CONCERT REVIEWS

MY NAME IS OTTILIE

My Name Is Ottilie

“Can this white woman sing the blues?”

When the question was pointed at Ottilie Patterson the answer was “Oh my goodness she really can”. 

I am interviewing Dana Masters this week at 4 Corners Festival so it caught my eye that she was doing a Tribute To Ottilie Patterson back in November.

I immediately assumed that Ottilie was a Nina Simone kind of singer, some blues or jazz voice from Dana’s homelands of the American deep south. 

But no… Ottilie Patterson was from Comber close to where Dana Masters now lives. Ottilie it seems was a significant influence on the early sixties English blues scene. 

In the late 50s and early 60s she toured constantly across Britain and did seven tours of America in the Chris Barber Jazz Band. She played with the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the bluesmen Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, bringing her among the influencers of The Rolling Stones and The Pretty Things. 

Most favourite of all anecdotes is of a night in Smitty’s Corner, Muddy Water’s renowned blues club in Chicago’s South Side. After her stunning performance, a member of the rapturous black audience called out – “Hey lady, you sing real pretty. How come you sing like one of us?”

When Dana Masters first heard Ottilie sing she said ‘You have to really understand the pain expressed in the Blues in order to sing it, I had to know where that was coming from for Ottilie Patterson”.  

The documentary is just that. Another stunning documentary produced by Double Band, its magic is that Dana who hosts the show doesn’t know Ottilie’s story before they begin. Dana only discovers as they go. That leaves the Dana’s face on the screen to paint a thousand words as Ottilie’s brilliant but then painful career is revealed. There is more magic as Ottilie and Dana’s voices are blended. 

It ends in the tragic. How a woman so strong to ask a band leaving the stage after a gig to let her sing, and how that gets her the gig, ends up broken in mental health in a retirement home in Ayr, hardly even remembered but never feeling the victim.

A previously unheard cassette is the spine of the film. A cassette on to which Ottilie told her life story, the highlights and the pain. It takes away all the conjecture, almost moving the documentary from biographic to memoir. It ends with the truth that perhaps Ottilie overcame the racial boundaries but lost the gender battle, being treated terribly as a woman in a man’s world. 

My Name is Ottilie is another beautiful piece of documentary. It tells a story that has long needed told. It has Ottilie Patterson on my playlist, at last.

 

My Name is Ottilie will be shown on BBC 1 NI on February 1 at 10.40pm and again on BBC 2 NI at 11.15pm

 

Dana Masters will be In Conversation at 4 Corners Festival on February 3, Fitzroy Church, 77 University Street, Belfast at 7.30 - BOOK TICKETS HERE


SHARON SHANNON, FRANCES BLACK & MARY COUGHLAN - ULSTER HALL, 13.1.23

Shannon Black and Coughlan

photo: Janice Gordon-Stockman

 

Sharon, Frances and Mary. Like a triangle of Irish music. Three sides, all different, but joining together to give a broader sum of the parts.

Mary Coughlan takes the first half hour. Janice has seen her a few times but this is my first. I am not disappointed when she starts with the two opening songs from her debut album Tired and Emotional. 38 years on and yet I can hear The Beach and Double Cross like I first head them back then. 

Mary’s joke about Double Cross being written by her first husband and that she didn’t sing it for ten years so that he got no royalties is the other thing Mary brings. She’s so funny. She’s a rascal. She’s irreverent. Her cover of Kirsty McColl’s Bad - “It's just a feeling that I've always had/ Oh Look out world I'm about to be bad” - could have been written for her.

Best of all is Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me, from the second volume of A Woman’s Heart. She explains she was in rehab for Volume 1! Her voice on this one particularly gives me a visceral feeling of my Irishness. I’ve been more alert to this since reading Claire Mitchell’s book Ghost Limb. That Irishness that those of us from a British Protestantism are not supposed to or encouraged to have.

If Coughlan’s half hour sounds more like a smokey blues club off Dame Street, Frances Black’s is closer to the Ulster Hall. Frances is a little more polished and pop. A Carole King cover early on is almost perfect. She has the crowd’s attention with her big single from 1992 All The Lies That You Told Me. 

