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July 2023

JONI MITCHELL LIVE AT THE NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL

Joni at Newport

If ever a record release could be a total let down compared to the event   it had recorded, it was this one.

Joni Mitchell had pretty much been out of the public eye since an aneurysm almost took her life in 2015. In the summer of 2022, 53 years old after her last performance there, she appeared at the Newport Folk Festival.

Even with the recovery that Joni has made, this was an ambitious live gig. It is all inspired by the Joni-Jam that happens in her home in LA every Sunday and spearheaded by the phenomenal networker Brandi Carlile who gathered an array of songwriting and instrumental geniuses to join the Jam. 

The Jam is Joni sitting in the midst of all the other singers and players who give Joni’s fragility layered confidence. 

It is totally infectious from the word go. Brandi explains to a Newport audience what a Joni-Jam is but says that it would be a little less without Joni… and then welcomes the legendary woman her onstage. It is a goosebump moment even though you already know it happens. 

From there on through a set of Joni’s finest songs we are gifted the most joyous of celebrations. You can almost feel the atmosphere coming off the groove in the vinyl. The sense of joy is palpable. We are treated to Help Me, Carey, A Case Of You, Both Sides Now. Amelia is performed after Mitchell claims Hejira her favourite record.

What I was also pleased about was the inclusion of post 70s Joni. Mitchell herself takes us on an electric guitar instrumental of Just Like This Train but Come In From The Cold is also special.

Particularly special for me is Shine. The title track from Joni’s last studio record it is like a prayer. I could use it in Church. And might. Everything gets touched upon including the churches:

 

Shine on the Catholic Church

And the prisons that it owns

Shine on all the Churches

They all love less and less

Shine on a hopeful girl

In a dreamy dress

 

I found the communal, dare I say congregational, sense of this version definitive. It’s strong, spiritual, prophetic, loving.

Circle Game is equally communal but more fair ground as of course the song about carousels should. It raises the joy even more. It is like this entire record, bursting with musical community breaking down the barriers between the artists and the audience with the Queen Bee that we feared we lost right there in the middle of it all.

Put the needle down again… Far from a let down. Wonderful.


FRIENDS GIVE HOPE

SHAWSHANK

(This is my script for Pause For Thought on BBC Radio 2 on The Early Breakfast Show with Owain Wyn Evans. The theme was That's What Friends Are For...)

 

This week’s theme had me immediately smiling to myself that I could obsess about my favourite film The Shawshank Redemption. Highly recommend it, if you haven’t seen it. 

In the movie, A rather out of place Andy (played by Tim Robbins) arrives into Shawshank prison and quickly experiences its brutality. He is befriended by Red. I have such a soft spot for Red. Maybe it’s because in Stephen King’s original novel Red was Irish. Maybe Liam Neeson wasn’t available and so instead of my north Antrim accent we get an African American played so well by my other favourite actor, Morgan Freeman.

Red is a friend to all, always bringing empathy and lots of wisdom. When the prisoners are getting over their friend Brooks’s suicide, having just been released after decades in jail. Red sits them all down in the exercise yard and in almost a clergyman’s tone says, “'At first you hate these walls, then you accept them and eventually you become dependent on them”. Oh my. A Pause for Thought in itself!

As the movie continues there is a shift. Andy becomes the friend. They are working hard on the prison roof and he tells a guard he can fix his taxes. That gets all his mates a cold beer, while Andy sits, without the beer, smiling.

Another time he sends the sound of opera all across the prison to ease the prisoners dull lives with little blasts of musical beauty. These are glimpses of grace in an oppressive brutal world. Andy is the friend who gives and sometimes, as with the opera, at his own cost.

After the opera incident Andy gets a harsh dose of solitary confinement. After he comes out Red tries to dampen any enthusiasm the prisoners have of hope. A dangerous thing he calls it. Andy disagrees and says “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”.

Then the emotional ending. Finally given parole, Red follows his friend Andy’s instructions to a wall under the tree and a box with the money for a ticket to Mexico. 

Tears run down my cheeks as I watch the last scene. The panoramic view of the ocean. Sharpest blue sky and ocean contrasting with 3 hours of the grey dark world of Shawshank. Red is on the sand walking towards Andy working on a boat. Free. Redeemed. It’s a little glimpse of heaven. 

Giving us hope. That’s what friends are for.


SINEAD O'CONNOR (1966-2023) - A TRIBUTE

Sinead

Breaking news at the end of BBC’s Newsline “Sinead O’Connor has died…” My heart did that little caving in when it’s hit with sorrow filled news. “No, no, no, no… oh dear… Sinead”. I muttered.

I first came across Sinead O’Connor when she was still a teenager, adding her voice to In Tua Nua’s song Take My Hand and then a song with U2’s Edge, Heroine, the theme song for the movie The Captive in 1986. 

