Few other records have so saturated my life as Deacon Blue’s Raintown. In May 1987 I was smitten with it and played it to death pretty much over the following two years. I had the record shop publicity boarding on the wall of my lounge in Central Park, Antrim town.

No one who talked to me about music in that period left without being aware of this band and this record. Many people were convinced, or peer pressured, into buying it. That it took its place on perpetual rotation on my turntable just a matter of weeks after the release of U2’s Joshua Tree gives some perspective on its impact in my musical heart.

What was it that caught my attention and the deep affection? The simple answer is Ricky Ross’s songs. There might be better songwriters on the planet, and I am sure Ricky and I would agree on some of them, but Ross’s lyrics resonated with my head and heart and soul like no one else. I thought that if I could write good lyrics they would be very much like these.

I already had the 12” single of Dignity before the album was released. I had heard of Ricky Ross in the pages of Strait, the magazine of the Greenbelt Festival. He had the same name as my best mate growing up. I thought I would give it a try. 

Wow. The lyrics - “sipping down Raki/And reading Maynard Keynes”. The story of a street cleaner dreaming. This was about more than a boat and I was particularly caught by the idea of “a place in the winter for Dignity.” Then there was the: “And I'm thinking about home/And I'm thinking about faith/And I'm thinking about work.”

Home, faith and work. Deacon Blue were like the band next door. They were singing about the streets of their city, the working men and women of that city. These were subjective songs yet all dressed up in objectivity. There was sharp social observation and critique but it all felt personal. Though never explicit there was something about faith in there too. 

Then there were the stories. As well as the road sweeper of Dignitythere is the title track that gave you the mood of the Oscar Marzaroli’s grey bleak photograph on the cover. Chocolate Girl about the wrong kind of guy. Not confining it to Glasgow on Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now we got the atmospheric story of Harold Agnew, an American nuclear physicist who wanted to collect personal photographs of the Hiroshima bombing. 

In the end though it is a record set in Glasgow. It is not a concept album by any means but the way it is sequenced is a little artier than the normal debut album of the time. The slow little vignette of Born In a Storm was no hit them with a hit intro but it was creatively perfect and by the time you get into the second verse of the closing Town to be Blamed you feel a circle completing.

Then there is the sound. Raintown has a full energetic sound that shifts moods and styles. There is a pop sound immediacy but it has too much artiness and it rocks too. There are the wondrous Gospel harmonies on When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring), there are the hints of Springsteen and Morrison throughout.

Yet, in a sea full of Scottish bands like The Big Dish, Aztec Camera, Del Amitri, Blue Nile, Danny Wilson et al Deacon Blue’s sound might never be called unique but it had a pumping energy that carried you right through the entire piece.

That sound was built by a gathering of the best players in town. Dougie Vipond was the crack young drummer. Add the sophisticated bass playing of Ewen Vernal and you had a back beat like no other. Jim Prime was the experienced session man with Altered Images and John Martyn and his piano playing made Ross’s songs soar. Graeme Kelling was playing guitar with every cool band in Glasgow and every riff or fretboard dance added detail to every song. Lorraine McIntosh added her whirling dervish in sound and vision. These guys rocked. It would have been a more remarkable story of they hadn’t made it big!

It was immediate with me. From Ricky’s raspy “That hurricane day…” I was in but the general public needed more time and remixes! I felt like an isolated evangelist for maybe a year before the world caught on. I traveled to the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow that November to be among the faithful for an hour or two as much as to experience the band live. 

Thirty five years later and the very cover of the album takes me back. Yet, don't leave these songs back in nostalgia. Dignity still has a poignancy. War and big bombs are threatening and Loaded is as good a commentary on Boris's Britain as you can find in a catchy piece of four minute rock music.

Ricky Ross would admit that this wasn’t the happiest time of his life. As he has done in his song writing throughout the last thirty years he was somehow able, in the midst of such a time, find hopefulness and even create joyful songs out of difficult times.

The old negro spirituals from the slave plantations did that. A mixing of emotions to dance while you grieve. To dare to hope in the dark. To look inside and be honest but look forward to what can still be. Raintown has all of that and more: -  

One day all of us will work

We'll stand outside this orchard and we'll talk

When all is said all is done

We'll still be thinking about home

They say that love might be the very thing

If only it could be…


Mike Campbell

Forgive me Mike Campbell. You have ridden faithfully side saddle to one of my main men Tom Petty for nearly fifty years and I have loved you that entire pilgrimage. BUT when you started a band called The Dirty Knobs I thought the name suggested a funny side project.

So, Mike, I confess I was wrong. It has taken about three weeks of dipping in and out but I have to conclude that this is an album to be taken seriously.

