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April 2012


Voice Of Ages

I have a soft spot for Irish traditional music BUT I am not a massive fan.  I love the sound of the pipes and flutes and harps and box but sometimes a couple of reels and jigs and I am a little bored.

When it blends with something else is when Irish trad grabs my attention; Horslips and Moving Hearts were the bands that gave me my sense of Irishness growing up in very anti-Irish Ballymena.

The Chieftains have been blending, mixing and collaborating for some time now. Their Christmas album Bells Of Dublin featured Jackson Browne, Nanci Griffith and Rickie Lee Jones among others; Long Black Veil had guest vocalists like The Rolling Stones, Sting and Mark Knopfler; Tears Of Stone featured female vocalists like Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell and Sinead O’Connor to name a few; Further Down The Old Plank Road was shared with almost every country singer in Nashville; and their last outing St. Patrico was a collaboration with Ry Cooder.

Voice of Ages was to be a 50 Year Celebration of the band and apparently started out as a possible 50 minute jam that perhaps we hear a snippet of on the eleven minute The Chieftains Reunion.

Using T-Bone Burnett however was a stroke of genius. I would pretty much buy anything that Burnett produces and it so happens that as he was producing The Chieftains he was also doing a Hunger Games soundtrack. As a result a film pitched at teenagers and a Golden Anniversary of Irish trad players got the same vocalists.

In all the collaborations mentioned above The Chieftains have never been so up to date. The list of current cool names is endless from Grammy winners Bon Iver and Civil Wars through The Decemberists Low Anthem, Paulo Nutini, Lisa Hannigan, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers, The Secret Sisters and more. T-Bone Burnett has given The Chieftains the best 50th Anniversary possible; contemporary relevance.

And it works wonderfully. Bon Iver’s emotional layers with Irish twist. Lisa Hannigan’s take on my home city’s river My Lagan Love is beautiful as The Civil Wars vocal on Lily Love written by John Paul White. The Decemberists rough up Bob Dylan’s When The Ship Comes In like they could tour with The Dubliners. The Low Anthem sneak a wee corner of Woodstock into County Kerry. The Carolina Chocolate Drops blend beautifully in a crisper cleaner version of The Pogues. The Secret Sisters and Paulo Nutuni are a perfect fit vocally and The Punch Brothers in sound.

All in all, this is a beautiful record and I think what Burnett has succeeded in doing is bringing a range of  artists into the project without losing the foundational place of The Chieftains or making it sound like a various artists compilation. If you buy one Irish trad album this year...

Lyric For The Day 28.4.12 from Walk On by U2

U2 Walk On

“You're packin' a suitcase for a place, none of us has been
A place that has to be believed, to be seen
You could have flown away, a singin' bird in an open cage
Who will only fly, only fly for freedom

Walk on
Leave it behind
You've got to leave it behind

All that you fashion, all that you make
All that you build, all that you break
All that you measure, all that you feel
All this you can leave behind”

-      From Walk On by U2

U2’s song about heaven and the Kingdom coming in all its fullness. Faith is the key to the door of such a place hence “to be believed to be seen.” What is in the suitcase if the question. Tomorrow on the BBC Radio Ulster Radio Service I will look at living for those things that will last when God brings in this new heaven and new earth. U2 give us the clues here. The momentary things will go, the eternal things will last. There will be much we will leave behind so why bother with that stuff or invest in it. Jesus spoke of treasure in heaven. That’s what we pack the suitcase with. The heart inside the U2 suitcase graphic on the Elevation Tour agrees with St. Paul’s secret in 1 Corinthians 13 – love is the most important thing that we will take with us.

