CONCERT REVIEWS

WILCO LIVE IN THE MANDELA HALL, BELFAST - 6.9.23

Tweedy

photo: Bill Shaw

 

I have been listening to Wilco, and Jeff Tweedy’s previous band Uncle Tupelo for almost thirty years. When I knew they were playing Belfast I felt that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I had to say that I’d seen Jeff Tweedy. He is that influential. 

My problem was that my Wilco-mania peaked with Hotel Yankee Foxtrot twenty years ago. When a friend approached me in the Mandela Hall before the gig and said that he had first heard Wilco on my radio show I felt a little bit cool but I felt very uncool about what I knew in detail about their last number of records.

Well the good thing about Wilco is that you do not need to be au fait with their catalogue to appreciate their spectacular music. The awesome sound in the new Mandela Hall also helps. 

When Uncut suggests these guys are the “greatest America band” it is hard to argue. Early on there were two songs from last year’s Cruel Country, a double album of sprawling songs that focus on the country for America in Wilco’s more gentle groove of country.

It is almost Neil Young in that soon we have moved on to some of the most lengthy of guitar solos. Exquisite. Virtuoso. Near Freebird length guitar breaks. Soaring and sensationally good.

Neil Young is the man who released Harvest Moon straight after Ragged Glory. Tweedy must be influenced but Tweedy has a near pop sensibility layered in. My mate Paul turned to me after Hummingbird and said, “There’s a bit of John Lennon in there.” It was like 1967.

The band cover their 30 years. Box Full Of Letters had me reading my No Depression magazine as I listened in the mid 90s. 

I Am Trying To Break Tour Heart and I was there at the millennium’s turn as they started pushing the experimental envelope. T

Then California Stars surprised me into remembering Woody Guthrie and Billy Bragg. 

Evicted gave us clues to Cousin that is released later in the month and in the encore they bounced us from the current Cruel Country on Falling Apart (Right Now) and back to Outtasite (Out Of Mind).

It was all utterly fabulous, making me regret my cursory listens in recent years and sending me back to rediscover the old Wilco that I loved so much. Cruel Country arrived on vinyl the next day and needs absorbing. Cousin is to come. There’s even a memoir to be read.


DUKE SPECIAL LIVE IN MUSSENDEN TEMPLE - September 2nd 2023

Duke Muss

Every time I hear Duke Special it surprises me how much of a fan I am. His songs. His stories. His lyricism, Those quirky vaudeville tunes. That tinkling piano. The performance art. Goodness me but is he good.

This gig is how I like my music. A small venue. No bar. A respectful audience, there to listen. Perfect sound. And… well… coming in quite late I was in the seat closest to the man himself. He was about 5 feet away. Of course a while back I sat just as close when we did In Conversation at 4 Corners Festival 2021.

Twenty two hours after I had shared The Killers with 40,000 drunks in Boucher Road, it felt like another universe. Another art form.  

This gig was in an iconic venue. Mussenden Temple, high above Downhill Strand. Just being in the building is an artistic experience. 

Then we got the providential added value. It was a beautiful evening. Hence a beautiful view. A blue sky with wispy clouds and sparrows doing their acrobatic thing, seeming at times to the rhythms of Duke’s piano. It was the kind of back drop that bands pay loads of money on that God gifted. It of course could have been lashing with black clouds but it wasn’t.

Then there was Mr Special. He is such a great lyricist. The poetry. The images. The original rhymes. The killer one liners. All wrapped in the most gripping of musical hall sounds and rhythms. 

We get the range of his catalogue. The “hits” hit the spot - Last Night I Nearly Died, Freewheel, Digging an Early Grave, Salvation Tambourine and Apple Jack should all be number 1 in the Land of Duke. Writing songs that catchy is not an easy thing.

What most touched me tonight were the character songs from Under A Dark Cloth. Rita De Acosta, Georgia O’Keefe and Cherry Blossom Girl, the later perhaps my favourite Duke Special song, are stories that reverberate like ghosts around this old building. Duke plums the depth of these souls and brings something out for us to surmise.