Not that it is not full of fun. This band loves to play and you can hear the fun they are having. Check out Rat City. However, that does not suggest it is not weighty in quality. Over all it is a guitar toting record, harder than those Petty days, full of stunning solos. On Rat City I was even hearing  Rossington and Collins duelling in Lynyrd Skynyrd days..

Campbell can be subtle and tender too. He did write Boys Of Summer for Don Henley and has just toured with Fleetwood Mac. In This Lifetime perhaps hints at why Petty was the voice of The Heartbreakers but it’s still a beautiful ballad.

The other ballad State Of Mind has the wonderful voice of Margo Price on a beautiful song of love, grace, loss and disorientation. 

Elsewhere there is rockabilly on Lightning Boogie, where old band mate BA rolls those keys. Legendary Mott The Hoople front man Ian Hunter becomes an honorary Dirty Knobs                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           on one of the many driving rockers.

Campbell has a lyrical touch too. I love his preach at the materialist Hersey of the age:


Blinded by love

In the back of a Southbound Greyhound bus

And blinded by greed

You better find out what you really need 


And I hear him loud and clear when he warns about how we are treating the planet and its effects on our children:


People are hurting

People of all ages

Mother Nature's angry and cold war wages

Gotta raise your fist, gotta raise your voices

It's time to make some hard choices.


With the hope of warmer weather and who knows maybe a summer, External Combustion will be a great wee driving album. It’s not Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers but It rocks.


Junkies 2

How good to have the Cowboy Junkies prolific again. After six years between 2012 and 2018 without a record we have now had three in four years. Beginning with All That Reckoning, one of my favourite Junkie albums in 20 years, they followed with Ghosts, a beautiful EP reflecting on grief, and now we get a covers record just like 2005’s Early 21st Century Blues.

Covers have been a big part of this Canadian band’s DNA since their first records and why not. Margo Timmins ethereal voice reinvents anything they touch. Add brother Michael’s sonic atmospheres sounding like either warm gentle Ontario Place summer heat haze or a freezing squall cutting through Saguenay, Quebec in winter and his guitar is an instrument of reformation.. 

For the former check out Love In Mind and for the latter Don’t Let It Bring You Down. Both of course are by fellow Canadian Neil Young and are side by side. Though no one sounds quite like the Cowboy Junkies they have the spirit of Young’s band Crazy Horse whirling all around them.

Don’t Let It Bring You Down might be my favourite song here but Bowie’s Five Years is recreated from its Ziggy Stardust stage and The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds has a hypnotic guitar riff that had me off listening to a band I pretty much missed.

They’ve never been short of a Dylan cover but the most fascinating thing here is that they cover one of Dylan’s most recent releases. Already available on an Uncut magazine Dylan covers giveaway, I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You could be romantic or it could be spiritual. The Junkies give it the beauty of the tension. 

Oh it is good. As they can do just as well as they give us their own work Cowboy Junkies have given us more songs for the recollection to reconsider all over again. 


Here are my favourite 5 new records in March... All but The Cowboy Junkies have been reviewed more fully on Soul Surmise.


  1. RORY NELLIS - Written and Underlined

Nellis Written

Surfing on sunny bright guitars, Nellis is is a clever, quirky, social observer, comic and sage


2. COWBOY JUNKIES - Songs Of Recollection

Junkies 2

Our Canadian indie mood makers take Bowie, Dylan, Young and more and reinvent them in the Junkies' way.


3. BRIAN HOUSTON - Anam Cara

Anam Cara

Houstie goes deep into his Celtic Spirituality and creates a mood shaping Irish record of pilgrimage.


4. SANDRA MCCRACKEN - Carry Each Other


Sandra covers the songs that have helped her through her tough times. It is a beautiful playlist of cathartic songs we all know.


5. ANTHONY TONER - Emperor

Toner 4

Anthony highlights his guitar skills and lyrical gift as he takes 12 of his songs and reinvents them stripped bare. 


Nellis Written

Where did this Rory Nellis records come from? Well we know about a couple of previous records but Written and Underlined comes fully formed, the work of a mature writer and player. It all comes across as the work of a Northern Irish Jeff Tweedy. Nellis is a clever, quirky, social observer, comic and sage.

Stranger Behaviour could have been a strong song on Northern Irish buddies Snow Patrol’s Fallen Empires but elsewhere we are drawing inspiration from 90s alt country No Depression artists.

The guitars boss the show. They effortlessly churn up the surf that the songs ride on. It’s all beautifully placed between the country shuffle of The Fear and the indie rock of title track, as if filling the gaps between the songs She’s A Jar and Shot In the Arm from Wilco’s Summerteeth.

As the work is mature so is the lyrical content. Songs about songwriting (Written and Underlined) and love (Sailboat) and lockdown nostalgia (Video Shop) to politics (Political Animal) to philosophical benediction (Be The Sea). 

