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June 2017


Postacrd Stories

I still buy CDs… and occasionally vinyl. You can keep your free Spotify. I still like to purchase. Now, I have succumbed to the Apple Music deal but I don’t sneak an album that I would have ordinarily have bought. I merely use it to investigate records that I wouldn’t be sure about buying.

Why? Well, there are a couple of good reasons. I like to think that, after I have gone, my children will rifle through my music collection and keep what they like, discovering gems that they have hated through their entire childhood! If I buy the hard copy they will one day own it. If it’s streamed or downloaded it is debatable who owns it.

The more important reason for paying money for the real thing is that I used to manage a few artists and I am aware of the importance of the royalty. Constantly streaming music or whatever art we don’t pay for is a little like theft. Buying a CD after a gig might be the artist’s hotel room or travel costs. Going home and streaming it for free might mean he he cannot afford to play your city next year!

In the end you don’t only rob an artist of a living but the lack of funds has got to do damage to the art that you want to enjoy. I want more music from Northern Ireland’s finest like David C Clements. Ciaran Lavery, Malojian etc. Buying their stuff will give them the finances to make more records. When I get a guest list free ticket to a gig I always make sure I buy a t-shirt or CD.

The same goes for books. I must confess to maybe purchasing too many from Amazon but I also make sure that I regularly go round the corner from Fitzroy and buy books from Belfast’s most amazing and precious independent book shop - No Alibis.

No Alibis is a legendary place. It is so much more than a book shop. It is a community. Proprietor David Torrans is such an important player in a booming writing city, stocking books, doing book nights and pushing literature in the most personal of ways.

Last summer I arrived in to David and told him I was heading to Africa and wanted a book to read while I was there about the red dust roads and heat and geography. He stood in an almost zen pose of concentration and reached down into a box before reaching me Ishmael Beah’s amazing book Radiance of Tomorrow which, though set in Sierra Leone was perfect literary back drop to my three weeks in Uganda.

So, today I reminded him of that moment and asked for another book for this year’s trip. Off he walked across the shop before returning with David Park’s Stone Kingdoms. I am a huge fan of Park but had not come across this early novel, where someone sets off from Northern Ireland to escape our Troubles in Africa! Perfect. David Torrens; Belfast treasure. I added, in my unique No Alibis bag, locals writers Tony Macauley’s new memoir Little House On The Peace Line and Jan Carson’s Postcard Stories as well.

Speaking of Jan Carson’s Postcard Stories. I chaired a panel yesterday that Jan was a member of, at Stranmillis College’s Christianity and Culture conference. While speaking about the importance of supporting the artist she read one of her postcard stories. Now, this is a collection of stories that Jan wrote to friends, every day for a year. Mine didn’t make the cut but the one she read yesterday was powerfully challenging:


“This morning I read that Kay Ryan poem, the one about the fourth Wise Man who disliked travel and preferred how own bed to the open road, which mad me thinking of the shepherd who went off for a quick wee at exactly the wrong angelic moment… 


… And finally I arrived at myself and the very many times I have decided to stay in, watching re-runs of Morse and Poirot, reading paperback novels in bed, whilst in the streets and bars and staged rooms of this city miracles are miracling away and I am only afterwards hearing about them on Facebook.”


Which has us back to supporting the arts. Without the arts the muscles of our dreaming become flabby and unfit. The world loses the power of change. We need to resource the art gymnasiums of our imagination.

Buy the record. Buy the book. Buy the painting. Buy the ticket. Don’t miss the miracling. Don’t be complicit in the sinful neglect of our artists.


Arlene daedline

Let me transport you to the roads of Vancouver in Canada. As another impatient Canadian driver honks his horn, and makes to shout obscenities through windscreens, I want to stop him and tell him how much I am looking forward to treating him as he is treating me when he is trying to find his way around Belfast! The roundabout at The Royal in rush hour will sort you out pal!

The psychological and social implications of cars are frightening. There we are in this little confined space with our entire worldview defined by what we are thinking and where we are going. How dare he turn left here and slow me down. Does she not know I am late? Are they not aware that I am trying to decipher a foreign city’s road signs on the wrong side of the road with two young children
screaming in my ear!?

In our cars, we are Kings and Queens and Presidents; almost dictators! We rule the world and everyone should do as we need them to do. There is no understanding of the crisis going on in the cars around us. There are no rights for those drivers. They need to serve my needs of getting to where I want to go. Anything short of that leads to finger gestures, bad language and road rage violence!