Black though has her roots in Irish trad. She first worked with Sharon Shannon in the trad super group Arcady. Her Irishness hits my heart in a beautiful version of Patrick Kavanagh’s Raglan Road before she blows my soul wide open with Jimmy MacCarthy’s Bright Blue Rose. I close my eyes and am spiritually transported into a holy retreat - 

One bright blue rose outlives all those
two thousand years, and still it goes
to ponder his death and his life eternally.

After a break Sharon Shannon in all her loveable delicate sweetness is centre stage full of wee smiles and waves and thank yous. Now when she lifts a button accordion something cosmic happens. When I watched her fingers move and her body sway that squeeze box and heard the tunes she was getting from it I was believing in God. This has to be a gift from somewhere else. In every sense Shannon is a pure Irish genius.

Then she sets down the accordion, picks up a whistle and does the same magical/miraculous thing. What I really liked was that the whistle tune was that was called Rathlin Island, so much a part of my Ballycastle eyescapes.

It was almost three quarters of the way through the concert when Seamus Begley’s death less than a week beforehand took centre stage. Begley was an accordion player too but much more. Frances Black would later call him the Chieftain of Irish music. Shannon said that she had been in Dingle all week and found it hard to drag herself away. She played a tune that she used to play from behind Begley, watching his every move. I now feel I am in a wee pub in the Gaeltacht.

When Sharon is finally joined by Frances and Mary there is party mood in the air. The latter pair do a wee Irish dance across the stage as Shannon and her players finish with Galway Girl, Steve Earle’s not Ed Sheeran’s!

All back together and they are back with Jimmy MacCarthy. This time his Ride On, set in his horse riding world, ends with the band on a gallop and Coughlan hanging on. Brilliant!

There is another time out to remember Seamus Begley and a moving Parting Glass in his honour. Let It Be gets a little Bob Marley as it reaches a singalong crescendo and before we know it we are laughing our way through Abba’s Gimme Gimme Gimme. They return to I Will Survive appropriate for both Black and Couglan particularly. It is strong and victorious with a huge smidgeon of the best of Irish craic. 


GLEN HANSARD LIVE IN THE MANDELA HALL, BELFAST - 7.12.22

Glen 2

photo: Janice Gordon-Stockman

 

Glen Hansard is a Psalmist.

I began to realise this just a few songs into this Mandela Hall gig. 

The sound was perfect. The band was tight and no one felt themselves a Ronaldo who it needed all to be about. The fiddle was back in a more central place in Hansard music. It was the whir of the fiddle in early Frames gigs that drew me to this songwriter 32 years ago.

The Mandela is doing its legend proud. The sound is perfect tonight, not a word lost even when Glen deep dives into his trademark cruscendos. Perhaps a higher stage is needed as not too far back and a seated band were not easily seen. I found the crack in everything and focused on Hansard.

Psalmist? Yes. I suddenly appreciated the resilience set at the heart of Glen Hansard songs. These songs are all hope filled. There’s a sometimes subtle and sometimes less so spirituality at the core. Where I as a pastor will use Psalms as strength and consolation so Hansard ministers to an audience. 

We should not be surprised as Sisters of Mercy, crosses, mercy, grace and prayers sneak into the lines. It’s as if Glen has added Gospel music to the influences of the songwriting and Irish folk of Paul Brady, Dylan and Cohen and the Pixies! He half jokes himself that the next three songs all have mercy in the title! 

Glen Hansard is our Brandi Carlile. I began to realise this near the end of Hansard's set.

I think I admire Carlile just as much for her humanity as her songwriting. Her friendship with Joni Mitchell and it seems everybody else. That care she took with Kris Kristofferson at Joni’s 75th Birthday concert which of course Glen played at too.. She seems the authentic girl next door type human.

As I have said before Glen Hansard never stopped being the busker on the street. He’s the boy next door for sure. I walked past him at two recent gigs in Dublin, as much a fan as me. Indeed his neighbours, two young teenage boys sing Rocky Road to Dublin sean-nós style. 

