CONCERT REVIEWS

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE SESSIONS BAND - LIVE at the POINT THEATRE, DUBLIN - 5.5.2006

Seeger Sessions

We’ve got more used to Church in rock arena. U2 have been bringing hymn-like anthems into rock n roll concerts for over twenty five years, though much more noticeably since the Elevation Tour five years ago. Tonight, though, Bruce Springsteen took "Christian" music in the rock arena up a whole other notch.

This is a very specific project that Springsteen is on. Having drawn a band together to do a song on a Pete Seeger tribute album, he then brought them back for an album. Now he has them on the road and the “happy accident” that he called it tonight is a lucky chance beyond coincidence; it could have been conjured up in heaven.

A four piece eccentric horn section, two far out fiddlers, a banjo player who thinks he’s Jimi Hendrix, a piano/accordian player who adds all kinds of honky-tonk and Cajun tinkles and great vocalists arranged by Patti. An experience unique and wonderful.

The only glitch and it was a big one in itself though luckily never taints outside its own little disaster bubble. To fill out the set to the length that Springsteen fans have become use to, Bruce adds a few of his own songs. Oh dear. I mean, oh dear, dear, dear!

Apart from City Of Ruins, a song that fits snuggly into the spiritual hopefulness amidst American tragedy and How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times As These written by Blind Alfred Reed then covered by Ry Cooder before Bruce wrote three new verses for a Katrina Hurricane Fund Raiser that fits for similar reasons his other choices were awful and then done even more badly.

You Can Look But You Better Not Touch was no great melody anyway and loses anything it had entirely, Open All Night is awful and Adam Raised a Cain even worse. There must have been other things that would have fitted this musical context but Bruce didn’t pick them.

The good ones however are better than good and finds Springsteen pointing those songs towards New Orleans. Having recently played there and seen the devastation for himself Springsteen mentions twice that no one ever thought how the displacement of people during the thirties dustbowl could happen in again in America; but it has. That people should be driven from their homes and just left where it stops is an indictment on a nation. A brief mention of the immigrant issue tells you that his hoe down, knees up is not without serious clout.

But it was the spiritual that set the night apart. The Seeger Sessions brought four old negro spirituals via the civil rights movement into the Springsteen canon. This is Springsteen at his most explicitly Biblical. The programme notes, researched by Bruce biographer and all round serious rock journalist Dave Marsh, reads like Bible notes with verses from Genesis, Exodus, The Gospel According To John, Acts and 1 Corinthians all expounded.

Before Jacob's Ladder Bruce even does his own Biblical commentary saying that because he was playing a song about Jacob he thought he better investigate him. He found him to be a “F*** up… who somehow found his way into the grace of God.” It couldn’t be more accurate. Bruce is preaching it!

Where I found these spirituals set apart from the worship music being played in most of our churches is the authenticity of the experience and the hymns. These are songs of belief at the sharp end of need. It is something of what Jesus meant when he said the poor were blessed.

The people who find a passionate belief in hope are the people who have nothing else to believe in. The problem with white western middle class church worship is that we have so much other than God to believe in and our hope is caught up in all the fashion labels, gadgets and hedonistic leisure of our spoiled geographical fate. Wealth blunts need and therefore dependence upon God The soul gets pampered in cotton wool and loses its fire.

The worship that is being written for the Church will always struggle to express faith or hope or commitment or salvation when the need for all of those things is not acute. Faith is no longer a daily survival prayer but a label of identity almost as shallow as those of high street fashion. Springsteen is tapping into something much deeper and richer. Here are the songs of desperation but in negro spirituals those kind of songs are always uplifting and celebratory, the escape is so firmly believed in that they are celebrating it before it comes which ignites their strength for the fight in between.

The other thing that adds to these songs is the spirit and soul with which this group of musicians plays it. Springsteen speaks of difference between making music and playing music and these guys are creating something organic that adds the secret dimension of spirit and soul.

"Spirit" and "soul" words are Church words and yet here is Bruce Springsteen in a rock venue showing the Church the way. The Church plays music. Bring the music books and rehearse well; get it meticulously right. There can be a danger that a Church full of musicians of high ability and no shortage of qualifications miss out on the soul and spirit of music making with danger and risk. Tonight we had a band on the edge of fun and joy and cause. It threw another hue across the Springsteen story. It might even prove one of his happiest and most spiritual accidents.


