Ryan McMullan is a local hero. 

Three things confirm that this evening. That he can almost sell out Custom House Square before he has released an album; that that sizeable crowd sang almost every word of 60% of his set; and that his merchandise t-shirt for the evening in a Team McMullan GAA county shirt style sold out before he got a chance to plug it from the stage.

Sounds like it was a celebration for our boy. It was of sorts but running through McMullan’s fragile stage banter is that the long awaited album that was to be released the day before has been put back until spring while McMullan deals with some mental health issues.

Fair play for McMullan to have the courage to admit to his ailing mental health and to get help. To cancel his debut album release and the World Tour to follow that, after waiting all the way through Covid for it to happen, has to have been a massive decision. We support you Ryan. Get well soon.

In the meantime we your fans will come and sing our hearts out to remind you how much we love you and what you mean to us. There was a lot of caring energy making its way towards the stage  all night long. We hope it helps. 

All in all the gig did feel like a celebration. That an artist who has just postponed the release of debut album has a crowd singing so many songs is a phenomenon in itself. He does like a singalong chorus young McMullan and if there is a wee critique it is that some of the choruses are cut from very similar cloth. BUT it makes for an amazing atmosphere, almost like he has shrunk Custom House Square to a wee bar in Portaferry and gathered in a few (thousand) mates. 

Highlights are the recent single Static and the old favourite Oh Suzannah with Foy Vance as a comedic guest. Best of all is the old song that has made the album Bowie On The Radio and very best of all is Belfast City.

This song sung by thousands on a Saturday night in the middle of Belfast. I held my wife and a daughter and we sung our lungs out with pride and emotion and togetherness. Belfast concerts don’t get much better.

I left asking the question I have surmised for months. Can Ryan McMullan take the next step up. Can he transfer this parochial wonder onto a world stage? I guess the answer has been postponed for a little while to quote the boy? If it doesn’t work out I hope he will find healing and lead us in those words that I even used to open my prayers for the city the morning after


I'm going home to the people I love

Where I was born and raised

Where the streets and the history remain

But oh how the times have changed

I know it rains, but it's always pretty

Back to the friends that I can't take with me

We'll have a night out in Belfast City alright


We will Ryan! And we did! Thank you! 


Deacs 22

(photo: Janice Gordon-Stockman)


There was a moment during Deacon Blue’s set at the Ulster Hall when I realised something else about this amazing band. It is during the spoken word On Love from the recent City Of Love record and Ricky Ross is doubled over like a demented man repeating “What you trying to make sense for?/What you trying to make sense for?”

Right there I realised that everything Ricky Ross and his band mates have tried to do since the mid eighties has been to go digging for us. With poetry and melody they hurl themselves right into the deep mental, emotional, spiritual and social state of the world and our lives. Trying to make sense of it all, they end up pontificating about love and its potential for freedom, justice, peace and healing.

From Loaded where Ricky wants no one left out and the political upheaval in Your Town, so appropriate tonight, to the personal need for Cover From The Sky through to a spiritual conclusion - The Believers, a brand new song for the times we are Peace Will Come, and the social, spiritual and personal ocean of dreams that is Dignity. Everything is about eking out “new” “hope” “faith” “love”.

Gigs by the best artists are multi layered. You can have a drink and enjoy the hits, though those beside us were having so much drink and toilet stops that they might actually have missed all the hits.

A two era band like Deacon Blue can split the evening. Those who loved the early 90s glory days bounce around to Fergus, Real Gone Kid, Wages Day etc (it was lovely to have I’ll Never Fall In Love from the summer I fell in love with Janice).

Then there is the second wave - the past decade of equally thoughtful, equally literary songs. Walk In the Woods, A New House, That’s What We Can Do, In Our Room all deserve the same respect as Chocolate Girl or Raintown but the crowd’s response differentiates. 

I stand disappointed surmising that City of Love and Believers are maybe the most paradigm Deacon Blue songs. Not that I don’t belt out “I saved my money” on Dignity! 

I had a wee smile as I remember a Twitter thread where Ricky waxed lyrical about Paul McCartney’s recent set list choices at Glastonbury. Deacon Blue know how to raise the roof, sit for a few campfire songs and raise the roof again. Whatever the layers the surface is the most vital and that’s well covered tonight. 

But me… I am off home with Believers, Peace Will Come and Dignity as a trilogy of spiritual belief and action. Deacon Blue had dug deep and lifted my humanity out of the pit, set it up with its full potential that I might find that same humanity in everyone I meet scattered across my City Of Love. 


Macca Glasto

Paul McCartney at Glastonbury was mind blowing at a variety of levels. 

The most obvious is that McCartney is 80. I was more than worried. I almost just recorded it to watch on my own so I wouldn’t have to watch the sad demise of my hero live.