That wasn’t the end of the guests. A male voice in the crowd took Glen’s attention and having got him up Peter went on to sing Her Mercy on his own. He had the pipes this fella and the delivery too. It was like an audition for X Factor with the crowd going daft. Simon Cowell would have signed him up immediately.

Then another voice in the crowd. Female this time. Sylvie gets up and never really leaves for the last three songs. She’s as good as yer man but maybe hasn’t quite the confidence. It was still incredible. Hansard reminds us how much such things can go wrong but we are in Belfast. He seems to genuinely respect the city’s music, near intimated by Van. “Not the place to bring up your half arsed show on a Tuesday night”.

Of course it wasn’t that. There were about six new songs that he about to go in and record, giving them a listen on tour first. All were of the usual quality. I was particularly drawn to All Down On Our Knees, No Mountain and St. John. I now cannot wait of that record.

 He then adds those “hits” where the crowd sing every word - Lay Me Down, When Your Mind’s Made Up, Falling Slowly.… It is riveting. It is uplifting. His Psalms do their work. I go home buzzing, heart encouraged, head inspired, soul soothed for another day.


RICKY ROSS LIVE IN FITZROY, BELFAST - 25.11.22

Ricky singing

photo: Janice Gordon-Stockman

 

When I fell in love with Deacon Blue in the spring of 1987 they were nowhere - on radio or TV. I had found Dignity in Caroline Music in Corn Market and given it a lash because there was someone with the same name as my best mate - Ricky Ross. I then ordered the album Raintown to make sure I’d get it..

Then one Sunday on Channel 4 Ricky and Lorraine McIntosh sitting at the piano, talking about Raintown. Ricky then showed them how he had demoed Ragman, playing it on just the piano. Oh my. I wanted more of that.

Thirty five years later and Ricky Ross is sitting at a piano again without Lorraine this time. In Fitzroy. My few yards of vocational real-estate. Be daring in what you hope for!

He plays those piano motifs that are so strong in those Deacon Blue songs that pepper the setlist. Raintown, Wages Day, Dignity, Circus Lights. During Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now I close my eyes and take in the moment. 

But tonight isn’t about Deacon Blue hits. If you want those then grab your tickets for the SSE next October. Ricky Ross solo is a different incarnation. Tonight’s songs reach across five of his own solo records and personally it was a treat to hear Good Evening Philadelphia, Boys Break The Things They Love The Most, She Gets Me Inside and The Further North You Go with Hannah White doing the Lorraine McIntosh parts in the latter and a closing Pale Rider with both Hannah and Keiron Marshall on harmonies.

The night before Ricky played we had Martyn Joseph in the house and no less than three people, looking ahead, said to me, Ricky will play God and Dogs tomorrow night, won’t he?” It does seem to have become one of his most popular of his songs. In introducing it tonight he credited his wife Lorraine - “she’s better on theology than me”. “She is,” I shout back. One of my all time favourite theologically lines is “So I give you everything of me/Knowing you can't return it back in full”. Grace, beautifully expressed.

It might be God and Dogs or even the two Short Stories Volumes as a whole that made me realise what a good story teller Ricky Ross is. It is difficult to listen to Volume 2 without linking it to his memoir Walking Back Home. In the book as with the songs - storytellling with a poetic flair. 

Ricky Reading 1

photo: Janice Gordon-Stockman

 

Tonight Ricky performs from both. When I say performs, he follows neither Springsteen or Bono’s theatrical approach. In keeping with his understated style he turns on his piano stool opens the book and reads. A readings about his mother, old hymns and childhood in the Brethren was poignant and another about his father’s death in the same few weeks that Deacon Blue broke up and Dundee United won the Scottish Cup was even more so.

Songs from Volume 2 like All Dressed Up and Still Walking seemed to keep his parents present with us tonight and indeed his children. A funny story or two about his son Seamus and a shout out to his wife Lorraine and this was very similar to Bono’s book and tour, family at the centre.

