I love Songwriter In The Rounds. As well as the songs we get to hear about the songs. Then there are the combinations that such events throw together. The Belfast Nashville Songwriting Festival threw another great one up this weekend. Three artists at different phases of their career, sharing their genius, spurring each on to better performances.
I remember listening to Stephen Bishop records back in the late 70s. I was still at school and I think he was loaned to me in a batch that included James Taylor. I thought of that as Stephen Bishop sang his opening Blue Window. By the time he got to On And On I had remembered those early hits. He is a consummate writer. It is the classic tradition which makes you understand why people like Phil Collins, Art Garfunkel, Eric Clapton and Barbara Streisand would cover his songs.
Derry boy Eoin O’Callaghan who goes under the moniker of Best Boy Grip might not expect too many artists to cover his songs but he was nothing less for that. Best Boy Grip songs are so quirky and at times so personal that they would not seem like Art Garfunkel fodder! Tonight with only a keyboard O’Callaghan sat between what he described as “songwriting royalty” and was never out of place. He was left scrambling at times to follow Archer but without doubt feeling the pressure he more than held his own.
Best Boy Grip is a cross between Divine Comedy, another son of the same north west of Ireland terrain, Randy Newman, with a dollop of Ben Folds thrown in. Northern Ireland’s Duke Special has got to have been an influence too. There is a good deal of humour in Best Boy Grip but don’t let it distract from the deep honest songs of raw soul. Whether losing out on love in Monsters And Me; or touching on family breakdown under a typically strange title of Locked In The Bathroom (again Duke Special’s influence perhaps); or his final song Covert about where he says the Northern Ireland Troubles came close to his doorstep; these are not throwaway pop songs. He’s a fascinating new talent.
Best of all, comes Iain Archer. Now, in case you are not a regular Soul Surmise reader, let me state my allegiance to Archer. I have been watching him live since I gave him a gig in Dublin in 1992 when he had the mouth of an entire room hanging open.
He was no Grammy nominee at that stage but boy was the potential there. Twenty four years later and this Bangor boy must have been darn close to that Grammy with his co-write with James Bay that is all over everywhere - Hold Back The River. When he closed with it tonight he had won an audience over that I was surprised hadn’t already discovered and heralded him as a local hero. Shame on the local media.
Yes, there were a lot of Stephen Bishop fans in the house. Early on the applause was heading Bishop’s way but by the end of Hold Back The River this was a closer bout.
Archer started at home, taking us up to the Black Mountain Quarry, though as the opening number he didn’t make it as strong a song as it is. From them on though he was right on it. His own When it Kicks In with all its rocked up energy shifted the night’s mood and, though caught up in bombs and bodies of a Belfast of our recent past, it gave us a spiritual sense of hope for when the “truth drug will open our weeping eyes”. Perfect commentary the day after a bomb incident in East Belfast.
Frozen Lake is a stunning beauty of a song that I have blogged about often. Set in the Black Forest of Germany, and again the stories between songs is a special treat on gigs like this one, Archer adds to the song with his atmospheric chord-scapes. Few can add to songs and voice, his unique guitar sounds. Bishop was particularly fascinated here. When the American veteran spoke favourably about the other two writers at the end he really meant it. He was transfixed on Archer throughout.
If Hold Back The River was the best tune of the night then another co-write of Archer’s, Nothing Stays The Same, was the one that set the benchmark for the evening. A co-write with Luke Sital Singh this was gripping, in lyric, in big chorus, in vocal range and power. From this one on everyone was plundering their catalogue for what could sit alongside the other two’s work and not feel embarrassed. Apart from Bishop who took this night in his 65 years on the planet to sing two hilarious children’s songs, never performed before. One called Fart!
Knowing Archer there was then a moment when I had the dreadful feeling that our boy would replace Hold Back The River for one of a myriad of equally funny and silly songs. “Stick to the script” I uttered, not loud enough for him to hear! He did and the ovation after Hold Back The River said it all.
Another wonderful Belfast Nashville Songwriter Festival evening. Great artists, great songs and them all billed together sends us all off to buy the work of the two artists we didn’t really know before we came. Archer needs a new record, if anyone from Sony is reading this…!