MARTYN JOSEPH LIVE IN FITZROY, BELFAST - 13.2.2020

MJ Fitz

photo: Gerry McNally

 

Introducing Martyn Joseph in Fitzroy I realised that I fell in love with his music the same year that I fell in love with my wife Janice. It was Greenbelt 1989 and his live acoustic record An Aching and A Longing caught my attention. Treasure The Questions, Contradictions and the title track were touching on the particular terrain of my spiritual journey at the time. He has been a companion on my journey ever since. So, after thirty years of concerts, the majority of them reviewed, was there anything new I could say about my Welsh buddy?

Absolutely. Over coffee in the afternoon Martyn and I chatted about believing that as we grow a little older we are coming to the peak of our different crafts.  During the gig I picked out the evidence that proved to me that at least Martyn was right. 

His guitar playing. Over those three decades of watching him perform he has simply become a better and better guitar player. An instrumental on a twelve string tonight even made me wonder, “Is he thinking of an instrumental record?”

His trusty Lowden, with a shout out for George Lowden who was in the audience, gave way at times. A four string acoustic sounded Cockburnesque and gave a power to I’ve Searched For You and then his electric Judas section added atmosphere to Yet Still This Will Not Be and Sunday’s Coming before adding a jazz jive to This Glass. Elsewhere Martyn’s playing is beautiful, exquisite and declares him a guitarist as much as a songwriter.

His song endings. I remember twenty five years ago when Martyn was making jokes about the way to end songs. The Pete Townsend jump, the quick bow, the flashy last strum. Tonight song after song had a variety of endings each in keeping with the mood of the song as much as any comedic jestoring! 

All of this is live craft after year upon year of touring. Few performers are as concert fit as Martyn Joseph.

Martyn is a songwriter however. So what about the songs? Well, a again I sensed I was watching a man at his vocational peak. Two songs to set my case. 

A new song called I Felt So Much is an utter beauty. Thinking of his father with dementia Martyn remembers his childhood in his dad’s Renault and celebrates in a gratitude to life. 

Nye, is Martyn’s song about the NHS and his homage to fellow Welshman Nye Bevan who died nine days before Martyn was born but left us the legacy of the NHS. Martyn explained the writing of the song, a blank page… title in one corner… brainstorm on the page and picking out a few Bevan quotations and that personal link. It was a great lesson in writing but to be taught during the singing of a song - top of his game is Mr Joseph! 

Martyn’s songs move from the personal to the social to the political and the spiritual. A lovely addition tonight was Tom Waits’ Gospel song Down In The Hole. Martyn speaks of the gloom of his songs but ends with a more balanced opinion saying that if hasn’t left a little bit of hope in the listener that he has failed in his task. 

Perhaps the greatest hope in Martyn’s recent records and live set is the young. The recent Here Come The Young record also houses Driving Her Back To London where he shares music with his daughter on a car trip. To make these songs more poignant tonight there were a few children in the audience which tickled Martyn and became the focus for this argument. 

One final observation to rest my case. I used to watch Martyn Joseph rage and joke and mix it up to catch an audience’s attention. Oh tonight we laughed and got inspired to change the world but the whole gig was measured, like the singer didn’t have to try as hard as he thought he used to. This was a night when a confident artist displayed his wares and in the peak of what he does opened up a broken world before shining the light through the cracks to give us some love and imagination to carry on. As he had us all singing:

 

The things that we have carried here

Someday they will disappear

Skin and bone

Death and stone

The things that we have carried here

Freedom needs a volunteer

Beautiful, we can be beautiful


SNOW PATROL REWORKED LIVE AT THE WATERFRONT HALL, BELFAST 10.12.19

SPJani

photo: Janice Gordon-Stockman

 

I woke this morning still buzzing from the Snow Patrol gig in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall last night. It is was not the usual buzz though. Usually, in recent SSE Arena concerts, or indeed Ward Park in May, it would be the anthemic noise still buzzing through my veins after a Patrol gig. This morning it was the intricacy, intrigue and intimacy of all their hits reworked that lingered like a big huge smile across my heart.