I pretty much missed her first album The Lion and The Cobra in 1987 but nobody in the world missed 1990’s Nothing Compares To You the global mega single from her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

The video for Nothing Compares To You, written by Prince, introduced a new superstar, an Irish girl with shaved head and a seemingly innocent porcelain skinned face. At 24 she had set her mark on the history of music. What a mark it would be.

She would never reach the same commercial success again but in the vast array of directions that her music took from there on she always caught my attention and mad em pay attention - jazz standards, Irish trad, reggae. There was even an album called Theology, filled with Biblical symbolism.

I would suggest that her last two records were as strong as any before them. I always looked forward to what she would be saying next. That there will not be another and lots after that is a shame. Her music will be missed.

Sinead’s performances off stage are as well known as her art. She had a personal story of childhood trauma to be shared. She also was never backward about coming forward. Her heroes Dylan and Marley were protest singers and she took on that mantle. 

For her as an Irish girl that was the backward theocracy that she grew up and suffered under. Her ripping up of a photograph Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live will sit side by side with Nothing Compares To You in her obituaries. It was at the beginning of the opening up the Catholic Church paedophile scandals and a couple of decades that turned Ireland on its head.

I sympathised with her honesty about her brokenness and mental health issues. I empathised with her desire to bring about a just and loving world. Like Jesus, she was always on the side of the underdog, the hurting, the poor, the marginalised. 

I remember just two weeks after the Pope incident she was to sing at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Celebration Concert in 1992. Everyone was to sing a Dylan song and Sinead had rehearsed her deeply spiritual version of I Believe In You but when it went live broke into Bob Marley’s War before being booed off. 

I was living in Dublin at that time and trying to understand the changes that were happening in the Republic of Ireland led by the likes of Bob Geldof, U2 and Sinead. I remember in the midst of all of the commentary seeing through Sinead’s hurt. Like a pastor I saw her as a prodigal daughter, broken, resilient and brave, often seeming lost but ever seeking. 

As the news broke tonight I was back there with my 1992 notebook feeling sympathy, empathy and heart ache for her pain filled life, added beyond understanding by her son Shane’s suicide last year, and the joy that her music has brought me and will continue to do.

“No, no, no…”


LOVE IS MORE THAN THIS HAPPY DAY

Josh and Sophie

(using this today at the wedding of Sophie Trinder to Josh Butler... I wrote it for Janice and I after our wedding... but have changed it to the second person to make it fit for weddings...)

 

You've got a circle of gold on my finger

It speaks of promises and trust

Seems love doesn't last too long these days

This ring reminds you that yours must

And if everything burns down around you

And if everyone is falling apart

The vows you made and the prayers you prayed

Should give resilience to your fragile hearts

So go and spend some time together

Now you’ve made that time forever

Lift each other when you’ve been knocked down

Rebuke each other when you’re just not clever

Go and be partners in every waltz

Be companions down through the mystery

Each other’s hope through headline news

And touches of grace in times of misery

Go to dry each other’s tears

Hold hands as you share your sorrow

And remember that love is more than this happy day

It's the hard work of tomorrow


FIRST AID KIT'S SUMMER EDITION AND THAT SERMONETTE, ANGEL

First Aid Kit

First Aid Kit, those two quirky Swedish sisters with their unique harmonies have released a new Child Of Summer version of their 2022 record Palomino. It adds 4 new songs and an acoustic version of the stand out track from the original record - Angel. 

Interestingly they have added the new songs up front, instead of at the end of the original. At least on the streaming version. Perhaps there won’t be a CD or vinyl release which is a shame. I haven’t bought Palomino yet and these 4 songs convince me.

Palomino is First Aid Kit at their most accessible and sunny sounding. So it should. 29 Palm Highway on the first edition is added to with San Gabriel Valley geographical terms that locate the band in that Californian sound. 

That fifth addition for me is as deeply spirituality a surmise in song as we have had in this past year, perhaps ignoring Brice Cockburn and Paul Simon. Angel is all about being fully human, living to potential. 

The societal things that hinder us and cause all the mental health issues that this generation faces are here:

 

I've been afraid all of my life

Crippled with anxiety, shame and doubt

 

It goes on:

 

What has that feareverdonefor me

Buthold me back?

What has jealousy and hate ever done for you

But remind you of what you think you lack

 

The key to healing and seeing the person in the mirror that we really are comes in the chorus:

 

So, give me love and give me compassion

Self-forgiveness and give me some passion

I'll love you even if you don't love me,

I'll love you even if you can't love me

 

It is a tale in grace, an unmerited love. A love that loves ourselves and others as they are. 


THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO... SPIKE MILLIGAN

Spike Milligan

It happens more than you think. You are in the Welcome Area after the service, enjoying a cup of coffee, and someone comes up and tells you a story that you just wished you had known before the service began. Of course, the sermon, most likely, made your friend think of the story and they didn’t know your sermon before the service and so couldn’t have told you… but… 

One morning, George Spoule approached me. He said that my sermon reminded him of a Spike Milligan story. Apparently, Spike was in one of his depressions and headed off to the middle Ireland for some peace. He got off a train, randomly, in the middle of nowhere and as luck would have it the first man he saw recognised him. On asking what he wanted the man said, “Mr Milligan, follow me and I’ll be right behind you!” 

Brilliant!

My sermon was on the recommissioning of Peter. The purity of Peter’s vocational call, way back when he was on the boats in Galilee had been badly tarnished with his denials of Jesus before the crucifixion.

The risen Jesus comes back to the beach in Galilee to restore Peter to that original vocation. Like a football team who find themselves three down in denials, Jesus more or less gives Peter three goals back by asking him three times if he loves him. Jesus equalises Peter’s three own goals. All is put right.

It is then time for Jesus to invite Peter again to this mad roller coaster ride of upside down Kingdom bringing. In John 21 Jesus asks Peter to follow him, In the chapter before Jesus had put it a slightly different way. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 

It is Spike Milligan’s “Follow me and I’ll be right behind you!”

That is following Jesus. From one perspective, it is an invitation and our initiative. From another angle it is Jesus pushing us on. 

Maybe you are where Peter was on that Galiliean beach. Maybe you are a little down spiritually. Maybe your original vocation call has got distracted or tainted. Maybe if you look up the metaphorical beach you’ll see Jesus barbecuing you some fish, ready to recommission. 

Lean in and hear the words:

“Follow me!”

“As the Father sent me, I am sending you.”

“Follow me and I’ll be right behind you.”


PRAYING FOR DRUMCREE 25, BONFIRES & PARADES

Drumcree

It is 25 years of the Drumcree standoff. An Orange Lodge wanting to continue a march. A Catholic community not welcoming them through. We want to pray for safety at Drumcree and over all the Twelfth Parades. We want to pray for contact, listening, negotiation and compromise where there are contentious issues. We encourage the Orange Order as they attempt to rid their parades of anti social behaviour. 

I remember the days when my summer began when my dad drove under the arch that my Granda built. I remember watching the bonfire from the window of my first flat even though I was too young to go down to it. I remember watching my Granda march.

Since then sectarianism has hijacked a cultural celebration. I hope the best of our Northern Irishness comes out this week in a peaceful passing off of parades and no effigies or flags on the bonfires.

Here is a poem and then a prayer...

 

Strike the match of supposed tradition

Listen for what the flames tell

In every flag or effigy burning

There’s a crackle of the devil’s yell

This is no cultural celebration

This is the hate of the clan

Sectarianism in petrol and wood

The fires of hell being fanned

 

Instead,  take all those empty pallets

Old tyres, their tread worn thin

Pile our pride there, way up high

With all our arrogance and sin

Hurl on myths that we’ve been told

All those lies and exaggerations

The caricatures we paint ourselves

That cripple our children and nation

Watch the sparks of repentance fall 

Our Troubles burn in the flickering light

Warmed by loving of even enemies

On a glorious bonfire night. 

 

Let us pray.

Lord we come before the God of peace

Of love and of grace

We worship you as holy

Utterly different than what we know

Or have intuition toward

A God who became one of us

Gave up all

To take on flesh

In a manger

To wash feet

To die, "the Lamb Of God who takes away the sin of the world"

Lord we seek your presence

In this our Twelfth week in Northern Ireland

We pray for safety

Safety for those building bonfires

Those around bonfires

Those who control bonfires

And the neighbourhoods around bonfires

We pray for safety for the security forces and fire service

We also pray for safety for the parades

We pray for grace and tolerance from those marching

And from those in the neighbourhoods they walk through

May there be peace on our streets

And no headlines on our TVs.

 

Lord, we yearn for your presence this week

Lord interrupt and remove the hate and sectariansim

As well as the flags and effigies from the bonfires

Instead Lord, pile up our false caricatures

Our myths and lies and exaggerations of one another

May we stop the cycle

To repent from generations of animosity

To become peacemakers

Lovers of the enemy

Followers of Jesus in the Kingdom of God

Lord interrupt with your love and peace

And that holy justice that lays down its own life for the crimes committed against it

Lord may your will be done

On the streets of Northern Ireland this week

In the name of the King of Kings.

Amen

 


MY NICK DRAKE SUMMER

Drake biog

I know already that it will be a Nick Drake summer for me. 

When I finally get away, after a wedding next week, for our first week off, I will dip into a pile of books. Most years I try to pick one music biography amongst the novels. I then delve into the artist’s music as I am reading about it.