All of this is played out with that Ricky Ross sleight of hand. There are no pop star big bright moves. He seems like the man next door, so one with the audience. Yet, don’t be fooled. To hold the attention of a full church for an hour and a half takes a charisma that few of us have. Magic. His voice, songwriting and the rasp in his voice his rabbits and swords. 

Tonight’s crowd play their part too. Unlike an SSE filled with folk wanting Real Gone Kid and little after, in the smaller venue without drink and incessant toilet breaks, Ricky Ross has their respect and admiration more than their adoration. I imagine that that was his yearned for aim when he set out on this journey all those years ago. 

To top and tail. The Ricky Ross who made me buy Ricky Ross’s first single was here and got his book signed “To Ricky Ross, from Ricky Ross”. Like the evening - wonderful!


HANNAH WHITE LIVE IN FITZROY, BELFAST (Supporting RICKY ROSS)

Hannah White

photo: Janice Gordon-Stockman

 

I had heard about Hannah White. I guess that Ricky Ross played her on his radio show and then asked for her to tour with him was enough hear say! Then, I actually heard her. I sneaked into the sound check. Oh my. What a voice.

Hannah White has this classic country sound. The voice had me by passing Linda Ronstadt, not as rock chic, to think that Bobbie Gentry might be the best point of reference. The songs are so strong too. Maybe the UK’s Brandi Carlile? 

After an audience appeared it went up another notch. As well as the purity of her voice, Hannah can use it to take us to emotional places that many of us have never had to go. As she introduces the songs Hannah shares a life that has not been easy. 

Car Crash is a song she said she never wanted to write or sing. It is about her shop lifting to feed her young child when her first marriage broke up badly and sent her to a Woman’s Refuge. This is raw catharsis. When she tells us her children are grown up now, it beggars belief. She doesn’t look a day over 30.

A challenging past has given her great songs. She’s not sure which of her two previous husband’s inspired Fire To Your Flame but it is a beautiful piece of heartache. Broken Bird is fragile and near perfectly honed. Current husband Keiron Marshall plays the grace notes, a smooth guitar player with great tone. 

If I say so myself Fitzroy, with no clinking glasses and therefore few running to the toilet every other song, creates a warm listening audience and Hannah reaped the benefit. The length of the line to buy her albums at the interval was testimony to that. She was much more than a support even before she joined Ricky Ross for a couple of songs later on.


MARTYN JOSEPH LIVE IN FITZROY, BELFAST - 24.11.22

MJ Fitz 7

If you can look through Soul Surmise you will see many many reviews of Martyn Joseph gigs. If you read carefully something might surprise you. How at almost every gig I am concentrating on different songs. You can never say, “Oh I’ve seen Martyn Joseph so I won’t go again”.

Tonight is no different and indeed highlights the fact for me. Since Martyn last played Fitzroy, just before lockdown, he has released the very best album of a 40 year old career, 1960, as well as two songs for the moment they were written in, When We Get Through This about lockdown and I’d Take You Out about the Russian President.

The former is a pastoral song of resistance and hope, the latter a political rage that reminds me of Bruce Cockburn’s If I Had a Rocket Launcher. It’s a song not wanting to be sung, especially by a pacifist but righteous anger demands it in spite of the contradiction. 

Political rage was once the spine of Martyn’s set list. It is different now. Oh there’s still the social critique. As he sang Here Come The Young I suddenly realised that it is about the sins that the old are handing the young as much as what they can teach us in their “inclusive from the start”.

The 1960 album is the fulfilment of a change in Joseph’s songwriting from the protest song to the personally reflective. 1960 is a songwriter doing that and leaving us a template for our own soul searching. Felt So Much a particular highlight as him in his dad’s Renault at 5 years of age, Shadow Boxing is about his dad’s Alzheimers and Born Too Late is regret at being born too late for some great music and also an asking who he now is. Getting older causes us all to look back and assess who we now are and why.

I am particularly drawn to There Is A Field a hope for the beyond, taken from a line of Rumi’s via writer and lay pastor Martin Wroe. So delicate, so hopeful.