Transporting you back to our little piece of Ireland, we live like we are in cars without regard for the stories and histories around us, the hopes, fears and hurt of those who are travelling alongside us. Our world views are confined making us feel we are totally right and they are wrong if they are not serving our ambitions and dreams. If they get in the way of us reaching our destinations then they can be cut off.

Jesus calls for another way. His revolutionary plan for peace was forsaking our own egos to serve, forgive and love the guys in the other world view cars. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he said. He knew they would change the world for the good of everyone in every car.

Bizarrely the North Americans have such a place on their roads. At crazy places called 4-Way Stops, every driver is disarmed from his arrogant self seeking and in order for this road junction to function, everyone needs to be heard, given time, and served. You literally give up yourself to let others go. When we observe such an alternative to normal road attitudes driving is made possible, easy and thoroughly pleasant. What about the etiquette of 4-Way Stops in the last minute inter-party talks on the hill today? Could all sides change the mindset of their confined worldviews and give the other road users priority so that life would not get chaotic and dysfunctional but possible for all. 


Shadowlands Romantica

My favourite six records of the year so far show perhaps a lack of the experimental in my raging taste. This is a collection of great songs, performed in the traditional sense. What a collection of crafted art they are!


1. ROMANTICA - Shadowlands


Belfast born, now Twin Cities citizen, Ben Kyle gets the band together again and writes the lyrics and music that I would if I could. Harder To Hear had been my spiritual medication since the album was released last year BUT only officially in the Uk in March!

My review of Shadowlands here


2.  JASON ISBELL & THE 400 UNITS - The Nashville Sound


Whatever you call this sound I cannot get enough of it. John Mayer has called Isbell the best songwriter in the world just now and I could not disagree. It caresses the ears, sings sweetly off the tongue and touches the head and heart and soul!

My review of The Nashville Sound here


3. VARIOUS ARTISTS - Treasure In A  Broken Land; The Songs Of Mark Heard


Twenty five years since we lost the genius that was Mark heard, Phil madeira has done and extraordinary job of bringing Heard’s incredible songs live with a cast of brilliance - Drew Holcomb, Rodney Crowell, Buddy Miller, Birds of Chicago and Over the Rhine!

My review of Treasure In A Broken Land here




Northern Irishman Toner with his strongest collection yet. Magnificent craft. The song Alphabet starts off as certain loser of an idea and ends up an absolute triumph. 

My Review of Ink


5. RHIANNON GIDDENS - Freedom Highway


Giddens has the voice of her generation. Here she uses it for songs of oppression and liberation. 

My review of Freedom Highway here


6. STEPHEN FEARING - Every Soul’s A Sailor 


Canadian songwriter Fearing at his absolute best. His electric and acoustic guitars exchange centre stage as his voice is wrapped around soul nurturing songs.

My review of Every Soul's A Sailor



Lord, give them humility

To be honest with their own failings

And willing to confess their complicity

To not seek to be dominant

But to strive for equality

And the common good

Lord give them humility.


Lord give them grace

To listen to the other

To be the first to reach out

To forgive unconditionally

To listen to the other’s narrative

And seek to understand their perspective

And the pressures coming from their community

Lord give them grace.


Lord give them vision

Of how it can be 

Rather than how it has been, and is

Of what it might look like

To love neighbour and even enemy

For the last to be first and the first to be last

For peace and well being for ALL.

Lord give them vision.


Lord may they first of all be pastoral

And then may they be prophetic

And finally may the political be added, benefitting ALL.


Evelyn Amony

I Am Evelyn Amony is a Memoir that takes us into some of the darkest places in the landscape of humanity and then takes us through the toughest terrain of the human soul to a place of hope and transformation.

Evelyn Amony was only 11 years of age when she was captured by Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda. The majority of the book is a detailed account of the life of an LRA child soldier bit even more than that Amony, known as Betty in the Bush, was one of Kony’s many wives.

It is a harrowing autobiography. The rape and ravages of war are on most every page. It is not light reading for sure. Of course, because of Evelyn’s unique circumstances it takes us into the life, mind and at times the heart of one of the most ruthless and wanted men on the planet. Evelyn’s relationship with Kony is as confused and contradictory as the man himself, which is I guess the great insight.