This particular set was a bombardment of musical stimuli. The embellishments of familiar songs with a string quartet, a brass section, an added percussionist and then the utter wonder of Iain Archer who produced most of their Reworked album and Miriam Kaufman, who Gary rightfully gave credit and thanks for the arrangement credit of this entire live enterprise - it was more than “almost overload”. 

I found it almost overpowering in its stripped back reimagining. I was just coming to terms with one song when another kicked in, then another and another. And do not think that stripped down meant quiet or unplugged. Nathan might have had to discipline his strut on occasion but there were times when five guitars filled the front of the stage!

The Church organ sound of the opening Dark Roman Wine; the now fragile You’re All I Have; the near country hoedown of New York; violins plucking the waltz of Time Won’t Go Slowly; the grace notes of brass on I Think Of Home; the electronica and vocal wonder of You Could Be Happy; Lifening turned into a Tired Pony cover by Iain Archer's pedal steel, prominent throughout the set; Iain's seemingly impromptu extended acoustic blues guitar gives Take Back The City an interesting intro that eventually turns into The Band meets Crosby, Still, Nash and Young; the deep Celtic soul atmospherics of Spitting Games; Chocolate glocked into soaring joy; every emotion in Run eked out with the string quartet bombing your heart; Heal Me coursing through “like an orchestra” indeed; my personal highlight (I wept) of Miriam Kaufmann’s duet on (Set The Fire To) The Third Bar; the vocal onslaught of harmonies of Empress, fuller, lusher with nothing “damn simple” about it; Called Out In The Dark doing electronica, guitar rock, strings and brass in the most ambitious of fusions; Shut Your Eyes like full on Undertones while hiding that big chorus in subtle touch; teasing violin rock riffs and more vocal gymnastics on Chasing Cars; tinkling piano leading us into Open Your Eyes; the spiritual communion of the pastoral What If This Is All The Love Your Ever Get with the oh my of a cello; and the love song turned election message to naysaying Northern Ireland in Just Say Yes! 

Phew! "It whispers and roars like an orchestra!" Even more incredible is that even a cursory glance at that set list and how it played out reveals that not only did they add reworked songs that weren’t reworked for the Reworked record but they even reworked the songs that were reworked for the Reworked record. This is a band giving their all and more value for money than most to the fans who have been there for the 25 years that they are celebrating. Gary was his usual down to earth ordinary self in his between songs chat and banter.

For me there was subjective joy. There was a time back in the early to mid 90s when I amateurishly guided the fledgling career to Iain Archer and his then drummer Jonny Quinn. I always said that if Iain didn't make it in music that I would end up the Archbishop of Canterbury. Anglicans can rest easy! To see Iain and Jonny along with Miriam on this stage, at the peak of career and popularity was quite emotional. 

I remember Miriam Kaufmann living in my bungalow for a time. I used to hear her sing. “You should record Miriam,” I would say to a young woman who had grown up in a recording studio. She showed no interest as much as I tried. In this gig she not only arranged it all but on Third Bar there she was centre stage, utterly breathtaking… and a tear crept down my cheek!

It has been over a year since we knew Snow Patrol would do something special for their 25th Anniversary. It has been almost as long since I knew what that was going to be. I have yearned for it with great excitement. Last night the sophistication of its musicality didn’t let me down… but I am now sad that it is over… it was so good!


MARY GAUTHIER LIVE IN FITZROY, BELFAST - November 2, 2019

Mary Gauthier Fitzroy

photo: Gerry McNally

 

When you hear the Bible in an Africa slum it can speak in a very different way than when you read it surrounded by the wealth of a suburban European city. I think it is the same with novel or film or song. Where you are when you read, watch or listen effects the impact. 

Mary Gauthier gives an importance of place to her concert in Fitzroy. She said, “We love playing old churches…  All this wood… It is like playing a guitar inside a guitar!”

Gauthier also spoke of how good old buildings were. Everything old actually. Her guitar is older than her and sounds better every day. “New boots?” she pondered, “Drive a truck over them before you wear them!” That is an image that could describe Gauthier’s life. She had been through a lot of soul bruising before she started writing songs at the age of 35.

I was a fan of Mary Gauthier before the concert but I am a much bigger fan after it. Gauthier has a gift with rhyme and rhythm and melody - no doubt. However, live I realised how much she adds. She has this gift of inflection where her voice can stretch and reach, adding to the drama, the passion and the sensitivity. She’s a gift to our generation. 

