photo: Neil Craigan
I have always love a yarn with Brian Houston. Whether it is just the two of us over breakfast, with our wives over a good meal or across the desk in a radio studio, it is always dynamic, funny and spiritually insightful.
At 2019’s 4 Corners Festival we decided to do it with an audience. Being so comfortable with each other could be good… or bad. It could allow our familiarity to bring the best out of Brian or we could be enjoying ourselves so much that we might forget the audience. I hope we got it right.
Being so soon after the recent Springsteen On Broadway performances there is little doubt I had that in mind as I shaped the evening. It started with Brian’s childhood in the Braniel estate of East Belfast and concluded with him singing in the Irish language, very much in west Belfast, the Falls Road Catholic chapel we were in.
In between, was full of fascinating stories of Belfast, music and faith. Brian wears his big passionate heart on his leather jacket sleeve and his refreshing honesty allows him to be vulnerable enough to share the blows he has taken from school, Church and the music industry.
We also got songs that might not be as familiar in Brian’s recent set lists. He accused me of stretching his memory! Simple Now is 30 years old and I remember him singing Great White Hope for the first time on my radio show back in the 90s.
Brian and I were aware how close we were to Milltown Cemetery the scene of Michael Stone’s most notorious killing of three mourners at an IRA funeral in 1988. Yet, Brian told a story about how Stone, an antihero in Brian’s Braniel, saved his arm when it caught fire when Brian was just ten years of age. A reminder of the complexities of who we are and what happens to us.
When I asked Brian about the song We Don’t Need Religion we were into a fascinating section on the confines of religion and what Fr Greg Boyle described as a spacious God, earlier in the Festival. Brian isn’t shy about his critique of Northern Ireland’s religious flaws but don’t mistake it for what the apostle John described as lukewarm faith.
When Houston turns to his spiritual songs, he lights up. The tender Jesus Don’t Forget My Name throws a spiritual swathe across St. John’s chapel. Brian’s voice as pure as seraphs must have sounded in the Temple, as recorded in Isaiah 6. The hairs on my soul stood up. Then his most passionate song of the night, Love Like A Weapon. You could feel God’s arms around you, his grace crashing in with redemption.
We have been chatting now for nearly two hours but no one is heading for the exits. I want to lead us to a provocative and poignant conclusion. I ask Brian if his time in America had changed his views of home.
He takes us to a Canadian native Indian Cree Reservation where he was shocked to hear them singing doo wop worship instead of songs in their own cultural sounds. That has led him to think about his own Irish heritage. After a lengthy and robust argument about the Irish language, the man from the Braniel lifts a bodhran and sings Óró sé bheatha abhail. There are layers of wonder and meaning in this performance. Like tapping into some ancient Celtic soul stream.
We have been there too long and Brian needs a loo! I have to bring him to the theme of the Festival and a song he has written with forgiveness in mind. Yet again it is a beautiful song with that typical catchy melody.
“I forgive m oppressor,
I forgive my abuser,I forgive the invader,
I forgive my rejector
I forgive, I forgive, I forgive
Your mercy is enough
Your grace will be enough
Your love will heal my soul
For your mercy is enough”
As our friend Azman put it on social media, “Funny, accomplished, edgy, transparent, raw, hilarious and inspiring”. Indeed. What a night!