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April 2024

DEACON BLUE - PEACE WILL COME

Peace Will Come

We have been used to unplugged Deacon Blue since the second release of Dignity as a single in January. 1988. A piano version of Raintown was an extra track and quickly a favourite. Don’t Let The Teardrops Start on Ooh Las Vegas was different, a busk if you like with acoustic instruments. These became highlights in the middle concerts, the band huddled out front.

We became used to, and excited, with acoustic versions. Would we get an acoustic record? Ricky Ross’s two volumes of Short Stories kind of made that a redundant idea but a box set left a perfect or maybe imperfect way.

Imperfect? Well when the box set of You Can Have It All was released I was a little disappointed. This extra acoustic album was all I wanted but I was not pleased at having to pay £80 (reasonable for 14 discs!) to get it among other albums. I had bought all of those records, some of them more than once. It often seems that true fans have been punished by the obligatory extras.

This Record Store Day release is almost a redemption to such a record industry quandary. For the faithful who have the rest, here’s the opportunity. Limited edition. No one should be aggrieved now, certainly not me!

The record is as expected, an utter delight. Far from rushed, or packaged from other sources, these are all new recordings. The track list has been considered and though there are representatives from the early years, the more recent albums hold their own. 

There are no Real Gone Kids, Wages Day, Fergus Sings The Blues or Dignity those songs that get the 80s and 90s only fans on their feet at concerts. Just strong songs, sounding perhaps even stronger in their less robust production. 

You get to hear why Ricky himself raves so much about the recent Delivery Man and is it just me or is When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring) stripped of its soul music even more soulful? Lorraine McIntosh’s sublime voice on Cover From The Sky gets the most gorgeous piano. 

Happily, as I would have wished, we get a couple of covers. Dylan’s Forever Young so familiar now at concerts has all the depth of prayerfulness. Stripping the Courtney Cox dance out of Dancing In The Dark and taking Bruce Springsteen’s unplugged approach which gives the song a whole new sense of alienation and melancholy. I think I once read that it was about writer’s block.

All that makes up the character of Deacon Blue is here. It is about love, life and that bright hope for a better world. All Over The World comes across as a communal hymn of belief that might have been sung at a Dr Martin Luther King rally and Peace Will Come, again familiar at recent gigs is a like a blanket benediction thrown over a world struggling with Ukraine, Gaza and many other places. Indeed, Peace Will Come might indeed be the most relevant song released on this Record Store Day.


T BONE BURNETT - THE OTHER SIDE

The Other Side

For me T Bone Burnett is one of the rock music era’s great artists. Whether it is the eclectic mix of his solo work, poetic, musically sophisticated records like Trap Door, Proof Through the Night, The Criminal Under My Own Hat or his production work that includes some of the best of Counting Crows, The Wallflowers and Elvis Costello never mind Robert Plant & Alison Krauss or his soundtrack work that includes O Brother Where Art Thou, Cold Mountain and The Hunger Games. 

It’s a full and brilliant life’s work.

Having latterly worked more with other artists and on soundtracks it is a thrill for fans of his own work when a solo record arrives. The last few have been electronic ambient experiments so The Other Side is so so welcome.

Of his previous work reviewers have name checked his early album Truth Decay but it is far more like a companion piece to his eponymous title from 1986.  

For4 this tweet surprise we have an album of slow Texan blues waltzes with gentle rumination on life, scattering humour throughout and always enveloped in the spiritual. It is classic songwriting, pretty much all acoustic and uncluttered with helpful if understated guest appearance from Roseanne Cash, Steven Soles and, on no less than five songs, Lucius.

I mentioned the spiritual and that is where I love T Bone best, when he is throwing his Christian beliefs, cleverly, often wittily and usually with thoughts that linger deep. He has said that this record is gentler in his preaching than his previous records. I would call it pastoral. 

Like Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, Burnett’s work is God haunted. The opening He Came Down suggests as much:

 

“After he set the prisoners

After they hung him from a tree

Nothing was as it used to be

He came down, He came down”

 

The seemingly jaunty (I’m Gonna Get Over This) Some Day also has the wisdom and spiritual direction of Proverbs:

 

“I don’t want to be the judge

And I don’t want to hold a grudge

I’m going to get over this one day

I might as well get over it now.”

 

As Burnett says he has toned down his prophetic judgement of the world around him but The Pain Of Love still philosophises

All in all. It is an utter joy and welcomed much as Bruce Cockburn’s O Sun O Moon was last year. 