The music too. She adds to her acoustic guitar, the vocals and second guitar of Jaimee Harris, who doubled up as a top support slot too. Then there is Michele Gazich who swoops and swirls with his fiddle that makes you give thanks for what Scarlet Rivera short period with Bob Dylan added to music! Michele also tinkles pianos beautifully. This all adds more shades and textures to the piece.

Mary is quick in the evening to share a new song about love and time. The tender beauty of love and the fear that time takes loved ones away. It’s that maturity again. It is an all out love song but with more depth - reminders of our mortality. 

I Drink is an older song that throws an honest perspective on addictions handed down. 

 

At night he'd sit 'lone and smoke

I'd see his frown behind his lighter's flame

Now that same frown's in my mirror

I got my daddy's blood inside my veins

 

Fish swim, birds fly

Daddies yell, mamas cry

Old men sit and think

I drink

 

She does a couple of songs co-written with Northern Ireland’s Ben Glover to huge applause. Another Train is a good one but Oh Soul is an utter gem. This is where the location enhances the hearing.

 

Redemption, redemption have mercy on me

Redemption, redemption have mercy on me

A body’s but a prison when the soul’s a refugee

Oh soul I sold you away

 

For me it seemed perfect that Mary was singing in a Church - our Church! Mary Gauthier is a weighty songwriter. Her writing is heavy with realism. There is no fluff! These are songs of hard times in a rough world and the hope of finding mercy somewhere - now!

On this particular tour she is promoting a record, Rifles and Rosaries, that was co written with wounded soldiers and their spouses about war and the aftermath. As service members and their spouses relayed their trauma Mary turned them into song and hopefully helped the mental and emotional healing.

The songs are beautiful but they are not an easy listen. Gauthier’s ability to take the images shared and make them rhyme and give them melody somehow opens up the horror of war in the most sensitive and hopefully healing of ways.

 

Yellow smoke orange haze

Blowing into my eyes

Whistling sunset bombs

I couldn't trust the sky 

(Rifles and Rosary Beads)

 

The war is far from over when solders come home. Mary told us that more service members die of suicide at home than were lost in the recent wars. In the voice of the spouses Mary sings:

 

But I'm stronger than you think I am

I'm right here by your side

I am not your enemy, I don't wanna fight

There's no going back in time, I know you're not the same

But you are not the only one for whom the world has changed

Invisible, the war after the war 

(The War After The War)

 

Oh this is so much more than a concert, Gauthier is so much more than singer. When she sings her best known song, the lyrics of which appear on a tea towel available at the mercy stand, it is like a benediction or an intercessory prayer (indeed I used as such the day after). It is deep soul diving. It is rough. It is compassionate. It is for every one of us:

 

Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now

I know we don't deserve it but we need it anyhow

We hang in the balance dangle 'tween hell and hallowed ground

And every single one of us could use some mercy now

Every single one of us could use some mercy now

Every single one of us could use some mercy now

(Mercy Now)

 

I said it before, Mary Gauthier is a gift to the generation.


THE ORPHAN BRIGADE LIVE IN THE BLACK BOX, BELFAST

Orphan Brigade live

photo: Gerry McNally

 

Watching The Orphan Brigade live was the strangest experience for me. When they played the title track of their new record, To The Edge Of The World, I was immediately looking out from Kinbane Castle towards Fairhead. I could feel the breeze, and see the wind blowing off the surface of the Seas of Moyle. 

This is where the song was written and so I went there in August to listen. The sounds and visions are now indelibly blended, even if I am listening in the windowless room of Belfast’s Black Box.

The between songs chatter tonight was a fascinating drive up the Antrim Coast. Ben Glover talked about scaring the life out of band mates Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt in a dark midnight writing session in Glenarm Forest - “it was the trees!”. Hubbard spoke of being out in Glenarm Bay in a boat. A thorn tree half way up the mountain was far enough to draw on St. Patrick On Slemish Mountain. As Glover introduces Mad Man’s Window, I was imagining looking through the rock formation. I could see the sea, still in this windowless room! 

Indeed, I couldn’t help but think that if these guys were Bruce Springsteen, there would be films projected behind them of all of the East Antrim locations featured in tonight’s show. Oh for the bigger recording budgets of the good old days!