Lyric For The Day 27.4.12 from Freedom Now by Tracy Chapman

Freedom Now

“Soon must come the day


When the righteous have their way

Unjustly tried are free

And people live in peace I say

Give the man release

Go on and set your conscience free

Right the wrongs you made

Even a fool can have his day


Free your bodies

Free your minds

Free your hearts

Freedom for everyone

And freedom now

Freedom now

Freedom now”

-          From Freedom Now by Tracy Chapman


Today is Freedom Day in South Africa and this lyric seemed an appropriate Lyric For The Day. On the day we celebrate the first democratic elections in that country in 1994 here is a song released just six years before that dreams of such a day. It is actually about freedom for Nelson Mandela who of course won that first election but it is about freedom from apartheid for all and continues to be a freedom song for whoever is oppressed. Last Sunday I mentioned South Africa’s freedom a lot in my sermon on Revelation. –

The title of the of the sermon came from a Jim Wallis phrase based on what he experienced at Mandela’s inauguration. Wallis says, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.” That is exactly what this song is doing. A real song of hope in the midst of hopelessness. Today we celebrate the faith... the hope... the fulfilment. Happy Freedom Day South Africa!   

Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball song by song - Land Of Hopes And Dreams

Wrecking Ball Back

(here is my song by song on Land Of Hopes and Dreams... It takes excerpts from my book The Rock Cries where an entire chapter takes the title of this song... and adds my up to date thoughts of the Wrecking Ball version...)

The first time I heard Springsteen's Land Of Hopes and Dreams was way back in 1999, thirteen years before a studio version would be released. At that concert in Dublin it was the epiphany, the surprise, the twist in the tale. Land Of Hopes and Dreams, the brand new encore became more like a closing hymn and left me reassessing this gig and Springsteen’s career in the most spiritual of ways. The song has two much older brothers. Curtis Maysfield’s People Get Ready has been the subject of cover versions from Bob Dylan to U2 to Jeff beck and Rod Stewart and Springsteen was readily acknowledging the relationship by dropping bits of it into Land Of Hopes and Dreams on his 2003 tour. Woody Guthrie starts and ends his book Bound For Glory with the template the Springsteen uses. Interestingly though Guthrie’s train “don’t carry no gamblers/Liars thieves and big-shot ramblers.” Bruce gets his Christian grace theology a whole lot better as his train picks up passengers on its road to glory, heaven, another land where, saints, sinners, losers, winners, whores, gamblers and as Dylan put it in another sibling of the song, “every hung out person in the whole wide universe” would hear the chimes of freedom crashing. Springsteen of course sang that Dylan song as the theme tune of the 1988 Amnesty Tour.


This train…
Carries saints and sinners
This train
Carries losers and winners
This train
Carries whores and gamblers
This train
Carries lost souls
This train
Dreams will not be thwarted
This train
Faith will be rewarded
This train
Hear the steal wheels singing
This train
Bells of freedom ringing…

Springtseen's train is actually full of every character and song that Springsteen has ever written about. Between him and Tom Waits they have been the two songwriters to most poetise the kind of marginalized people that Jesus sought out and had most time for. They have on the whole given these characters the very sympathy and hope that Jesus did. Just as Jesus never judged them or damned them to hell the way he did the religious and self righteous. And here they all are filling the carriages and heading towards the light leaving all that darkness in albums gone by, heading for the place where the character in The Ghost Of Tom Joad was waiting for a time “when the first would be last and the last would be first.”


The soul call start and the addition of Gospel choir in the studio version on Wrecking Ball sets the song beautifully into its genre. This was Springsteen looking back at the Negro Spirituals before he he got to singing all the songs from that genre during The Seeger Sessions in 2005. Like the Spirituals it conjures an alternative imagining of the future that chnages the dignity of the marginalised in this world. It is where eschatology meets rock n roll and those two things could never have got onto the same tram line without the Negro Spiritual. It reverberates with hope and justice and God's good grace. It is I believe one of his finest moments and it took a long time for him to find a place on a record for it to fit. It fits wonderfully on Wrecking Ball as we have come out of the record's darkness and through Rocky Ground we head for the

"People get ready

You just thank the Lord"

repeat to fade...