For me, I have a real interest in Uganda. This summer will be my third in a row in Arua, the very far north west of the country. So, I Am Evelyn Amony was particularly fascinating as I try to get my head around the recent history of Uganda and the LRA’s raison d’être and impact in the north of the country.

I also found this memory very helpful in what Evelyn shares after she was released back into “normal” Ugandan life in 2004. She gives an honest account of the struggles of everyday Ugandan life, the relationships effected by war, the struggles of children’s health and education and making ends meet. Some of the tribal traditions are well expressed. Her relationship with the wider Kony family is another fascinating part of the book.

Even without any interest in Uganda the book has universal resonances. There are a lot of children living through war in our world. I Am Evelyn Amony is a story of resilience. Abducted before she made it to P5, she shows unbelievable maturity and wisdom in both her life in the LRA and her life afterwards.

The real wonder here is how a girl who had to deal with such brutality and inhumanity can not only survive it but come out the other end as an ambassador for woman’s rights and justice issues. Evelyn says of the book, “I wrote this book because I wanted everyone to know war is bad because of the different consequences that it has on the lives of women and children and that it must be stopped… By writing this book I wanted to demonstrate that even if you've gone through painful experiences your life, you shouldn't be defined by those experiences; you can still do a lot to change the lives of others.”

Not for the faint hearted but a wonderful document about a remarkable woman.



There’s something about the summer and Fleetwood Mac. Any glimpse of sun and opportunity to wear shorts, you can do worse than blasting out Rumours. It is West Coast rock after all.

So, on a recent sunny day I slipped Lindsay Buckingham/Christine McVie into my car stereo… and… it does sound like summer.

It is a long time since the last full Fleetwood Mac album and actually Christine McVie wasn’t on it. This one is certainly Buckingham McVie centric but, with Mick Fleetwood on drums and John McVie on bass, it is just as much a Mac record as Say You Will.

It seems it should have been a full band album but Stevie Nicks went AWOL for some reason. These guys have the same amount of interpersonal drama as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and without doubt the records have suffered for the personal issues. When you have made one of the best records ever made during which two of your couples are breaking up surely you could do better forty years later! When Christine McVie returned after 15 years away she deserved the best. Shame on you Stevie!

So, the Buckingham McVie record has suffered… but how much? On first listening I was very disappointed but it has very much benefitted for giving it time. the shimmering bounce of In My World would have graced any Mac record. There is no doubt that Buckingham’s raw songs have always benefitted from the smoothness of the band sound.

McVie’s Red Sun is another strong one. The lyrical storyline of regret and looking back on love could sit on Rumours though the chorus is just a little lacking, pleasant and all as it is.

Too Far Gone rocks out nicely and On With The Show rolls along. Game Of Pretend and the closing Carnival Begin reveals that McVie hasn’t lost her deft touch with a ballad.

On a hot sunny day, this is worth a whirl. It is steady and sturdy, if it doesn’t quite soar as only Fleetwood Mac can. It is a long way better than Time or Behind the Mask for sure but is a Stevie Nicks short of great.

The Unforgettable Gig: When U2 Rocked The Kings Hall - Documentary About 30 Years Ago Today

U2 Set List June 87

Today. 30 years ago. We were all at the Kings Hall in Belfast. It was U2. Joshua Tree. Back in March I was honoured to narrate a BBC Radio Ulster documentary about the concert (link below). Thank you to Karen Atkinson for involving me in the project. It was a lot of fun.

A highlight was the recording of  a wonderful conversation with artist Colin Davidson outside Game on High Street. It was as close to the exact spot as we could get to where the old record shop Makin’ Tracks was. Both Colin and I were outside that shop at midnight on March 8th 1987. 

Within seconds we were abuzz with memories. Being an artist Colin’srecollections were particularly vivid. He reminded me that there was a security barrier just 100 yards away. As Colin pointed out, Belfast city centre was closed down at 6.00 during The Troubles and here it was alive with excitement near midnight on a Sunday night! 

Those security gates had to be opened when two Mercedes arrived with U2 inside. They were in Belfast to make a recording for BBC TV's Old Grey Whistle Test at the King's Hall that day. Colin was closer to the front of the crowd than I was but even he didn’t see the band going inside. He did see the Edge’s hat and assumed that the guitarist was underneath it!