OVER THE RHINE in FITZROY - JUNE 21st 2024

OTR 50

OVER THE RHINE

in FITZROY 

on Friday June 21st 2024 @ 7.30 (doors 7pm) 

BOOK TICKETS HERE

 

It was late August 1992. It was in a tent in a field. It was the first night of Greenbelt. Pip Wilson and Martin Wroe were doing their The Very Stinking Late Show. As ever the first night had the video of The Call’s Let It Begin blasting out it’s blessing on the weekend, chats with the seminar speakers and a live song or two.

I had read about Over the Rhine in the Greenbelt magazine Strait bitty I wasn’t ready for Karin Bergquist to open her mouth or the melody or the poetry of the lyrics. It was Paul And Virginia. It was “cool and quiet” as Karin would describe it on Live From Nowhere Vol 4, years later. It was utterly breathtakingly beautiful. It was the days of Mazzy Star and 10,000 Maniacs and these guys were best of all.

And I was in love. With Karin (Janice made an exception for that crush!), with their songs and words and hypnotic atmospheric sound. So many imagine that U2 have been my favourite band. No. Ohio’s  Over the Rhine have been my favourite band for a long time. Their double album Ohio has long wrestled with The Beatles' White Album and Abbey Road as my favourite record of all time.

The day after The Very Late Stinking Show, the band played The Big Top and as soon as the gig finished, now mesmerised by Ric Hordinski guitar playing, I went off to find the albums. In another tent I was captured by the complete vision. 

You didn’t find Till We Have Faces or Patience in a card board box. Standing out from all the other product, there was this table all decked out in cigar boxes and little bottles of Bailey’s Cream, set on top of a lovely little cloth carefully placed. 

My expectations of every record that this band has released ever since has been heightened by that vision. I have never been let down. This band believe that every song they write and produce is a piece of art. Fellow Cincinnati artist Michael Wilson’s photographs have dressed every album in the most splendid  cover art.

In 1996 the Hordinski years closed. Drummer Brian Kelley left soon after and the married couple that is Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have been Over the Rhine, drawing in musicians to add what grace notes their imaginations hear.

The post Hordinki years have been more like the cool quiet end of Neil Young. If Ric had given then the guitar power, heat and loud of Young’s Hurricane and Powderfinger, Linford and Karinhave settled into the more acoustic, rustic Neil Young of After the Goldrush and Helpless. Indeed they have covered the latter song. 

The old Over the Rhine format's last record was an independent release called Good Dog, Bad Dog. The first line on the first song Latter Days, “what a beautiful piece of heartache,” have summed up the band ever since.

Karin’s voice is… well you have to hear it. It is utterly seductive in the most spiritual of ways, wooing your heart and soul. I think someone told me that Julie Miller, wife of Buddy, said that in heaven we all got to sing like Karin Bergquist. The women anyway! 

Linford does a song or two himself but he brings this ability to make a piano talk the way Springsteen said he had learned to do with a guitar. There is an emotion in their tunes and melodies that I don’t often find among their peers.

On top of all this are the must sublime literate yrics  It was Frederick Buechner who said that art was cutting a vein and letting it bleed onto the page and then at another time warned that what art we put into our bloodstream can poison or nourish. Over The Rhine are those who bleed on the page and if you use it for soul transfusion you can only find redemption and peace within. 

Redemption is their overriding theme. It is not a redemption that is so heavenly minded that it is of no earthly use. They don’t use it to lambast you like preachers who insult your intelligence. These songs don’t ring like the naive clang of a huge bell ringing. These beautiful pieces of heartache are like tinkles of grace and hope in the valley of the shadow.

Over The Rhine have found a severe mercy in the midst of their personal, as well as humanity’s deepest darkness. They have delved deep to find hope in the tragedies our darkness creates. They have found a place of joy in the midst of the certain-to-come-our-way tears. They have used all their wrestling to weave poetry and music into a tapestry of utterly astonishing depth of soul.

 


JESUS' YES FACE AGAINST THE PHARISEES NO FACES

NO YeS FACEs

In his book Grace Awakening, Charles Swindoll has another way of looking at the legalists who as religious leaders grind us down with guilt and long lists of dos and don’ts.

“Their God is too small, their world is too rigid, and therefore their faces shout “NO”!”

No faces. We know who they are. They discourage us. They burden us. They make us feel guilty. 

The Pharisees had NO faces.

Jesus, on the other hand, had a YES face. 

I had never seen it, in all the times I have preached it. John’s Prologue to his account of Jesus life -  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

I have always used this as a theological text to incarnation. Yet Swindoll opened it afresh to be. “Grace and truth” is also the posture that Jesus carries into his ministry.