Adams live

In my review of my last Ryan Adams gig in the same venue, which I can’t believe was ten years ago, I wrote about the “high speed shiftiness of his pinballing from one spotlight to the other as he moved from folk guitar to rock guitar to piano or in his constant lighting of cigarettes that the guitar smoked more of than him!” The first impact of tonight’s show is the different human being that Ryan Adams has become. There was no fidgeting, no shiftiness and not a cigarette in sight. Yes, he likes a swear word or two and tonight his guitars give him many reasons in the tuning department to use them. However, marriage to Mandy Moore seems to be agreeing with the wild boy of alternative country. He introduces the classic Whiskeytown song 16 Days by confessing that he doesn’t know what it is about having been so drugged up at the time. It is unspoken and very obvious that Ryan Adams has matured.

It is good news because when he sits on his chair central stage and breaks in to Oh My Sweet Carolina you are immediately gripped by the brilliance. The tune, the song, the voice, the guitar, the performance. Ryan Adams has been too often more interested in quantity than quality, and from the top of the Main Street of the music world in 2001 he headed down a few blind back musical alleys, but when he touches the heart of his art he is up there as the natural successor to Gram Parsons. Then there is a little Neil Young about him too. Adams is Young-esque in some of the guitar playing tonight but he Young has modelled that career that can play big and loud on one record and gentle and intimate on the next. Adams punk and metal products on the merchandise table tonight which is a long way from what we get in this solo setting.

Many artists find a careful spot on the set list for the quiet acoustic ballad and try to earn the right for a few moments of such respect. Tonight Adams starts with that few quiet moments and if anything gets quieter as it goes. Two hours of just Ryan doing his thing. He jokes about standing for the fast ones. There are none. He moves from sitting with guitar to standing with guitar to piano and it is ballad after ballad. Rescue Blues gets a subtle piano arrangement. In the vastness of his catalogue the set list is full of great songs and the five included off the new record Ashes and Fire fit snugly with the best; Dirty Rain could be a Belfast anthem with its “the last time I was here it was raining...”

What a night like this reveals is our love for sadness or our need for catharsis. Joking about the protest sound of his songs Adams added that they were all protesting happiness! Accurate. You hope a few good years with Mandy Moore might bring sunnier hues! In the end it is a beautiful kind of heartache that Adams purveys.

Stocki's review of Ryan Adams in 2002

Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball song by song; Rocky Ground

Rocky Ground

This is Bruce’s most ambitious stretching of his musical template on Wrecking Ball. With its hip hop Fugees-like sound and Gospel-like samples, choirs and singer Michelle Moore this is as far out an experiment as Bruce has ever done even including the horrendous 12” mix of Cover Me in the mid 80s. Does it works? Well even where it doesn’t I’ve been so disappointed with Springsteen-by-numbers these past twenty years that I’d say fair play for the courage!

I also forgive all the fancy sounds because of the content of the lyric. The record has moved through the rocky ground of a people getting battered by the thieving of bankers and though Christianity leaves shards of light across the first two thirds of Wrecking Ball it is in the last three songs where it becomes the bedrock of all hope. In Rocky Ground the call is for the shepherd to guide the people to higher ground. It is full of prayer and angels, judgement and Jesus who is overturning tables in the Temple. The song is not without some doubt and rocky ground but you sense that Wrecking Ball has turned a corner and found something to hope in that might give it confidence in what to hope for.


City V United

Has the Premier League ever been better than this? Maybe the drama that became the movie Fever Pitch when Arsenal beat Liverpool in the last few minutes of the season will be hard to beat (though not Premier League!) but here we are with three games left and the two Manchester giants both have the title in their own hands. Of course even then that “in their own hands” has a caveat because if it goes to goal difference, as it just might, then what the other team scores or their opponents concede is not actually “in their own hands!” It is exciting though, very exciting. Sir Alex’s bum has never made so many squeaks; he thought the noisy neighbours had been shut up. Mancini on the other hand has a little glint in his eye but continues to concede the title.