It was again Colin who took us forward a couple of years. When Rattle And Hum came out in October 1988 almost every record shop in Belfast opened and, as Colin rightly remembered, there were 10 times as many people buying at midnight. 

Of course everybody hoped that the band would turn up again. They never ever did again. I bought Achtung Baby at midnight in Dublin, Zooropa at midnight in Cork. No band appearances. Only Makin’ Tracks March 1987. I do have a vague recollection that dopplegangers The Joshua Trio did play at the Rattle and Hum release.

A few weeks before the Colin Davidson interview, Karen took Liam Creagh and I to the Maysfield Leisure Centre. Again it was longer there but outside a building site on a snow skiff cold blowy day we reminisced about U2’s gig there on December 20th 1982. I remembered that it was just as freezing outside the venue that night but inside it was sweltering. U2 whipped up a sweat and I might have used a friends scarf as a towel! 

Liam had reviewed that gig and interviewed the band afterwards. It was very low key he remembered. Down to earth. That is how Colin Davidson had remembered them when they signed his Joshua Tree record in Makin Tracks

The Maysfield concert was historic for U2 unveiling of Sunday Bloody Sunday. A song about the Northern Ireland Troubles, Bono seemed nervous as he introduced it. He told us it was about this place, assured us that it was not a rebel song and promised that if we didn’t like it he would never play it again. There are rumours that a few walked out. If they did they didn’t walk past me.

In all of this reverie I came to see how important a place Belfast has been to a band from Dublin and how important that band is to Belfast. That they came to Makin' Tracks at the height of the Troubles. That they wrote a song about us. That they played the relatively tiny Kings Hall days before they played two shows at the vast stadium of Croke Park in Dublin and not long after Wembley Stadium in London.

I actually became aware how important Northern Ireland was to Bono in conversation with Karen as we made the documentary. We were talking about the night of the Enniskillen bombing also in 1987. The IRA bombed a Remembrance Day parade. Eleven people were killed, mainly pensioners, and 63 were injured. That night U2 were playing Denver, Colorado and, during Sunday Bloody Sunday, Bono went off on one and in rather earthy language damned “the revolution”. 

As I commented I suddenly became aware of Bono’s emotions. It wasn’t a cold political statement from a band who without question were fond of the political soap box. In Bono’s voice you knew that this was personal. His passion revealed his love for us in wee Northern Ireland. His declaration for peace didn’t only echo across Denver that night but in film theatres across the world for the next couple of years. It was U2 making their investment in our peace process which they would come back to again and again.

As you can tell, I loved helping out with this documentary. Karen did a great job and as well as Colin, Liam and myself there are interviews with various fans, promotors and journalists including Hot Press’s Niall Stokes and the legendary Dave Fanning.

LISTEN TO The Unforgettable Gig: When U2 Rocked The Kings Hall


Fitzroy Church Weird Light

Tomorrow morning (11am)  in Fitzroy we will be commissioning our summer missions folk. We have over 30 in the congregation, youth and adults heading off to do mission somewhere in our world. 17 are off to Uganda on July 3rd. 

To send them off we are doing a special service where the Sounds Good Orchestra comes together again. Whatever your musical instrument or indeed ability all Fitzrers were invited to join the jamboree and Chris Blake's genius will make them sound amazing after an hour's rehearsal in the morning.

I will be thinking of God's gift of grace and then also the gifts the Spirit has given us.  They are not gifts to be left on the shelf. We will be looking at Moses and how God dared him to do something dangerous and world transforming. Expect the throwing of many sweeties and a reference to a Burning Bush!

We look forward to a great crowd of American visitors with us too!

Remember... no evening events until September. A Tribute to the late great Rich Mullins is in the planning for September 17th, two days before we commemorate 20 years since his tragic passing from us. Get it in the diary now!




When Southeastern crossed my radar in 2013 I thought I had at last heard the follow up to Ryan Adams’ finest moment, Strangers Almanac with Whiskeytown. Southeastern had that same immediacy and familiarity as Strangers Almanac with at the same time all the fresh sense of originality. Isabel’s follow up Something More Than Free was equally engaging.


Where his mate Ryan Adams’ output has been a little erratic, it seems impossible for Isbell to be anything other than consistently brilliant. So, yet again with The Nashville Sound Isbell has made a mother stunning collection of songs.