Speaking of surmising, two new songs, Flight of The Sparrow and The Art Of Living are like epilogues, philosophical searching; questioning and helpful. That new songs stand out in a career covering set list is a sign of an artist developing, still finding his voice.

And then, too quickly it was done. We walk back across this National Trust park to the sun going down. Perfect!

Mussenden


THE KILLERS - BOUCHER ROAD, BELFAST - September 1, 2023

Brandon

photo: George Sproule 

 

I first heard The Killers in the summer of 2004. I was in Cape Town, driving my students around in a bus. They all created mix-tapes to entertain their mates as we traveled. John McCartan’s tape had The Killers. Hot Fuss was out a few weeks and like John I fell in love with this band with the big bright smile sound of Las Vegas Nevada.

It took me almost 20 years to see them live. They did not let me down. How could they. The sound was pretty much perfect in the Boucher Road venue, just 4,000 steps from my home and the band filled a Belfast night with a machine gun fire of hit songs that had the crowd bouncing and in the very big hit places singing along.

Brandon Flowers. There’s a front man. I couldn’t help but think that he was part Springsteen, part Bono and if that wasn’t enough a huge dollop of Elvis all mixed into one. From the get go he seems to be coming out of the screens, reigning in the seeming distance of the crowd. 

Always on the prowl he comes across as your mate but a mate given a Hollywood or maybe Las Vegas make over. He’s a culturally handsome chap as well as a top singer in front of the rough tough beat and riffs of a magnificent band. Indeed the rest of the band look rock to Brandon’s pop which ends up a Killer combination.

Above all this are these songs. Timeless, catchy beyond belief and deep if anyone is sober enough to hear. When You Were Young, Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine, Smile Like You Mean It, Shot At The Night, Somebody Told Me, Human, Mr. Brightside. As if it is not enough through in a corking version of Northern Ireland’s favourite song Teenage Kicks. Maybe a set list a little heavy on the early albums but hey…

For me though what makes The Killers stand out is Flowers’ ability to dig deep. The opener My Own Soul’s Warning is about spiritual repentance. Human was lost in a drunken night as 40,000 people not only danced as they should have at such a song but missed that being human is about more than hedonistic dancing.

My metaphorical notebook was out when before Caution when he quoted Helen Keller, “The world is full of suffering but the world is also filled with the over coming of suffering”. That is a multilayered thought bomb but it seemed to be lost in the Belfast sky like the early canon of confetti. 

A massive shout out to support, guitar legend and Man City fan, Johnny Marr who a number of over 45 year old were there to see and the rest he had a good go at convincing. There Is A Light That Never Goes Out was a great end to his set and when he joined The Killers for Stop It If You've Heard This Before I was looking for a Johnny Marr Sings The Smith's record.

Cain Ducrot the young Irish singer did well too. When he told us he was number 1 album in the UK I was a little surprised. A cross between Ryan McMullen and Dermot Kennedy, my jury is out one whether he is as good as any of those. 

Anyway, The Killers. Twenty years. Why so long Steve? Well worth the wait! 


THE FRAMES - BOTANIC GARDENS, June 9, 2023

Frames Jani

photo: Janice Gordon

 

My friend Ken used to interview bands at Calvin College (now University), Grand Rapids, Michigan on the afternoon of their gigs. His last question always intrigued me. “The band always have to meet expectations but what would you like out of the crowd tonight?”

Concerts are a two way thing. It is such a good question and half an hour into The Frames live in Botanic Gardens I realised that I had been a slacker in my preparation for this one. I so needed to refresh my memory of Frames songs.

Don’t get me wrong. Janice and I have been Frames fans since the get go. Our first gig was April 1991 at the Powerhaus in London. By 2005 they were my favourite band on the planet. Truth is though that once (no pun intended) Glen Hansard became Swell Season and later solo I haven’t given The Frames records as many listens.