I couldn’t also help but think that if this was the early 70s these guys would be a super group. Something like Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. If songwriting was held in the same esteem as back then, then Glover, Hubbard and Britt would be stars for sure. Another advantage of this gig was picking up the solo CDs. All three of The Orphan Brigade’s solo records are carefully honed collections of the highest quality of song-smithery.

Together on stage it is the harmonies that light up the room. This is Crosby, Still and Nash stuff. Voices perfectly blending and bringing lament, wonder and mystery to songs of myth and history. Lots of people die in an Orphan Brigade record but it doesn’t make it miserable. 

Far from it. There is a vibrancy to this collaboration. Tonight we benefit from having Colm McClean and Conor McCreanor in behind the Orphans. McClean’s slide guitar deserves special mention.

Occasionally Hubbard moves to the drums and sprinkles some percussive magic into a few songs particularly Marching On Christmas Day off their debut Soundtrack To A Ghost Story. 

Centre to the whole musical thing is Joshua Britt’s mandolin. I never thought I’d want to be a mandolin hero. Like this trio’s Stephen Stills, Britt plays with a flourish, adding drive, sparkle and a little intensity to the muse.

The live setting suits The Orphan Brigade. Whether in a haunted house in Kentucky or caves in Italy or, as in most of tonight’s set, in East Antrim, these create in organic ways. So for me To The Edge Of The World sounded even more alive, live. The voices more powerful. Everything more imperfectly perfect.

Oh yeh, I would have taken some additional Uilleann pipes from Barry Kerr and the song Black Nun but hey! Most poignant and beautiful of all tonight was To The Edge Of The World’s near benediction Mind The Road; Glover's first dabbling at singing about the Irish Troubles:

 

“Slow river cuts through the land

The dead are talking to the dark

Tribal, twisted, stained

The lingering shadow of a gunman

 

Mind the road you go

Mind the road you came”


RYAN VAIL & ELMA ORKESTRA - BORDERS Live AT THE MAC 28.6.19

Borders

Though I admire Ryan Vail I probably wouldn’t have been at this concert had it not been for my friend Chris not being able to go and donating his tickets to Janice and I. Thank you sir. We were front row, centre and in the Mac that is pretty much on the stage! 

Our friend Jude spotted us at the interval. Just back for a holiday from the States, where she now lives, she said she didn’t know what to expect. I kind of agreed. As she left she said, “It might be magical.”

Described as genre warping I have enjoyed Ryan Vail’s work, his Sea Legs EP with songwriter Ciaran Lavery and his For Very Silence album. I didn’t think I knew Elma Orkestra but discovered that he is genre warping too. 

Elma Orkestra is one man. His name is Eoin O'Callaghan and I had already reviewed him under another pseudonym, Best Boy Grip, when I was impressed how he held his own between Stephen Bishop and Iain Archer in an In The Round event at the Empire. Not that I realised that until after the gig.

Well, here are the genre warpers together. What are they attempting to do? Well, tonight they were playing their new record Borders. Vail explained that it was abut the land between Derry and Muff! The place where Vail and O’Callaghan live and create. 

Of course in these borderland days between the UK being in Brexit and not being in Brexit, borders have become a hot topic. Though that gives this work an added poignancy the actual focus of the music here are the rivers and hills and roads and bridges of the border and the beaches and ocean of Donegal.

On one side of the stage Ryan Vail was throwing out pumping beats that actually would have been more at home, that same night, in the vastness of Glastonbury. On the other side the Elma Orkestra is carefully caressing out ambient organ and piano sounds. The mix is that blend of variety and a little tension that characterise most borders.

At the outset Vail suggests that the lighting will be such that you will not see them on the stage and adds that that is how it should be. Instead, we are focused on the cinema screen behind them where images take us over those rivers and beaches and oceans. O’Callaghan tell us he has been making drones for a long time. This filming seems to be the artistic final product.

It is indeed magical in sound and vision. To perhaps break the ambient instrumentals we have two guests who add even more to the richness of the night and record. Máire (Moya) Brennan brings that distinctive haunting Donegal voice to Colours. It sounds utterly beautiful in front of images of forests and trees.

Moya

Stephen James Smith is a different vocal attack. That deep Dublin brogue is a God given gift to a poet of such earthy gutsy power. Smith adds a new word-take on his most famous work My Ireland. Renamed, for this context, My Island it certainly shifts the focus from the greenery and the waves.