Of course avid readers (there must be 3 or 4 of you) of Soul Surmise will know that I conceded the title to United back at the beginning of March. Have I changed my mind? Well, if you have followed results, since I laid out that argument, City have done everything to prove me right; losing to Swansea, almost losing to Sunderland at home and that late, late goal conceded against Arsenal should have finished us off. United though, as I have said all season, are not the old United and they have faltered too. Yesterday’s 4-4 draw at Everton revealed the truth of United’s season. They have more than enough up front to score at will but behind that there are huge weaknesses particularly in midfield where, whatever anybody says, bringing a player even of Paul Scholes genius out of retirement did show a weakness. Fellaini and Pienaar exposed that weakness to full effect yesterday. City have shown a few weaknesses too. With all the Tevez controversy, few realised that City had therefore only three strikers and when one is manic Mario then a lack of options for the manager isn’t helpful. Losing Ya Ya Toure to the African Cup Of Nations interrupted the system but there has been only a flicker of the bright lights of early season form since January.

So, should I change my opinion? Have City still a hope? Well, our position is better than it was last week. However, United are 3pts ahead and will only need a draw at City to hold a huge upper hand with two games left. City need to beat United and then if that wasn’t hard enough go away from home and beat Newcastle United, the Premiership team in real form. Those two games were high in my evaluation of the situation two months back. The other side of that is that City will be disappointed that they are not in at least one Cup Final at this stage of the season. So let us imagine that United is for the Champions League, Newcastle is the FA Cup Final and we need to beat QPR to win the League! My belief is that that is too high an order. Few win trebles like our opponents have. The saddest part is that this was City’s best chance. United will be so much stronger next season. They’ve been in transition this year and will buy strong midfield players in the summer. I think Arsenal and Chelsea will also be stronger next season. Of course so will City.

Three Cup Finals. Could we? It would be amazing of we did. Tevez has had a habit of changing the outcomes of seasons. City did have to beat Newcastle 4-3 at St James Park to win their last title. It would be lovely! Just as long as United don’t beat Sunderland 11-0 to sneak it on goal difference with a defence of O’Shea and Brown! I do have to say it is more exciting than mid table!

Girl On The Edge Of The Photograph (For Lindsay Anderson-Emerson)

(We lost our dear friend Lindsay five years ago today. I have a photo of her and I in deep conversation with our favourite Table Mountain behind us. I keep it in my Bible. On Friday night she pushed it out onto the table and I thought, "she's still Lindsay!" Here's one of the poems I wrote at the time of her untimely passing. Lindsay was just 23.)

Girl on the edge of the photograph
Who always seemed so distracted
The gift of your mischievousness
Was what left you so unaffected.

Girl on the edge of the photograph
Who could have been centre screen
The beauty about her beauty
Was she knew what beauty means.

Girl on the edge of the photograph
A heart with peripheral vision
The strength of your contrariness
Touched the corners of this world’s derision.

Girl on the edge of the photograph
Who you could so easily miss
But not by those who watched you bow
To give their soul a kiss.

Lyric For The Day 21.4.12 from Blessed To Be A Witness by Ben Harper

Ben Harper

“So much sorrow and pain
Still I will not live in vain
Like good questions never asked
Is wisdom wasted on the past
Only by the grace of God go I
Go I

I am blessed
I am blessed
I am blessed
I am blessed
I am blessed
I am blessed
I am blessed to be a witness”

-      From Blessed To Be A Witness by Ben Harper

I got tipped off to this one by my former colleague Rev Whitney Wilkinson who Facebooked that she was going to preach this song in conversation with Luke 24 where Jesus sneaks up on two disciples on the Emmaus road after his resurrection.

Spirituality is all over Harper’s work and this is as blatant as he gets. There is sense of committing to that which is bigger, a life that knowing that it is blessed is going to sacrifice itself to something of meaning.