The rock biog at the top of my list this year is Robert Morton Jack’s tome on a young songwriter from Tamworth-On-Arden who died in 1974 at 26 years of age as pretty much an unknown artist - now the legendary Nick Drake.

This seems to be the Drake book to read. It sound like it has been well researched and has though not “official” it has the blessing of Nick’s sister Gabrielle who handed over Drake’s own papers and her father’s diary. 

What lifts Drake above books on Lucinda Williams, Leon Russell and Springsteen’s Nebraska is the release, at the very same time, of a double album of Drake covers. We have had Drake Tributes before including the reverent Way To Blue. This new one is perhaps more adventurous.

Drake Tribute

The Endless Coloured Ways; The Songs of Nick Drake has an array of artists not easily linked to the quiet atmospheres of Drake. Fontaines DC, Radiohead’s Philip Selwey, Feist and Liz Phair to name a few.

I have only got a listen or two at this stage but am loving Ben Harper’s Time Has Told Me, Lets Eat Grandma’s From The Morning, Nadia Reid’s Poor Boy and Joe Henry sharing vocals with Meshell Ndegeocello on Time Of No Reply are the four that have really struck me so far. 

Drake is someone that I have revered for thirty years and yet have not been the devotee that I feel I should be. A perfect summer’s vacation is when I get the time to take an artist that I like so that I can fall in love with them. Who knows we might nip off the M6 and visit his grave next week!

Let us get on the ferry… 


OUR WEDDING SONGS... A SHORT DISCIPLESHIP COURSE

Stocki and Jani 10

Life often throws up some lovely little serendipities or might God be lovingly handing you a treat.

It happened this past week. Last Saturday at the wedding of Hollie Clements to Richard Falls we sang Robin Mark’s Jesus, All For Jesus. On Sunday morning in Fitzroy we sang John Bell and the late Graham Maule’s Will You Come and Follow Me. Today at our Memory Lane service for our older folk we sang the old Irish hymn Be Thou My Vision. 

Those were the three hymns that made up our wedding songs! 

 

All of my ambitions, hopes and plans

I surrender them into your hands

 

At the outset of our new life together Janice I wanted to align our marriage with the ways of Jesus. We believed that a marriage in all its fulness to paraphrase my favourite verse in John 10:10 needed that alignment - For it’s only in your will that I am free.

Will Ye Come And Follow Me, or The Summons as the writers prefer to call it, is my very favourite spiritual lyric. I often consider doing a preaching series through it. There are so many lines that challenge and inspire the follower:

We find personal growth:

 

Will you let my love be shown? 

Will you let my name be known,

Will you let my life be grown 

In you and you in me?

 

Then the willingness to be turned against and rejected which we have faced in our marriage at various times:

 

Will you risk the hostile stare 

should your life attract or scare?

Will you let me answer prayer 

In you and you in me?

 

Then there is digging deep, not pretending, being yourself and overcoming the fears of your peers. We’ve certainly been called to that:

 

Will you love the "you" you hide 

if I but call your name?

Will you quell the fear inside 

and never be the same?

 

So much in this song of everyday discipleship, of denying self, taking up our crosses and following Jesus.

In Be Thou My Vision we do our Proverbs 3:5 (Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;) yet again and again declare allegiance and what we are living for.

 

Riches I heed not, nor vain, empty praise

Thou mine inheritance, now and always

Thou and Thou only first in my heart

High King of heaven, my treasure Thou art

 

Quite the short course in following Jesus. Someone has said to me that it is impressive remembering my wedding hymns. My answer is that when you are so strategic and they are so good, you remember!

We then left the Church after Rev Dr Trevor Morrow had inspired us in a very fine sermon to the South African folk song Mayenziwe, which means “Thy Will Be Done”

Twenty seven years later we still say yes!


LIGHT UP, LIGHT UP (WHEN BELFAST SINGS TOGETHER)

RUN

(A Belfast crowd singing Run at a Snow Patrol gig... #proud)

 

Chest of a city stuck out

To fuel the filling of lungs

No sound ever sounds sweeter

Than the unity of our Belfast tongues

All hands held up to carry

The weight of homecoming pride

We should make it the national anthem

And pray this oneness never subsides.

 

As the smart phone candles flicker

Reach your melancholy hand across

Feel melody swathe and sooth your soul

In the sad space of our loss

Let the verse suck in our pain

The chorus breathe out our grief

Then that tender thrumming riff

Throw out flecks of light and belief

 

So, in my time of dying

When my body doesn’t have long

Let our souls run, run for our lives

And one last time, sing this song…

 

“Light up, light up

As if you had a choice

Even if you cannot hear my voice

I’ll be right beside you dear.” *

 

* lines in italics from Snow Patrol's song Run