 

My Ireland oh my

You are Omagh!

Danny Boy in Loftus Road

Good Friday, Bloody Sunday

An island in Trouble in shock

Caught in the crosshairs of a Glock

SJSmith

 

Though Borders is not primarily about Brexit, it is political. Seamus Mallon lent his voice and they confessed that even if politicians didn’t agree to loan their voices, they used them anyway; Arlene is in there!

Back to Stephen James Smith’s words:

 

This is the community of borders where broader issues are at stake

This community has been feared

They've been to hell

 

The boys spoke of Borders being meant to be an uplifting piece. Oh it was honest about the way borders divide and contain and reduce freedoms but it was beautiful in its feel of the richness of life that happens in communities even if they stagger a contentious border. 

It was an inspiration… a celebration… and did I say… magical! 


THE KILLERS AT GLASTONBURY - THEIR DEFINITIVE CONCERT!

Killers GB

It was at least ten years ago that I suggested that the stadium artists might be gone. The industry shifted. Album sales plummeted. I wondered who would have a career big enough or long enough to be able to full stadiums. “The Killers,” I said. 

As if to prove me right they showed their contemporaries and those who have gone before them how to do a Glastonbury headline show on Saturday night. I had already chastised myself for not going to see them in Belfast and then they mesmerised me with a machine gun fire of memorable songs on the biggest rock stage of all.

It is one thing to write good songs. To write good songs that can fill a stadium or in the case of Glastonbury a vast farm is another thing. The Killers have songs that reach. Somebody Told Me, The Man, Smile Like You Mean It, Reasons Unknown… The strongest of sets left the absolute stonkers to the end. All These Things That I’ve Done and When You Were Young to end the official set and then Human and Mr Brightside in the encores. 

I loved the sneaky piano version of Human during the main set which must have thrown the crowd that it wouldn’t get its full band version. That was not the best surprise though. It was the surprises that made this gig special.

In Belfast last week they took note of their surroundings and did covers of Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl and The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks. In Cardiff it was The Alarm’s Rain In The Summertime. What would they do in England?

Well at Glastonbury, The Killers gave us the Pet Shop Boys collaborating on their 1987 number 1 Always On My Mind and then covered The Smith’s 1984 single This Charming Man with Johnny Marr on guitar. He remained for Mr Brightside. 

Now, we could leave it at as interesting guests… but we miss something! Brandon Flowers has spoken since the beginning of being most influenced by the British music of the 80s. What The Killers gave us for the 90 minutes before was a sound that sits perfectly between the glitz pop of The Pet Shop Boys and the indie rock of The Smiths.

These were not causal choices of Glastonbury guests. These were guests to make the definitive story of The Killers on the biggest stage that they will ever play. Surely, it was up there with the all time great Glastonbury headliners. 


ROMANTICA LIVE IN FITZROY, BELFAST - 17.6.19

Romantica

There were a few moments during Romantica’s concert in Fitzroy, when I closed my eyes, raised my clasped hands and felt my soul utterly bask in a sound as beautiful as I have ever heard in my entire life. I have been to a lot of concerts, seen most of my very favourite artists and enjoyed them more than immensely but it is the first time I have ever caught my body and soul in this posture of utter bliss!

You can tell that I enjoyed it! 

I found myself in the whispy thought trails of my post gig imagination asking why? Romantica’s sound is so effortless. I am reminded of the Pernice Brothers or Band Of Horses. It’s a sound that gently washes over you like the caressing of a refreshing wave. It seems so effortless and simple.

Yet, when you marinate on how they make it seem so easy, you become aware of the complexity. The melodies, the poetry, the harmonies, every guitar lick, bass note, drum beat and that gorgeous yearning pedal steel cry. It is all so intentional. All so utterly perfect to my ears.

Then there is Ben Kyle’s voice. Oh my goodness. There is no need for rasp or power. Like velvet. Seductive of ears and soul. 

During the set, Kyle courageously opened up to the audience, asking for questions. When asked how he kept the passion he answered in a humble Ben Kyle way, “You take what you’ve been given…”

That is what he does with that voice. It’s a divine gift and Ben takes what he has been given and sets the most most spiritual nuggets of wisdom into every day songs. This is not some throw back to Christian music in the 90s. This is the authentic alt country thing. Yet, into every day songs of friendship, love and family, Kyle dabs little couplets of light, sometimes into dark places of heartache and grief.

