Gareth Davies-Jones has been perhaps one of the most underrated songwriters on these islands over the past 15 years. A Northumbrian (where he lives) or Northern Irish (where he’s from) Martyn Joseph is the best way to describe him, very solid craft in the classic songwriting tradition, oozing deep content of truth, tradition, prophets and loss as the title to this his tenth album declares.

Like Joseph, Davies developed late and this record for me is his most satisfying piece of work. It has to be said he tested himself. If you want to find out how good your writing is then set your songs alongside some of the strongest songs ever written. 

T,T,P&L has five trad songs alongside Davies-Jones originals. Gareth’s Irishness comes through in Raglan Road and Ulster’s finest My Lagan Love. Peggy Gordon gets a beautiful working and I found his arrangement of Isaac Watts’ My Shepherd you Supply My Need opened the familiar Psalm 23 like a flower in bloom.

The arrangement of that Psalm could actually be the anchor of this collection. The album title Truth, Tradition, Prophets and Loss is a good name for Gareth’s work in general but this album was much more pastoral for me, like a meditative retreat beside the quiet waters King David mentions in that Psalm. Karine Polwart kept coming to mind.

We find ourselves on the Wild Atlantic Way, along the River Lagan, up Warden Hill. We are in the presence of the majestic curlew birds. I happen to be watching Autumn Watch as I type and those curlews of More Than Memory in juxtaposition with Kavanagh’s autumn leaf falling on Raglan Road is perfect.

There is ever a spirituality embedded in Davies-Jones work. It is not preachy. There are no handbrake turns to squeeze it in. On this record it like that Palm 23, a resource to understand the world around but also bringing hope and resilience in challenges like Coronavirus. From No One Else to In Company there is a sense of presence on this, the first record that Gareth had the confidence to play everything and do the recording and production too.

Not just good but good for the soul. 


Dawes Fisherman's Blues

A friend recently posted a question on social media asking about a song of exuberance, to celebrate to. I answered Gloria by U2 but it was a close run thing with The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues. 

I have written before about my very favourite ever rock gig being The Waterboys at the Ulster Hall in Belfast on a magical April night in 1986. Fisherman’s Blues had not yet been released and it was a revelation of Mike Scott’s new hybrid of rock strut surrounded by Steve Wickham’s swirling dervish fiddle. My heart was full as it has been with every listen ever since.

Then… this past summer one of my favourite contemporary bands Dawes covered Fisherman’s Blues. It was a sonic shock, slowed down to an atmospheric lament. It jarred for a listen out two.

Then… it hit the spot. In its new musical habitat Fisherman’s Blues solicited different emotions. From a free flowing all is right with the world let’s dance sound this was now reflective and cathartic. It finally gets the blues of its title.

There might be a clue in the shift in feel when I tell you that the proceeds from the song are all donated to an NGO, United Nations Foundations’ Nothing But Nets campaign, attempting to help stamp out malaria. Taylor Goldsmith himself visited Rwanda to see refugees pouring over the border from Congo and Burundi. Perhaps it was the people he met in east Africa that influenced the mood of the piece.

I have been using it myself for my own mental, emotional and spiritual care. I generally carry a happy go lucky disposition but there are shadowy days. Vocation, health, pressure and anxiety can throw me into the dark.

Dawes version of Fisherman’s Blues has been like a Psalm that I have allowed to flow over me to bring salve and resilience.  

The fisherman and brakeman in the song are going through their own trials. They are chained and tethered. Life’s circumstances have them down. They are wishing, dreaming, praying for soul, light and love.

Like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass that coincidently The Waterboys covered there is a sense that there are better days ahead. Days for Wickham’s fiddle after all:


Well I know I will be loosened

From bonds that hold me fast

That the chains all hung around me

Will fall away at last

And on that fine and fateful day

I will take me in my hands

I will ride on the train

I will be the fisherman

With light in my head

You in my arms


Now there is a dream of better days. Light. Love. Freedom from whatever. I have come convinced we need both versions, Dawes going through the valley of the shadow and The Waterboys after we have come through it.


Polwart Milligan

Karine Polwart has been the unofficial Scottish songwriter laureate for some time. Her most recent album of original songs, Laws Of Motion, was my Record Of The Year in 2018 and I loved her reworking of the best 80s pop songs of middle Scotland, Scottish Songbook, from a year later.

What we have come to learn over the years is that Polwart on the cover means quality guaranteed and there is likely an artistic raison d’étra beyond a collection of songs. There is the likelihood of a fascinating collaboration too.

David Milligan is just that. An artistic and versatile piano player the words composer, arranger, musical director and educator need added to quantify what he is.

I have always loved the stripped back, raw and organic song. I remember simply loving the mid 90s unplugged obsession and all of the acoustic versions that were available on the very loved CD single. I would put together cassette tape compilations (the old timer’s playlist) called Stripped Naked. Such a racey minister!!

So to a first class honours record in stripped back. All we have on Still As Your Sleeping is Polwart’s voice and Milligan’s piano. Those are all the frills you need. Milligan’s piano has more than enough imagination to give Polwart’s voice well enough intrigue underneath.