The big finish of This Light Is Ours also a co write with Wroe is communal in chorus and sense of faith in each other as well as a transcendent light.

The singing tonight and the connection from stage to audience has that communal written all over it, from the third song This Glass that saw almost everyone singing.

I am at the door as people are leaving. A woman says to me:

“I love that honesty, that mix of doubt and faith” 

“Oh doubt and faith have a strong relationship”. 

“I’m from… “ 

“Oh dear, not much doubt there!” 

Well tonight at least she had honesty and belief side by side, sometimes in the very same couplet, whether Thunder and Rainbows or I’ve Searched For You or maybe even Everything In Heaven Falls Apart. The latter was a request by Andy McKinney who then had come and hold the lyrics for Martyn to read. A lovely moment in an evening of them. 

Martyn Joseph creates moments. Funny ones. Sad ones. Inquisitive ones. Wrestling ones. Angry ones. Hopeful ones. Different ones. Every single night. 


BONO - STORIES OF SURRENDER - LIVE IN DUBLIN 21.11.22

Bono 5

I am sitting in the Upper Circle of the Olympia Theatre. My mate Paul and I are waiting in anticipation. BUT… we don’t know quite what we are anticipating. 

We’ve been scrutinising the lay out. A cello… a harp… a keyboard with various add ons. Then a table and chairs on one side… and a smaller table on the other. Just before showtime a Guinness type drink is set on that smaller one. What’s it all for?

Even when Bono walks out onto the stage to rapturous home town applause, what is he going to do?

It is Bono however, and since I first saw him live in The Maysfield Leisure Centre forty years ago next month he has been a charismatic performer who knows how to hold a crowd. Still, as he called it, it was “slightly transgressive” to be on stage without the other three. New anticipation.

We entered was a gripping mix of theatre, art, memoir, confession, comedy and of course song. Well, not “of course” song. Actually it was mainly a theatrical performance involving all those other things. It has to have been influenced by Springsteen on Broadway but though Bruce is good, Bono bosses him in the acting. He mimics Pavorotti, Paul McGuinness and his da. There’s a lot of laughter.

I was told as a child to use the whole stage. Bono did just that. Opening the memoir to tell us how the band got together and broke up and got together again around one table, a high tech move of the chairs to introduce his fellow band members he took us to their first rehearsal space with Bono’s mother buried just 100 yards away as these musical innocents fought to birth I Will Follow. 

That queued a performance I Will Follow in a set list of 13 songs scattered throughout the show. We get Out Of Control, Vertigo, Pride, Beautiful Day and Desire. In the latter Bono does his best Elvis. Can I add that his movement for a 62 year old, climbing on tables as well as the dance moves, was impressive! 

Bono’s voice. Oh my his voice… and then I stopped and realised that it is Bono. This is one of the biggest rock voices in the world. Yet, stripped of all the sound, just gently accompanied by Irish musicians Kate Ellis on cello, Gemma Doherty on harp and keys and voice all orchestrated by Jacknife Lee, it sounds even better.

For Sunday Bloody Sunday Bono tells us that after Boy that looked inward and October that looked to the heavens, Edge started to look out asking if rock music could make a contribution to changing the world. He defined it as “religious art meeting the Clash” and as he was on honeymoon in Jamaica at the time Edge was writing it he still hears Bob Marley when they sing it.

That "religious art" reference is as the spiritual is throughout. Talking of the Shalom Fellowship and needed a better signal to God for their prayers as to whether to continue as a band. The sense that they God could use their band to change things. The St. Francis is Assisi idea "share the Gospel and if you have to use words." Bono's Christian faith is not so much scattered throughout as enveloping the entire deal.

The anticipation was the book. Would he just read from it with a little more drama or what. Well this was a little more than is in the book, at least to as far as I have read. The little skits with his dad in Finnegan’s pub in Dalkey where they’d meet every Sunday became the main thread in this storyline. “Anything strange or startling..” Bob would lead off.