I was, as the fan in me always is, chuffed to have God Walks On The Water dedicated to me. A song I have used to deal with grief, there comes that dab of light:

 

God walks on the water

I walk through the rain

One day we're gonna walk together

When he comes back again

 

Being greedy I shouted for Drink The Night Away about School’s Cup winning hockey buddies of Ben’s who died in a car crash in Donegal. There’s teenage bravado in drinking the night away and Ben asks what Jesus was thinking of to have these boys die… but then finished with:

 

"What was Jesus thinking, 

When he let you sink in to the arms of the Lord?

When he took the cup, 

Lifted it up, 

Drank the night away”

 

It is one of many moments when I let out a little gasp!

After hearing with a post song gasp, Get Back In Love, Give Your Heart Shelter, Don’t Settle and Mercy I was becoming aware that maybe the most of my favourite songs from the last few years have come from this Belfast boy now living in Minneapolis. 

Best of all is Harder To Hear, a song about a soul seeking a compass in a world that drowns out the voice we most need to hear:

 

It’s getting harder to hear from God these days

Harder to hear from God

There’s so much religion in the way

So much superstition in the way

 

Oh somebody save me

Somebody save me

I don’t want to be cool

Somebody shine a light

somebody shine a light on this soul tonight

I don’t wanna be right

 

I cannot get enough of this. So thrilled to have them in what pretty much is my office on a Sunday morning. It’s always good to have a soul soaked bask in a familiar space!


SNOW PATROL - WARD PARK 3 - BANGOR, CO. DOWN - MAY 25, 2019

Bono and Gary

The look on Gary Lightbody’s face from the moment Snow Patrol walked on stage. It was a like a kid in a toy shop, open mouthed, wide eyed, disbelieving what was in front of him and how he seemed to have the right to play with all of the toys.

Ward Park 3, as it was called, was the third such venture of Snow Patrol, following similar undertakings in 2007 and 2010. 35,000 people. The biggest concert in Northern Irish history. This third concert started at 2 o’clock and the undercard of Northern Ireland’s finest acts filled a day. To such an extent actually that Bangor had to accommodate Ryan McMullan and David C Clements the night before.

As I watched Lightbody’s beaming smile, total satisfaction and hand thumping his heart in an act of utter love I couldn’t help thinking that it was a like a wee boy playing in the park, like Gary did in this park, imagining that he was in a band and that he could put up a concert… over there. Through their ninety minute set Lightbody played the fan as much as he did the star.

In those boyhood dreams he might have thought that maybe he could even get Bono to join his band on stage! Between 1985 and 1995, maybe beyond, the hope at every gig in Ireland was that Bono might come on stage for a song. Ward Park 3 had absolutely no such anticipation. Not even when Snow Patrol inexplicably decided to cover One as a tribute to bands from the Republic Of Ireland. 

I was a little worried about Gary’s stumble through the first verse when suddenly Bono’s voice… then I can see him larger than legend on the big screen in front of me. “Is he really here,” my daughter Caitlin asked and I wondered was it a recording, then there he was. Gary’s mouth is drooling, eyes even wider. It’s a love fest, Bono cheering on his younger northern brothers and ending with U2’s political knocking down of walls, “there is no them, there’s only us”… As he leaves, Lightbody utters, “Oh my goodness,” and the band quickly riff into Chasing Cars, the only thing that can follow that!

That Bono’s appearance was immediately all over social media and today’s tabloid headline should not distract from the success of Ward Park 3.

Nine hours were four too many for me but seeing only Foy Vance, Two Door Cinema Club and Snow Patrol was utterly wonderful. Vance’s song fitted perfectly. He even has one called Bangor Town for goodness sake. Upbeat Feelgood is a perfect soundtrack for such a day and then a lovely touch as he dedicates Guiding Light to the Archer family, Iain and Paul well known brothers in this music community, who lost their mother just a couple of weeks before. Iain and his wife Miriam, along with Ryan McMullan join Vance on backing vocals! 