That latter song is the best of the lot, the best I have heard all year. The hypnotic foundation like the waves rolling in and out, increasing in intensity. It carries a message of love and resilience and the opportunity for living in spite of any doldrums that every day offers. Be the sea… Indeed.



With Emperor it is the poetry. Oh yes it is the guitar playing too BUT most of all as a man who loves a good lyric Emperor has drawn me to the literary brilliance of Anthony Toner.

Emperor is a beautiful stop gap in the Anthony Toner catalogue. In August just about exactly a year after his paean to East Belfast, Six Inches Of Water, he has another record of new songs coming but here in-between is a stunning array of Toner’s wares until now recorded with just guitar and voice.

Brian Houston has a soon to be released record in the same vein. How fortunate we are that two of our best local songwriters were thinking the same thing at the same time.

This “Emperor without clothes” exposes the dexterity of Toner’s guitar finger dances. He has been likened to James Taylor and I have preferred Stephen Fearing but a good few times across these songs I have uttered Bruce Cockburn. For those who know Cockburn’s genius and my fandom that is quite the compliment.

Yet, for me the most revealing thing of these songs stripped bare is the poetry. 

I mean Exit Wounds is actually a spoken word. I was moved by the Ink version but here naked and a little slower in delivery it is even more powerful. This crazy scenario of two twelve year boys with one of their fathers and a loaded gun becomes a song of decommissioning in our wee country. 

I was drawn to lines:


“It wasn’t even in a holster,

or any kind of presentation box,

it was just… lying in this drawer,

between his underpants and socks.”


How we lived ordinary lives in the extraordinary circumstances of the Troubles described as a gun among underpants and socks? I love it!

Alphabet is another poem as a song. Written about his father’s dementia, I relate and am then taken on this meandering A to Z:


“When I hug my father/We hold on tight/If he forgets who I am well that’s alright/A is for Alzheimers…” to the final gentle punch, “When you enter this world/It’s what you bring/And it’s what you take with you/After everthing/Z is for zero!”


If possible Anthony’s voice is even warmer than usual and boy can he tell a yarn. Check out The Road To Fivemiletown and Sailortown. Is he our very own Kris Kristofferson?

Everything Toner does is sprinkled with everyday worldly wisdom and a wee rascally wink of his eye. For the latter just feel the impact of:

There’s no sense in looking back -

just ask William Shakespeare and Fleetwood Mac.


I chuckle every time!

That everyday observation and experience that Toner has makes me feel that he knows the Northern Irish psyche. If I was gifted enough I would have written Cousins At Funerals. It is exactly my experience (and, all you Kernohans, we need to do it!): - 


I’m always meeting my cousins at funerals.

We’re always saying we should get together,

but we never do – we never do.

We’re always swapping our telephone numbers,

sharing memories of childhood summers

forever blue, forever blue.


Before the chilling scenario that I have recently come to realise:


Someday you know, this is going to be me and you.


The only negative about Emperor is that there are favourite songs not on here. That says more though about the strength of Toner’s catalogue than this record. It might also warrant a Volume 2. I’m ready already.


Larkin Between

Here is a little gem for St Patrick's week. Growing up on the Armagh/Monaghan border young Dani Larkin came to my attention last year when her debut album Notes For A Maiden Warrior ended up as my 15th favourite record of 2021.

Larkin is all new folk, clearly in the line for the trad folk songwriter. Her authoritative guitar playing brings John Martyn to mind but she adds that 21st Century freshness. 

The three songs on this EP are from that debut record but deliciously revisited with the Ulster Orchestra. We get the very beautiful Love Part 3, gentler strum, the most gorgeous melody and the sweetest of vocals. Then perhaps the strongest lyric on a song of homecoming Samson and Goliath before finishing with perhaps the most Orchestral The Red (Maca's Return).

It's another showcase for an emerging new talent. 


Anam Cara

If you ask East Belfast troubadour Brian Houston about where he fell in love with all things Irish he will take you to a Canadian native Indian Cree Reservation where he was shocked to hear them singing doo wop worship instead of songs in their own cultural sounds. I’ve been there myself in Africa. 

This Cree Indian effort to sing other culture’s rhythms and melodies led the Irish songwriter, sometimes worship leader, to think about his own Irish heritage. 

Brian Houston is a raw spiritual soul and he jumped with his usual passion right deep into it. Even down to the Irish language that politically in Northern Ireland is not championed in the Braniel estate of Houston’s childhood.

Eventually all this brings us Anam Cara. The first sound is the Uilleann pipes of John McSherry. Now, for me that always sounds ancient and spiritual to me. It’s Ireland’s Soul Music. Perfect for worship. Throughout Anam Cara the pipes are like a musical code into an ancient Celtic soul stream.

So opens Beannacht. There’s that Irish language. Blessing! The language is sprinkled across these songs, apart from on Óró sé bheatha abhail, where it dominates. The Irish language is so beautiful and on this song the shifting from Irish to English really works There’s a Clannad almost Horslips feel to it.