As a result I was struggling with songs and lyrics for singing a long to. The Stars Go Underground, Angel At My Table, Dream Awake and even Friend Or Foe were rusty at best. It wasn’t that the band weren’t as top notch as ever, it was that my half of the deal was sloppy. It wasn’t until the home stretch - Pavement Tune, Fake, Revelate and Star Star - had me contributing again.

As the crowd’s part of the deal was in my mind Hansard started to compliment the Belfast audiences. It wasn’t just the obligatory charm. Glen had a thesis. He suggested that Belfast audiences were unique in going with the flow of concerts and songs. They could go with whatever direction the band went much better than any other crowd. 

This Botanic Gardens crowd didn’t let The Frames down. They sang along, danced and grooved. It was a blue skied June night in a beautiful park where the venue naturally allows easy access and great views from wherever. 

Glen Hansard has a great thing going. He uses mainly the same band but has different set lists for his solo gigs and those under The Frames moniker. That more sensitive Cohen/Morrison/Dylan under pin for his solo set is replaced by noisier Pixies/My Bloody Valentine foundations. Not that there is not sensitivity in The Frames. Take the Ukrainian song Oi u luzi chervona kalyna as a point of fact and made its point.

I genuinely thought in 2005 that The Frames were a better live band than U2. They are not quite up to their heights of match fitness in Botanic but oh my this is a wonderful night of rock music. 

Pavement Tune with its “I want my life to make more sense/I want my life to make amends” always inspires. As does Revelate with its “Sometimes I need a revelation/Sometimes it's all too hard to take” and Star Star with its need for actions to speak louder than words:

 

Star star teach me how to shine shine

Teach me so i know what's going on in your mind

Cause i don't understand these people

Who say the hill's too steep

Well they talk and talk forever

But they just never climb

 

I could lose my voice singing these songs into the Irish sky as prayers night after night. The Frames throw rock music stardust across whatever crowd is in front of them. It has a captivating positivity. 32 years after the first time… it was utter joy and as if they had forgiven my poorer contribution.


LUKA BLOOM LIVE IN FITZROY - 18.5.23

Luka Bloom Fitz

It was utterly beautiful. 

With the front of Fitzroy decked out in over 100 candles, Luka Bloom appeared with his Lowden guitar, that voice hewn out of the Bog of Allen, or close by, and these amazing songs and instrumentals. 

My wife Janice and I had just spent 3 days driving around the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal. Luka’s songs of place, mainly Irish place were a perfect way for our heads and hearts and souls to remain there for another couple of hours.

When I think of Luka Bloom I think of a songwriter of place. There are mountains and rivers and oceans and sands. Nobody else could make being a bog man so full of life.

It’s the poetry. Luka tells us of an English teacher who encouraged him to write his first song at 16. Wave To The Shore is the title track of his new re-recorded career overview and you cannot help but wonder what a high bar the young Barry Moore was setting himself.

He tells another story of being at his sister’s house and a neighbour asking him what he was writing about. After uttering something she responded, “Ah the beauty of every day things”. What a title to another great lyrical song set in God’s favourite piece of earth in the west of Ireland. 

Not that Luka Bloom is out there somewhere in County Clare hiding from the world. He wrestles that guitar, he says, like therapy. 

I Am Not At War With Anyone, his response to the Iraq war is rewritten for Ukraine. 

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Light That Shines Within You. Was written when three nuns asked him to write a hopeful song for tough times. As the crowd turned it into a hymn with the candle light effect this was spiritual.

City Of Chicago was a Christy Moore song long before it was a Luka Bloom one. Luka shared that it was written when he left another brother to the plane for a new life in America. It made him think of those leaving in the famine. He wrote this song in half an hour and when his other, song collecting, brother asked him if he had any new songs… unconvinced about it Luka gave this one to Christy who sings it every night! When the crowd sang on it tonight Luka seemed more than convinced and a little moved.

The Man Is Alive moved me. I used this song and a few Psalms in the last ten minutes of my father’s life. That Luka was only 18 months old when he lost his dad is another story. Then he has us in Vancouver, a favourite city of ours.