And yes, the voice is huskier, far from its glorious breadth but it was the only hint that this man was older than much of the crowd’s grandparents. He didn’t shy away either. The Wings screamer Junior’s Farm is second up and Helter Skelter was his 33rd song of the night. 

There is no doubt McCartney’s band have his back. For over twenty years Rusty Anderson on guitar, Brian Ray on bass, Abe Laboriel Jr on drums with Wix Wickens acting as musical director as well as playing keyboard have allowed McCartney concerts to soar. They have beautifully arranged the vocals in order to cover any of the boss’s frailties. They were all rocking Glastonbury for the second time.

Perhaps most amazing to me was the set list. I mean when you have the biggest bestest recorded catalogue in rock history where does Paul begin. Yet, usually it is hit hit hit in machine gun fire. Of course most Macca songs are hits in some sense but tonight’s set list dug deep cuts. Junior’s Farm? Letting Go? For The Benefit of Mr Kite? I think there might have only been about 5 number 1s!

Then there are the new songs. Paul even highlights before he sings New calling them black holes when no one cheers. We don’t care he adds and tonight he genuinely doesn’t seem to. We get songs from four of McCartney’s last 5 records but interestingly nothing from McCartney III. We even have a post song crowd singalong on Fuh You.

Overall we get a personal and rock n roll history. Love Me Do to I’ve Got A Feeling and McCartney is very respectful and inclusive of his mates Ringo, George and John commentating as he goes. Lennon even sings along through the wonder of technology on I’ve Got A Feeling which must have been moving for McCartney and also his band who have now played with Lennon too. 

All of that and other film footage on the screen does suggest that the product McCartney’s gig is aiming to sell is Let It Be and the Get Back film. 

From Paul’s story we move to rock’s story and the special guests Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen. Nice surprises indeed! Two powerful voices to give Paul’s a break. Grohl’s howl through I Saw Her Standing There was sensational. Bruce’s Glory Days sent Paul into glory days mode and we got a Beatles fest plus the very very underrated but great Live and Let Die.

Even in this concluding climax the set list surprised. Yes, there was Let It Be and obviously a long sing-a-long Hey Jude but I Wanna Be Your Man and Golden Slumbers before ending the gig as the chronological Beatles albums ended with The End. Fascinating. 

So almost two and a half hours later and we are in awe of an 80 year old still holding the attention of the current coolest music audience on the planet. He and his mates conquering the planet 60 years ago is one one thing but still reigning at 80 mind blowing! Into a Covid-still-with-us and war torn world he pours out hope and joy and positive vibes. To think I doubted!


Bono Desert Island Discs

Bono on Desert Island Discs (June 26, 2022) was a beautiful radio show. 

He has that lazy north Dublin brogue. His deliberate diction has almost a poetic and sage-like authority, probably more poetic and sage-like than he actually is.

Bono’s honesty would probably have him agree with me. He doesn’t hide away from confessing his weaknesses laughing at his annoying gene. He is then honest about U2 and his part in it, even their tax decisions. 

He is even better when he opens up vulnerably about family, faith, his dad and the long secret of of a step son! Then there is his love and dependence on his wife Ali. His openness is always so refreshing. 

His choice of songs was very interesting. An Opera for his dad, Ali’s night time song of joy from Angelique Kidjo and his son’s very own song with his own band Inhaler suggests that Bono is without doubt a family man as well as rock ’n roll front man and activist.

Spiritually I was intrigued by the old hymn Abide With Me. I was even more fascinated at how he had sung Peter Frampton’s Show Me The Way at U2’s earliest gig. The nerd that I am knew he had but I hadn’t know why. I hadn’t seen it as the prayer that Bono made it for his teenage self:


Who can I believe in?

I'm kneeling on the floor

There has to be a force

Who do I phone?

The stars are out and shining

But all I really wanna know


Oh, won't you show me the way, yeah

I want you to show me the way


Of course! How I’ve been using music prayerfully since my own teens.

Best of all for me was his choice of Bob Dylan’s Every Grain Of Sand. I’ve also loved this song since the very first time I heard it. For me it is Dylan’s finest moment poetically and easily the best song he wrote in his Christian trilogy of albums between 1979 and 1981.

Bono speaks about stopping in to St Paul’s Cathedral on his way to the interview and seeing William Blake’s most famous lines on the wall:


To see a World in a grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour 


Bono suggests that Dylan must have had this in his mind as he wrote Every Grain Of Sand. 


I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other time it's only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.”


I had narrowly locked this inspiration into “the every sparrow falling” line of Jesus from Luke 10 but Bono’s observation widens the lens. 

In the end this is the song that Bono wants on his Desert Island. I can understand. It is an encompassing song of the inner life and spiritual pilgrimage. We all need to confess our mistakes and admit our hanging in the balance of faith and life. From there all we can is trust. Every Grain Of Sand is hymn-like in its use of language and image:


“Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay.

I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.


Great choice. Great show.


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.


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



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 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.


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”



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.


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



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!