My book review (still to come) will be titled A Girl, God and Rock N Roll. Even tonight Bono concluded by speaking about how he was born with his fists clenched and has been saved but is still fighting to better relationships with his wife Ali, the band and his Creator. 

This performance though seemed to be more about the trauma that Bono brought to those three mainstay relationships. The death of his mother who he elaborated was not just dead but “we disappeared her” by never speaking of her again. 

Then also his dad Bob. Their relationship of weekly silences in the pub, not uncommon to Irish sons, was another haunting. Bono wanted to please him. It was hard work though there were a few exceptions; taking him to meet Pavorotti, his dad ’s vocal hero, and finding in the same place the charm of Lady Diana, with his dad’s hatred of British monarchy, whose hand shake Bono declares “took away 800 years of Irish oppression in a second!”

We might say, even with a look at Bono’s other bands, the campaigns One and Red, that we only got 20 years in with 20 years left to go when Bono closed the night. 

He’s back in the Sorrento snug in Finnegan’s. He surmises that his dad left him his voice. He can now sing tenor, his dad always lambasting him as a baritone. He thinks of a song that his dad left as a ghost to him, Torna A Surriento, and realises that it is even where the Sorrento snug gets its name and he sings it… unaccompanied, filling a hushed Olympia with something beyond our anticipation. 

I left thinking that perhaps Bono’s relationships with Ali, the band and God are all the easier for him having found forgiveness, as Bono suggests it might be, with his dad and through that to his mum. 

As we left I overheard Glen Hansard saying that he “was blown away.” Indeed. Astounding. 


JASON ISBELL live at THE OLYMPIA THEATRE, DUBLIN - 19.11.22

ISbell Dublin

“You thought God was an architect, now you know

He's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow

And everything you built it's all for show, goes up in flames

In 24 frames”

 

I am singing along to these words with Jason Isbell, my meaning that I am articulating with deep passion perhaps a little different to Isbell’s original idea. Then just as we finish singing, 400 Units’ guitarist Sadler Vaden plays the tastiest of little motifs and my whole body releases a wee whoop from my lips as if surprised the most sublime musical beauty. 

Sweet mercy but is Isbell even more of a revelation live than he is on record. My thinking was that Isbell was the songwriter and a voice that was supplemented by the 400 Units. Yes and no. The 400 Units are one tight little unit but Mr Isbell is a more than  able guitarist himself. 

Indeed he and the aforementioned Units’ guitarist Sadler Vaden trade extended solos throughout the night while the band do indeed surround the mailman with musical and vocal wonder. At times they remind me of Crazy Horse at times very early Eagles and perhaps Steve Earle’s Dukes in-between.

It is an utterly wonderful noise and above it of course are the songs. Perhaps the weakness of the Upper Circle at the Olympia is that some of Isbell’s subtle lyrics get lost in the mix that is heading so high up but not all is lost.

I surmise as he sings Elephant, about the elephants in the room that we ignore, that Isbell is a writer who ignores none of the elephants. He is most often straight to the heart raw. If We Were Vampires, as I listened with Janice 100 miles away, struck an emotional blow:

 

Maybe time running out is a gift

I'll work hard 'til the end of my shift

And give you every second I can find

And hope it isn't me who's left behind

It's knowing that this can't go on forever

Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

Maybe we'll get forty years together

But one day I'll be gone

Or one day you'll be gone

 

Gracious me.

It seems we bought these tickets years ago. Covid kept us waiting. I have been excited about seeing Jason Isbell since Southeastern converted me with a happy shudder around a decade ago. Jason Isbell and the 400 Units is probably the sound that my soul most loves in the world today. It was so worth the wait.


HIS LORDSHIP - Olympia Theatre, Dublin 19.11.22 (Supporting Jason Isbell)

His Lordship

The best support band ever?! The Sawdoctors were such a great support to The Waterboys in the late 80s that I was always in the venue early. 

Well, very few support bands over 40 years have gripped me like His Lordship. My mate Mark had tipped me off on Facebook and then searching the web I discover that James Walborne is the guitarist ands singer. 