Always a YES face. At that wedding in Cana. Welcoming Nicodemus at night. Inviting a Samaritan woman in the heat of day into conversation. Jesus was drawing people to him with his YES face.

I know the story of the Parable Son was fiction but surely we can read into it that the Father had such a YES face that the Prodigal felt that he could go home. When he stepped onto the lane back to the farm that YES face was running down the road to throw his arms around him.  

Be assured that by his grace through faith that it is a YES face that looks at you today…

 

LISTEN TO THE ENTIRE SERMON HERE


KILLERS OF GRACE... ON THE LOOSE!

Killer On The Loose

“There are killers on the loose today. The problem is that you can’t tell by looking. 

They don’t wear little buttons that give away their identity, nor do they carry signs warning everybody to stay away. 

On the contrary, a lot of them carry Bibles and appear to be clean-living, nice-looking, law-abiding citizens. 

Most of them spend a lot of time in churches, some in places of religious leadership. 

Many are so respected in the community, their neighbours would never guess they are living next door to killers. 

They kill freedom, spontaneity, and creativity; they kill joy as well as productivity. 

They kill with their words and their pens and their looks. 

They kill with their attitudes far more often than with their behaviour.”

 

The opening words of Charles Swindoll’s classic book, Grace Awakening. I read these words in 1990 and it literally changed my life. North Antrim where I am from is fertile for Grace Killers.

Preachers were focused on the fact that the human soul is saved by grace not be works as Paul set out in Ephesians 2 verses 8 and 9 - “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

It was after the saving by grace that the error or heresy crept in. For too many of us we were taught that it was by God’s gift that we were saved BUT then it seemed that we were thrown a weighty burden of things that humans had to do to keep that salvation. 

Paul’s next sentence in Ephesians 2 suggests that the work to gain salvation is God’s and the work after we are saved - For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Here we see that post salvation it is still God working. Still grace.

Sadly that was not how it was in reality. You couldn’t go to pubs or the cinema. A glass of wine was drinking the devil’s vomit! It was best that you didn't talk to Catholics. If you didn’t reading the Bible in the morning the day could be dangerous. It was all about ticking what we should and should not do.

It was very legalistic like the Pharisees. They were the Killers of Jesus day, oppressing the people with laws upon the laws. Jesus was setting people free, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”, being a key to his new dispensation.

The Killers give us a wrong view of God. He becomes an Oger to be afraid of rather than a father of love waiting to embrace us as in the story of the Prodigal Son. 

The Killers give us a wrong view of God’s love. They make it conditional. We are at the mercy of a meritocracy. 

The Killers finally give us a wrong view of ourselves. Our relationship with God is always precarious. Dependant on us. That heresy is back. It is as though God sits with a rubber to erase us from the Lamb’s Book Of Life if we step out of line.

Killers…

 

Listen To the Entire Sermon Here


BRIAN HOUSTON IN CONVERSATION WITH STEVE STOCKMAN

Stocki and Houstie

BRIAN HOUSTON

in Conversation with Steve Stockman

and NEW ALBUM LAUNCH

MAY 24th 2024 @7.30 (doors 7pm)

FITZROY, 77 University Street, BELFAST

£10 on door

For thirty years Brian Houston and I have met very regularly for coffee, tea, breakfast and lunch and to chat about songwriting, performance, worship and Church. All enveloped in Jesus.

These have been fascinating and frank and though I cannot speak for Brian very helpful in my discipleship as well as thinking through issues of music and faith.

So, we thought we would make our conversation public for one night only. Oh I have interviewed Brian on my old radio show, at Greenbelt, the 4 Corners Festival and on my podcast but this will be unique.

With performances interspersed I will be getting Brian to talk about his new record released this very night, the craft of songwriting and also the art of worship leading.

 

 


PAUL LYNCH - PROPHET SONG

Prophet Song

Was it Bono who said, “We Irish don’t build huge bridges or send people into space but boy can we tell stories.” Five years after Anna Burns and Paul Lynch brings another Booker Prize home to our wee island. It suggests that whoever said it wasn’t kidding. 

The Booker is absolutely deserved, though I haven’t read all those nominated! Prophet Song is a remarkable work and hits with a serious thud of impact, not just in its entirety but on every single line. The sense of darkness as a weight weighing down on your chest. How can someone create that kinda of feeling with words on a page?

In Prophet Song the darkness swamps the nation? It covers the streets of the neighbourhood. It fills one single family house with its heaviness. It burrows into one woman’s brain, heart and soul. It is all consuming.