Two Door Cinema Club with young Trimble all tight cut hair, mustard polo neck and green blue suit, admit that they were teenagers for the first Ward Park gig and couldn't have dreamed... Could Bangor have dreamed of having two such world recognised bands at once. The younger pretenders gave us the County Down version of Arcade Fire with American accents in their chat. The potential is good but they are not stadium friendly yet and miss that boy next door whimsy of Mr. Lightbody.

Whoever else was on the bill, the vast majority of the crowd were here for our hosts and when they arrive to the strains of Chocolate Lightbody’s arms are in the air and his face is filling the big screens with utter glee! 

Boom, straight into Take Back The City and the screens are jerking with images of Northern Ireland, places and people Morrison, Best, McIlroy and most poignant and contemporary Lyra McKee. A last photo of Hume and Trimble with Bono holding up their hands at the Yes Campaign Rally in 1998 is maybe Snow Patrol’s most political statement, it’s what rock can do and maybe a hint at Bono’s appearance later on. In the rest of the set, new songs sit comfortably beside the old and Run as always is best of all. 

With Connolly throwing shapes, pounding the riffs, Quinn and Wilson thumping the beat and McDaid adding all kinds of touches of sophistication, Lightbody leads the band and orchestrates the crowd. He has a dose of the cold and his voice is not at its strongest. He uses the excuse to get the crowd singing even more than usual, the call and response of Shut Your Eyes most Ward Park anthemic!

After Bono has left the stage and the planets have shimmied back into place, the encore is most potent of all. Just McDaid and Lightbody in the now familiar If This Is All The Love You Ever Get? Mellow, emotional, spiritual: 

 

What if it hurts like hell

Then it'll hurt like hell

Come on over, come on over here

I'm in the ruins too

I know the wreckage so well

Come on over, come on over here

 

Communally this is like a Communion liturgy. Utterly beautiful. 

With the closing Just Say Yes everyone is deeply satisfied. I still think a wee dedication to our politicians in just a last throw away depth charge wouldn’t have gone amiss but we’ve had the political tonight. 

Ward Park 3 was a celebration of who we are, with our band, and our boy. Even applauded by His Bononess himself. We are all walking home looking forward to 4!


BEKI HEMINGWAY LIVE IN FITZROY 11.5.19

Beki

It was a few songs into Beki Hemingway's Fitzroy gig that I realised that, by the circumstances of life, she was now a woman with something to say. Suddenly, she is not just a fine songwriter scattering catchy songs with gems of spiritual insight. There is now a profound weightiness to the entire piece.

Backed by her husband Randy Kerkman, who plays the guitar as one who has authority and not as the scribes and now also adds effective harmonies, Beki kicked off with Siouxanne a song that used to be a regular on my Sunday night radio show back in the day. It's a song of a teenage black sheep, struggling in a difficult home situation, and Beki attempting to bring her some grace and sense of belonging. 

I also got my favourite, Sinsick, that though it can sound seedy, sounds like all of us deep down in our complicity of what is wrong with this sad old world. It is one of those songs where Hemingway is able to affect the drama with her imaginative vocal dexterity, one of her strongest suits.

There were a couple fo new songs California and Hurricane that reminded me what a deft poet Hemingway is too.

Yet, that is not what caught the ear of my soul.

For about a decade Beki and Randy gave up taking the music seriously. They settled in Denver to live ordinary lives. Then a few years ago, something shifted. They asked themselves what their priorities were? They reassessed God's purposes. They made a decision to say yes to everything and to travel and serve! My World is Out There was the 4 minute song covenant with God on such a shift of life. 

They ended up in Wexford! That's what you get for recklessly handing over to God!

Anyway, within a short time Beki was going through breast cancer. This was a journey with storms and bumpy terrain.

The songs from this journey have been released on their most recent album Whins and Weather and in this live setting become almost a workshop, seminar of discipleship, catharsis and spiritual resilience. If I was running a Christian Conference like New Wine, New Horizon, Spring Harvest or Greenbelt Iw Ould book Beki Hemingway. 

She could do a gig but I would also put her in the afternoon programme, to do the same gig. The songs and the sharing are as powerful you might hear at any of those Conferences this year.

Songs like Two More Hills, Is This All, Because and Thank You For The Rain. Oh my. These have a quiet, humble authenticity that sets Beki Hemingway apart as a songwriter, performer and human being. If you get the chance, go and hear her. Your soul will get a shot in the arm and you'll be well entertained as it is.