I have been following Walborne since he was 18. He was playing with Pete Bruntnell and a band twice his age. He continued to - Son Volt, Pernice Brothers and eventually The Pretenders. 

Tonight as a forty something it seems he has decided to go back to live out his teens now and play the most cracked up new wave punk sound in 2 minute song onslaughts. 

His Lordship crams in thousands of influences from 1977 to 81. You can hear The Jam, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, Wilko Johnson’s Dr Feelgood and even Devo. 

What Walborne is doing with his right hand man on drums Kristoffer Sonne is what some of us do when we are nervously thrown in front of a crowd. Just go for it. Throw everything you have at it and don’t stand still for a second.

It is totally manic, absolutely gripping and not without a lot of humour. Through the noise was a tight band, short sharp melodies and Walborne playing that guitar like it is an extension of his arm. He can throw some shapes. 

I couldn’t take my eyes off the stage and was looking forward to getting home and listening to I Live In the City and I Am Amsterdam which I did. 

Converted quickly, very quickly to His Lordship.


COWBOY JUNKIES LIVE IN BELFAST - 16.11.2022

Junkies

photo: Gordon Ashbridge

 

By the time Margo Timmins had delivered her first line… “Pushing through the market square…” my mind was awash with the utter beauty of that Cowboy Junkies sound and was traveling back to 51 Grange Road, Ballymena, my teenage best friend Rab’s house, listening to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Spiders From Mars. 

I was thinking of how 50 years after Bowie wrote it that this song was right on the world crisis all around us. We are doomed he warned. We got five years. The kids have everything they desire, the parents have lost perspective… “5 years left to cry”. 

It wasn’t lost on Janice and I that it might be the number of years that I have before retirement… “It’s a sign” she whispered only half joking. 

The Junkies are only minutes into their Mandela Hall gig in Belfast and I am all over the universe, searching around my soul and back to the sublime sound they are making. Five Years is from their most recent Songs For The Recollection record of covers and as much as I am thinking Bowie it is so reconstructed Junkies. Their version is just making me realise how close to Lou Reed this sounds as the band breaks into Reed’s very own Sweet Jane from their most revered album The Trinity Sessions. They took the thoughts right out of my head…

We are only two songs in and I am so thankful for live concerts. I had become gig-weary before Covid closed live music down. I was in no rush back post lockdown. Tonight had me marvelling again at how at its very best live shows can be so transcendent, taking you to a place where a record can really go.

Cowboy Junkies are so understated. As indeed their audience. A big production U2 show, this is not. I imagine Bono will use more visuals for his Book Reading Tour (but that review is for next week!). Just a few musicians scattered, functional lighting, though there are colour changes and Margo sitting on a stool with a bunch of flowers on a table and an ever present cup of tea in her hand.

All the drama is musical and drama it is. It is almost theatrical, Margo the sole actor speaking into the soundscape of her brothers and the others as well as being MC and comedian. Every single note played seems crucial, nothing more than needed. Can something be so fragile and yet so solid.

The sister centres the show and the sound with that voice, so clear tonight. Was the tea, a medical brew for a voice struggling with a cold? If so she over came, from the whisper to the scream.

The two sets seemed to go too quickly. An array of covers the best of which were the aforementioned Five Years and Sweet Jane as well as Neil Young’s Don’t Let It Bring You Down heading up the first half

The originals are equally powerful. Cause Cheap Is How I Feel and Sun Comes Up, Its Tuesday Morning reminded me of Michael Timmins’ own poetry, while the acoustic version of Horse In The Country is an utter songwriting gem. 

These Things We Do To Each Other is a prophetic preach for the day that we live in, I Don’t Get It a existential rage near prayer for spiritual answers and Those Final Feet about ageing and death were again so heart piercing. 

My soul left lit up, even if they admitted to doing no happy songs. The night was alive with questions and a new determination for the search. Cowboy Junkies had taken us in all kinds of adventures while we utterly enjoying a string of songs right here and now, Mandela Hall, Belfast.

Don’t take 30 years to come back!