The songs as is Polwart’s want are drawn from traditional folk, modern folk and original. There’s a beautiful Parting Glass, Dick Gaughan’s Handful of Earth and Alasdair Roberts’ Old Men of the Shells. The late Michael Marra’s Heaven’s Hound is a poignant choice. Kate McGarrigle’s Talk To Me of Mendocino takes us geographically further afield and there is a version of Richard Fariña’s The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, to the tune of My Lagan Love which pleased this Belfast boy.

There is a theme of travelling, of parting and of moving on. This theme is best dealt with in two originals. That these two originals are perhaps my favourites in such a solid catalogue of songs says it all.

Travel These Ways commissioned by a Dementia charity is about the moving on of aging:


Wherever we go

Wherever we bide

Whatever the wind and weather

Wherever we go

Wherever we bide

We’ll travel these ways together”


Best of all is The Path That Winds Before Us with always drowse me to think of the Old Testament Psalms with its all for stillness and contentment no matter what the days ahead bring:


Don’t worry, Don’t hurry 

The seed will take its time to grow, 

One step and then another 

Is the only place we have to go.”


Like all Karine Polwart records the songs delve inside the individual soul but look around at community and society too. An album about the uncertainty of movement while bringing some assurance is a perfect gift to us in these various seasons of Coronavirus times.


Girlfriend In A Coma

As I say in BBC NI's Read All About Book Week Series - WATCH IT HERE    I was slow to the loving of books. 

First it was Football Annuals and later books about The Beatles and Bob Dylan. I was around 30 when I moved to Dublin and due to lots of time on the DART I started reading novels. None of them were very memorable.

Enter David Dark. David and I met at Greenhill YMCA in Co Down and then a year later at Greenbelt. We discovered we'd actually likely met at the previous Greenbelt. We became firm friends sharing our love for music and faith and the interaction of the two. \

David was also an avid reader. He always had a book in his hand. Always. 

I'd been to South Africa to visit Janice who was there for 9 months. I found Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood in a charity shop in Durban. David was a fan so I read it. I enjoyed it but knew I was missing stuff. Back in Dublin, David and I were having coffee in Bewleys. He asked me what I read in South Africa. I said Wise Blood and he opened it up to me.

David then took me to a book shop in Bray where he put Douglas Coupland's Life After God in my hand. That might have been my conversion moment. Coupland had this spiritual layer that caught my soul. Next up was Coupland's Girlfriend In A Coma and I was off and running...


The novel that I have enjoyed the most, reflected on the most and quoted most in my sermons is Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend In A Coma from 1998. 

Growing up in West Vancouver Coupland says he little annoyed that his parents were so distant from any religion that he didn’t even have a choice to reject God. He suggests he has been trying to make up a belief system ever since.

I love books that give me insight into he times I live in and inspire me to live life in all its fulness. What Coupland creates in Girlfriend In A Coma is a fascinating social critique and full of prophetic hopefulness. 

This is a novel about the ills of modern society, the healing and redeeming of such and the saving of souls. Briefly Karen falls into a coma in her high school year. Before doing so she has an apocalyptic vision of the future. She tells her boyfriend, 

"It was just us, with our meaningless lives. Then I looked up close...and you all seemed normal, but your eyes were without souls". 

Karen becomes the girlfriend in the coma and misses seventeen years of her life before coming out of it. Though the book deals with the changes from the world she fell asleep in, in 1981, to the world she wakened up again in in 1998 (she misses out on Princess Diana entirely), it is about the lives of her friends and the fufilment of Karen's vision, when they become the only people left on planet earth. 

Another old friend who died in his early teens, Jared, appears as a friendly ghost, who reveals to them their "deep down inside" ills and redeems them. It is then he says that they can get the world back but only if they decide too. "You're going to have to lead another life soon; a different life.

"In your old life you had nothing to live for. Now you do. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Go clear the land for a new culture...If you are not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world - if you're not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order - then you're wasting your day."

What inspirational words. "If you're not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world...then you're wasting your day." 

Those words make me want to rush out the door and go change the world? I want to rethinking the nature of things? I want to boil the carcass of the old order? These are words of rebuke, in that I feel as I read them that indeed I have been wasting my day, and yet the rebuke comes with a motivating sense of encouragement to just go and stop wasting anymore time. 

If I could inspire as much every Sunday morning I would be a very happy minister!



Stocki and Marty Book Week

Fr Martin Magill and I were so excited to be asked to share a book that we both liked on BBC NI's Book Week series Read All About It.

We chose Sue Divin's book Guard Your Heart. 

I need to be honest and say that the real plugger of this book is my friend, and fellow PCI minister, Tony Davidson. I believe that Sue grew up in First Armagh where Tony is the minister. They did an event with Sue at the launch of the book and Tony was very keen to get me to read it.

It was one of my first holiday reads and I immediately felt that Fr Martin should read it. The main reason for that was the focus on the post Good Friday Agreement generation. Martin and I often consider the 18-25 age group and wonder if they are getting to make a contribution in their own future? Have we ignored them and how will that play out?

Sue Divin's book is about that... and a whole lot more besides. 

So, with both of us loving it, when the BBC invited us to contribute to Book Week, it was a no brainer which one we wanted to plug. We hope that it will raise the profile and sell a few books. Delighted that social media suggests that we already are. Then perhaps we can provoke a conversation about when the Aidans and Ionas can decide their own futures instead of us killing their future they way we did our past.

Also... Martin's last line... "it would make a great movie". Oh it would.