relationships of father and son. It was a prayer for the angel of light to shine upon us. And of course it was far from theological watertight, that is not his trade or his concern but it opened spiritual pores in the souls of that crowd that Billy Graham could never do. It was like he threw out these melodic seeds that fell, where they fell only God knows, but they fell and they were potent because as he threw them they were landing in the depth of the man who sang in the same sense as the ones who listened. Not the arrogant aural brutality that closes the heart but the humble, honest, vulnerable sharing of the search that smashed down the thickest doors in the gentlest way.
And ooh yes, the gig. Well I arrived not sure what to expect. I loved ‘In the Sun’ the most famous of his songs, covered by Peter Gabriel and the single off his last album Come To Where I’m From. Yet I thought that sometimes it was over cluttered and too harsh for my forty year old ears. When Arthur walked out and started singing I was blown away. The voice, the melody, the articulate poetry of the songs and the depth of the questions. Every few songs he’d use his foot pedal echoing effects to conjure rhythms and guitar layerings that made it sound big, big, big and though there were moments when he got so into his art that this became just a little over self indulgent, it made the gig flow up and down and kept the whole thing fascinating. Though a more than original artist there are the parts in Arthur’s influences, that add up to way beyond their sum. The poetry of a Cohen, the harmonica of a Dylan, the clutter and clang of a Waits, a bit of melancholy trip hop and the angst of a Cobain. Yet, that angst never goes the nihilistic way of Cobain because it is always wrapped in the flickers of light that the search always seemed to let seep in. God, and Jesus seems His incarnation in these songs, is a given but who and how and where are the search at hand. There are strongest hint of resurrection and eternity and the cross as a main mover in these things is never far away.