I cannot let it go without mentioning that here on our anniversary, just a few hours in from Donegal, Luka dedicated Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love to Janice and I. Complete. What a night! What a catalogue of songs. 

The utter utter beauty of everyday songs. 


THE IRISH AT THE OSCARS 2023 - THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN & AN IRISH GOODBYE

BANSHEES-IMAGE

I felt like the 2023 Oscars were like the World Cup Finals. Ireland were competing at the highest level of the game and my favourite players were there. They might even win.

The Banshees Of Inisherin. Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan. Nine nominations. Oh for just one. I was rooted for them, my Irishness big and proud.

Along with them the wee north (our wee country) with An Irish Goodbye. A short film - Tom Berkeley, Ross White, Séamus O'Hara and James Martin. James who I watched grow up in Fisherwick Presbyterian and never thought. 

Irish Goodbye

It turns out that, like me, the world needs to rethink now. On James’ birthday An Irish Goodbye wins best short film. The entire theatre sings him Happy Birthday. You couldn’t make it up! Holywood might try!

Sadly, nine nominations but no winners for The Banshees Of Inisherin. The opposition was amazing though. I am no less proud.

I put off watching the The Banshees of Inisherin as long as I could. I was frightened of how sad it would be. Eventually, it needed watched… and yes it was sadder than I had even imagined It was bleak. Utterly heartbreaking. 

Yet, what a movie! What a feat of movie making! 

I mean writer and director Martin McDonagh comes up with almost 2 hours of film based around two men, one of which doesn’t want anything to do with the other anymore. To make filling the time harder he sets it on an island off the west coast of Ireland. 

Now don’t get me wrong, there are other stunning performances, Kerry Conlon and Barry Keoghan to name but two, and the odd animal like a horse, dog and a miniature donkey (was that really the actual one at the Oscars?!?!) but there’s not a lot happening. Yet, this is bizarre and beautiful and there’s no temptation to take your eyes off it. 

Ireland looks stunning. It’s rugged, its characteristic green and beautiful. It’s wind beaten and wild. Yes, there is a certain amount of caricature but this was indeed the west of Ireland in 1923. I have just finished Niall Williams’ book This Is Happiness about electricity coming to Kerry in the late 50s. Inisherin is believable.

The strength of the acting of Farrell and Gleeson is how these actors can make a two hour film out of the simple plot of two men breaking up without reason. It is a painful watch mentally, emotionally, spiritually… it even gets physically brutal. 

Colm gets some new ideology in his mid life crisis head. To be remembered he needs to do something more than drink every day with his dull friend Pádraic. He’s going to write music instead. Taking it to an irrational and obsessive length the film has its moving fault line; a heart quake if you will allow me. For two hours Colm goes to extraordinary lengths to keep Pádraic at another table. 

Now when I mention ideology I perhaps tip my hat at what is happening across the water on the Irish mainland in 1923, when these shenanigans are said to be going on in Inisherin. We hear the odd blast across the sea.

The Irish Civil War is doing the same thing to families and friends as Colm is doing to Pádraic. Maybe we can see personal and national ideologies do the same across America and Europe in 2023. 

I could’t help looking in the spaces that The Banshees Of Inisherin gives for thinking. What have all our Irish ideologies done to one another. Some so outdated now but still dividing and causing bloodshed. 

It reminded me of that powerful allegory The Field, Jim Sheridan’s equally brilliant take on John B Keane’s play, also set out in the west of Ireland. 

An Irish Goodbye has similarities apart from the length. The son of farmers who in Northern Ireland should take on the land runs off to London but when his mother dies he has to return to ask himself not only about the farm but a brother with Downs Syndrome. Again we have two humans in conflict in 23 minutes of grief and a great deal of, laugh out loud, humour. James Martin is astounding throughout.

In an interview, maybe 40 years ago, Bono said that us Irish didn’t build big bridges or go to the moon… we wrote stories. Boy, wasn’t he right. Only one win at these Oscars but still fighting way above our weight!


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!