Lynch makes this happen with a suffocating writing style. There are no paragraph breaks or speech commas. The book is dense. There is no let up.

All of this falls on Eilish. Living in Dublin as a far right National Alliance Party clamps down, her husband Larry is quickly picked up. Gone. Eilish has to hold the family together as the nation disintegrates. Her eldest son Mark is soon gone too, maybe fighting with the rebels.

Very quickly we realise that though this might be futuristic in that Ireland seems a safe democracy, what is happening to Eilish and her family is what is happening across Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan and many other places. This brutality that families have to live in is NOW. As we read these sentences, people are suffering what we are reading. 

Every refugee you have met, staying in hotels near you have been through this. As a Church, Fitzroy has connected with Eilishs from everywhere. The book has helped me understand what they have been through. It has hiked my empathy, sympathy and compassion.

Of course, cleverly set in Dublin, Lynch is speaking to us on the island. He is quelling our prejudices as we read. Attempting to Eradicate our racism. Hoping to send us towards justice and love.

It should be posted into everybody’s letterbox.

For me, there was a horrible moment near the end. I thought that Eilish and her beleaguered family had made it into Northern Ireland. I had a second or two of joy and relief and then I had maybe my saddest moment. 

Oh no. After all that. We put them into hotels. Move them into houses far from where that hotel was. We graffiti their walls asking them to leave. We threaten some with planes to Rwanda for goodness sake. As if they have not suffered enough we are short in our compassionate response.

And Eilish hadn’t made it. There was one more corner of hell…

Prophet Song is not for that few days that you take away to rest and chill out. In such need, open a bottle and read Richard Osman instead but at some other time make sure you take the time for Paul Lynch’s classic. Good for its writing, its style and good with its message too.  


FR MARTIN AND I TO SPEAK AT SPRING AGAPE LECTURE

Martin And I

THE SPRING AGAPE LECTURE 

SPEAKERS: FR MARTIN MAGILL & REV STEVE STOCKMAN OBE

TITLE: VOCATION OF FRIENDSHIP TOWARDS PEACE

DATE: WED, APRIL 17th, 2024 @ 7.30

VENUE: BELFAST SOUTH METHODIST CHURCH (AGAPE CENTRE) 236-266 Lisburn Road Belfast, BT9 6GF (Tel: 028 9066 2560) 

 

Fr Martin and I are delighted to be guest speakers at this year's Spring Agape Lecture. 

We will be looking at finding ourselves as peace builders, the Biblical vocation that that is. We will also be sharing our own journey into commitment to a vocational friendship and the incarnation of that vocation in our lives and work. 

I believe that everyone would be welcome at Agape on Wednesday night and it would be great to see you.


DAVID A. DUNLOP - WHEN THE LIGHT GETS IN

Dunlop 2

With authentic characters and a gently gripping plot, David A Dunlop shines a light on the golden calves of sectarianism and church legalism in rural Northern Ireland. Where I am from When the Light Gets In is an important book. Culturally insightful. Personally cathartic. Spiritually prophetic. 

The Shaw family are a common as fertile soil northern Northern Irish family. Isaac is a missionary in India, twins Joseph and Sarah are actually adopted and the intriguing oldest, Jack. 

Jack. It all begins at his funeral. He’s that old bachelor in the family. Many of us in this part of the world had them. I think of my own Great Uncle Tommy. Where my Tommy was big into church though, Jack was not. A mysterious something had come between him and God.

We are not long into the book before we sense the usual dividing lines in the small settled community. Sectarianism is innocuous but its still sectarian. The Protestant side on which the Shaws are to be found is spiritually legalistic. The rumour is that that Jack might have had issues with these lines.

The story is then an unravelling of both the lines. It is about how in one family these lines we make between us and the thran ways that we keep them can cause trauma and not scars but open wounds decades later. When we reduce relationships to mathematics and right answers we injure and hurt the very heart of our humanity. 

Before the light gets in, it is exiled. In the name of God real love is squeezed out of shape by ways to live that are written on slabs of stone and hung on our backs to keep us down. To make sure the neighbour doesn't think bad of us. To keep us right when it is doing anything but. Who said that religion is what is left when God is no longer in it. 

Dunlop tells it beautifully. The suspicion. The surprise. The shock. The sadness. The little bit of salvation. It is all set up so ordinary. Then quite suddenly it becomes a page turner. Could it be. No. Oh my. Can there be repair. The light gets in slowly, everyone hurt as they squint to see.