The record rocks harder than the previous two with Cumberland Gap and Anxiety turning Isbell’s volume levels way up. There’s a groove to White Man’s World that echoes one of last year’s songs of the year Black Man In A White World by Michael Kiwanuka.


Louder or rockier or whatever Isbell’s definition of The Nashville Sound is, the lyrics still have those deft touches of lyrical wonder. This record is filled with white man observation on marriage, fatherhood and Trump’s America! 


The influence of Amanda Shires in Isbell’s life is omnipresent. On the record her fiddle playing is like a pipe bomb, to use an old Isbell image. She explodes into songs bringing energy and vitality. 


Of course she is so much more. As well as embellishing the tunes Shires is between and on the lines of the songs themselves. Shires is the companion who rescued Isbell from his addictions and mothered his brand new daughter.  In If We Were Vampires, where he throws out line upon line of adoration towards her, I particularly love the lines:


“The fragile heart you protected for so long

Or the mercy in your sense of right and wrong"


The daughter they have had together is a reason for Isbell to believe in God in a world where that is getting harder and harder. In White Man’s World:


"I'm a white man living in a white man's nation

I think the man upstairs must'a took a vacation

I still have faith, but I don't know why

Maybe it's the fire in my little girls eyes."



Do not think for a moment that this record is all about some comfortable domesticity. Isbell’s new contented family life is a place of strength from which he surveys and critiques the world. Trump’s new America is a reality but hope and purpose ends the record. In Hope The High Road:


"Last year was a son of a bitch

For nearly everyone we know

But I ain't fighting with you down in a ditch

I'll meet you up here on the road"



Finally Isbell’s altar call sermonic conclusion would be one that this preacher could do worse than return to time and time again. Whatever the world throws, however much we struggle in personal or national life, Isbell has a prayer and spiritual pure gold nugget:


“I hope you find something to love

Something to do when you feel like giving up

A song to sing or a tale to tell

Something to love, it'll serve you well.”



There can be debate as to whether this is the best of Isbell’s recent trilogy. What The Nashville Sound has, that the 400 Units have added, is variety of sounds. I would suggest that when you add it to Southeastern and Something More Than Free that it is safe to say that no one has made three records in a row that are as consistently good as these three, for a very long time.


Madam Secretary 2

Readers of Soul Surmise will already know that I love the TV series Madam Secretary. I was particularly taken by an episode and indeed have quoted it in three different talks I have given this week.

A young women has come up with an innovative way to save the endangered black rhino in Africa. Basically her idea is not getting more gamekeepers to catch the poachers but cutting off the reason to that rhinos are killed. If they could educate the Vietnamese that rhino horn is not actually a cure for impotence and the supply would be wiped out. It is warm feelings fiction but it works.

The young lady whose idea it was is very chuffed by the result. When she is told that the government will fund her idea she beams ear to ear and Madam Secretary delivers the preacher’s punch line - "A good idea is meaningless without the courage to act.”

Meanwhile somewhere across America the Dublin band U2 have been touring their 30 year old Joshua Tree record. Every night before the song In God’s Country Bono goes off on a preacher’s spiel about the idea of America, a place where the Statute Of Liberty welcomes the homeless and the refugee.

He has maybe been touring too much to watch Madam Secretary but it would be perfect timing for her line - "A good idea is meaningless without the courage to act.” If, by the time he reaches Dublin on July 23rd he is quoting her, I am claiming the credit!

As I was thinking about the Madam Secretary quotation leading up to last Sunday sermon where my text was Exodus 19 where the new fledgling nation of Children of Israel get in line to receive the Torah and Matthew 9 and 10 where Jesus is sending out a fledgling community of world transformers I was drawn to both Bono and Madam Secretary.

The law of God and the teaching of Jesus is a great idea. It is God’s idea of how we do not have to live the way we are living but can live a whole entirely other way.

It is the idea that:

We should welcome the stranger into our community...

We should leave some produce at the side of the field for the poor...

Where we should seek justice...

Where we should walk humbly...

Where the meek would inherit everything...

Where the last will be first and the first last...

Where we should love our neighbours...

Even more where we should love our enemies...

Where we who have should give to those who have not...


… And many more world changing ideas.


The ideas that Jesus brings are great, fantastic, revolutionary ideas… BUT… they will remain meaningless… until those of us who claim to follow him will have the courage to act! 

Preach it Madam Secretary!