Iain Archer is a consummate songwriter who suits this setting like few other Irish singers alive. He has the poise, the musical genius, the sense of place. He times every strum, reckons on the impact of every breath and vocal sound. He has that great attribute of being uninterested in impressing because the beauty and the art of imgamining are far more precious. He was born for a few songs in Bangor Abbey.
Frozen Lake was such a good start that you wondered if the rest of the night could match it (Davy… see what I did there!). This is a song of spacious wonder and Archer’s voice with delicate grace just gently filled the Abbey. Black Mountain Quarry had words tumbling in an appropriate geographical place. I Am A Landslide is such a piece of exquisite writing that it only makes you wonder why it is, so far, his only songwriting contribution to the Tired Pony catalogue.
He finished with the mesmerising Canal Song but for me the highlight was Everest. It set us on a theme for the evening. Here were three young men who have flown the coop to make their mark on the world returning home for Christmas and letting a few fans in on what was an intimate night with friends and family. Everest was the first of many asides and dedications to family and how family can help us climb the insurmountable. The spiritual psalm-like conclusion - “Some other day, when my morning comes, I’ll be the one that’s waited all night” - made the Abbey a holy space once more. Soul caressing stuff!
Nathan Connolly had everything against him. He was on after Iain Archer who, as we have said, is musically honed for this kind of terrain. It is not Connolly’s terrain at all. His Little Matador record has been a 2014 highlight with its ambitious post punk/post grunge shaped slab of dark heaviness. Yet, a band is required. To do this naked and vulnerable exposed Nathan as not quite as deftly a player as his two buddies. He admitted that it as one of his first ever acoustic gigs and songs like Liar Liar slowed down and lengthened from its 1.50 recorded version suffered a little in the translation. Stitch Yourself Up and Shatter didn’t though. These are clever catchy things and a reminder of just how good the songs on the Little Matador debut are. More successful too was, The One I Love, his contribution to the movie The Test which he worked with Declan O’Rourke on. Like Archer he ended with a song about the strength of family; a cover, Where We Stand.
Gary Lightbody has no such front man struggles. He is one third of the coolest Northern Irish Men alive triumvirate, along with Jamie Dornan and Rory McIlroy. He has the gift of charm and the gab and immediately seems like an old friend just chattering away which might have been helped by the fact that most of the audience might indeed have been friends; Jonny Quinn was front row for goodness sake. Lightbody's patter between songs is natural, funny and tonight confessional, emotional and deep.
Those great Snow Patrol tunes are revealed in greater greatness in their ability to come back down from their stadium anthem mountains to become fragile beautiful pieces of songwriting in this most intimate of locations. Chocolate was reinvented; Lifening was what it is; Crack The Shutters was all sensual and a little red faced in a sacred space; and Tired Pony’s All Things All At Once was perfectly placed for its west coast sound. Of particular stand out in this vulnerability was Golden Floor with it’s “I'm not afraid of anything even time/It’ll eke away at everything but we'll be fine”. We were back to that theme of making it through standing side by side with loved ones.
The theme of family then became very much the centre piece as Lightbody explained the reason for tonight’s treat. He had been commissioned to write a few songs in tribute to fellow Northern Irishman, the poetic genius, Seamus Heaney. When he sang that suite of songs, in Magheraflet earlier in the year, his dad had been in hospital so he wanted to sing them again with his parents in the room. Explaining that Heaney was the poet, in Mr. McKee’s English class, that woke Lightbody up to school and words, first poetry and then songs makes sense of the literate wordiness of Snow Patrol’s work.
Lighbody then sang those five songs about Granny, Dad and Ireland, north, south, east and west. This was the privilege of the night. It wasn’t just about hearing three singers in a smaller venue than usual in ways you don’t usually get to hear their songs. It was about these five, so far unrecorded, songs that reached as close to the emotional heart of a songwriter as you are likely to gain access. During Church, about his Granny, Lightbody was visibly moved and close to tears. That he was actually in a Church might mean that this is the most authentic playing of that song that will ever be performed. That he admitted that he believes his Granny still guides him and that here he was singing it in Church, a place obviously so important for her, was… well… flipping spookily religious! The Troubles and love of family, the geography and shaping of identity; these songs were born in Bangor where they basked tonight.
We came out of the Heaney songs into the hits. Run and Chasing Cars worked perfectly and indeed the congregational singing on Run was again perfect for the Abbey! There were times throughout when both Connolly and Lightbody appeared to be both thrilled with being in an Abbey and a little too cautious that their songs were a little too naughty for such a place. Boys, can this minister tell you that your gifts and your work, in their shades of darkness and light are more sacred than you seem to know. The genre of art that you pursue sits more authentically in such a space as this than I think you think.
I left in the glow of a unique treat. Yet, it wasn’t the hits that lingered. I am still pondering the night’s theme. Three songwriters all secure in their own skins, all successful beyond their backyards but all coming home to the realisation of where their vocations and confidences were honed; home with family, partners and friends. The chorus my soul is still singing is Lightbody’s It’s A Day Like That. He was 6 years old, shooting with his dad and they were shot…
It’s days like that you don’t know what hit you
It’s days like that you’re not sure who you are
But it’s days like that you know you’re not alone
And it’s days like that you know how much you’re loved.
Preach it, pastor us… darn it they could have even closed with it as a benediction!