For me, the saddest part of reading the book was that as I was doing so I bumped into three friends from a few decades ago who shared with me how that mathematical religion had hurt them or sent them off wondering what on earth this God thing was about.  

Our Northern Irish society is coming down with people who have been spiritually abused, who have left the faith over a legalism that was judgemental and exiling. I would love to think that even now there is redemption. 

I would like to think that David Dunlop’s novel would be catharsis for such. I know that it has inspired and refuelled my own ministry to go after the hurting sheep, lost not by their own decisions but by wayward shepherds. 

When the Light Gets In is a book that needs read, heard and where possible its victims repaired!


ABBA - 50 YEARS (And I Confess That They Are...)

Waterloo 50 2

50 years ago. Abba launched on the world with that famous Waterloo performance on Eurovision.

To be fair it is the historical that hits me first. I was being baby-sat by My Granny Kernohan and Mrs Gillan. They were formidable themselves, exuberant in their judgemental remarks, full of a good laugh and dangerous if you ever crossed them. Best behaviour, Steve.

I am 12. I love my music though at the time it has not yet matured. Coming out of glam rock and the Osmonds I am big into Suzi Quatro and Mud, with a wee bit of Alvin Stardust, that particular week. 

It is Saturday night. It is my parents turn for the alternate weeks of Saturday with Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Rosemary, not actually related but omnipresent enough in my childhood for such respected titles.  

There are only 3 TV channels but I hadn’t the lack of respect I now have for Eurovision and it was live and exciting. 

I remember it from the first beat. It is the only year that I was ever so sure of the winner. The strange blue trousers. The boots. The blonde hair. I was only 12 but these young women looked good. Their harmonies, the catchiness of the chorus and the effervescent feel of it all. Even as a 12 year old it was pure pop genius.  

Straight to Number 1 as of course it should. 

It would be almost a year before SOS would let us know that these victorious Swedes were not one hit wonders. I loved SOS but very soon I had lost my ardour. I discovered The Beatles in the spring  of '76. My tastes were maturing. 

Then my school mate Willie Ireland took to Abba like a soccer team. He was a huge fan and would argue to me about their success against The Beatles. It was perhaps this teenage classroom banter that hardened my prejudice against our sublime Swedish number 1 makers.

I wouldn’t have been thinking about Abba much in the decades since they broke up in 1982. When I heard a song I kind of dismissed it. 

Then the Mama Mia phenomenon. Those films arrive just as my daughters are beginning to like their own thing. Abba are suddenly in my ear shot. A lot. And, to be truthful, much as I belittled, it is hard not to love Dancing Queen, The Winner Takes It All, Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight and Knowing Me, Knowing You. All glitzed up for a movie. These songs have something.

Eventually, Abba released a new album. Voyage, four decades after the last one. It was needless to say a big musical talking point. I usually have a big mouth on such talking points. What would my blog say? Would we do a Gospel According To Abba in Fitzroy?

YES! Though I left the talking to my good friend, the novelist Tony Macauley, an even bigger Abba fan than my old mate Willie Ireland. Tony did the most amazing Thought For The Day around the song titles on the new record. So, we did our Gospel According To Abba and it was good.

Again, my prejudices were being rattled somewhat. Those who sang the songs, or may even more the musicians spoke of the complexity, the difficulty to get it right. Abba were so good, they tried to convince me.

And then this past 50th Weekend. On that famous 50th Anniversary BBC Radio 4 do a documentary on Abba and choose my good friend Iain Archer to host. Now my prejudices are working in reverse. 

Iain and all the other contributors do a great job. I found it funny that the UK didn’t give Abba a score on that amazing magical night in 1974. Wow. Maybe my prejudice is not lonely out there! 

Then Iain tells us about the band being influenced by West Coast Rock on their 1977 Abba The Album, uncovering the Fleetwood Mac influence on the opening Eagle. This intrigues because in 1977, a year after discovering The Beatles it is Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt that mature my own tastes.

Is it conversion. Not quite. I might go the Church of Abba - maybe do an Abba Alpha course. It is time to have a deeper dive into albums. For sure. 

Yet, had I in 1976 gone down the Abba route, instead of the Beatles, I am not convinced that I would have lived the life I have. I often say that The Beatles opened up the questions for me that I could only find the answers for in Jesus.

I will give it to Abba. I will confess my error all these decades after debates in Mrs Sloan’s GCSE class. Abba are good. Probably great. Sophisticated and pop geniuses. Yet, I found being a Dancing Queen a little fragile. I was more interested to Give Peace a Chance.