Come Let Us Worship Him with its visceral bodhran, harmonies, flute and ‘heys’ could be heard round a 5th century gathering of the faithful round an outside fire. 

God Is Great has similar drive but not so ancient and could be heard any Sunday in any modern Church where Bethel worship songs reign supreme.

Uisce Beatha (Water of Life) has those pipes again and is a mediative piece full of peat fires, glens and sacred shawls in a mesmerising mediative piece that has a geographical centre as well as a transcendent one. 

In the end what we might have here is one of Houston’s most original and satisfying albums. Take the closing The Voyage Of St Columbanus where Brian has arranged a short sacred Celtic poem with the pipes throwing atmospheres of the sea, sky and weather in a spoken word poem of pilgrimage. 

Like the entire album it’s ancient, it’s Irish, it’s spiritual. It’s unique as an East Belfast songwriter engages with his island’s heritage, culture, language, music and spirituality.

Maybe Brian Houston’s most artistic and adventurous piece of work.



Sandra McC

Many of us might make playlists of those important songs. The ones that have carried us through loss and broken hearts and grief or even  the soundtracks of joyous moments of love and happiness. 

Sandra McCracken decided to go one better and record an album of songs that have carried her. She sang on Fool’s Gold from her 2018 Songs From The Valley album “Nobody needs another love song / Sometimes you need to sing your own song.” 

I reviewed Mary Gauthier's book Saved By a Song recently and this is McCracken declaring with honorary performances songs that have carried her. She is singing the songs of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, U2, REM, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and more.

McCracken has this wonderfully rich and varied body of recorded work, shifting from modern worship to standing up as a songwriter in the real world. I first became a fan listening to her 2004 album Best Laid Plans and obviously loved Portadown Station from Gravity/Love.

Twenty years of listening to Sandra McCracken will tell you that she is an artist of taste. That comes through beautifully in this collection. 

Production is far from over bearing in these arrangements but they all so interesting; the near vaudeville piano of Most Of The Time; the strings on Everybody Hurts; the percussive shuffle of Only Love Can Break Your Heart; the subtle harmony on It Ain’t Me Babe.

There is a hypnotic fluidity to the guitar playing, particularly on One and the utterly sublime on Weather With You.

The stand out throughout is Sandra’s voice. Rocked up, country twang and gentle songwriter emotion. She brings new nuances from every single track. Anthem has never been more hymn like and I think Leonard would smile down at that.

In the seeming diminutive frame of Sandra McCracken there lies a musician, songwriter, worship leader and theologian. She’s an imaginative artist that knows what to do with a song. She does it all here… and if you want a playlist of songs to carry you…

AND... literally as I go to press with this blog Sandra has released a single - her version of Dreams, not the California West Coast Stevie Nicks one but the west of Ireland Cranberries one. Again the guitars... and this time Molly Parden on harmony vocals...


Janis Ian Light

What is going on with the musical greats? Or is it just proof that they are great. In the last few years Bob Dylan, David Crosby and Jackson Browne have released their strongest records in years and don’t forget the strength of Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash before their passing.

Now it is Janis Ian. She is actually only 70 years old but is suggesting that this, her first record of original songs in fifteen years, might be her last.

If it is, what a way to go out. The Light At The End Of The Line is the work of a crafted songwriter at the very height of her powers. 

The acoustic strum of the opening I’m Still Standing lays out her 70 years:


See these lines on my face?

They're a map of where I've been

And the deeper they are traced

The deeper life has settled in

How do we survive living out our lives?


Those lines on Janis Ian’s face are a mark of life and song craft maturity. There is resignation of mortality on the title track:


In due time, there will be

Someone else who will see

All the good in your heart

Even though we're apart

Oh, how I've loved your heart


Coming out of Lockdown and heading towards the end of life there is a lot of hope within. Dancing With The Dark, no relation of Bruce Springsteen is almost a prayer:


This long night cannot last forever

This long night, sorrow shields the stars

Give me light

Illuminate the darkness in my heart

Dancing with the dark

I'm dancing with the dark


The closing Better Times Will Come takes the them on:


Though we live each day as our last

We know someday soon it will pass

We will dance, we will sing

In that never-ending spring

Oh, better times will come


Elsewhere I particularly love Nina, Ian’s beautiful tribute to Nina Simone. It is closely related to Don McLean’s Vincent:


Any kind of fool could see

You were always meant to be

Miracles in moonlight, worshipped from afar

Burning like a falling star


And how were you to know this world

Was so damned hard on beauty

Frightened by your lightning song

Nina, can't you see?

You were always beautiful to me


And the laid back piano jazz joy of Summer In New York:


Jazz in Central Park

Chocolate kisses stolen in the dark

Rooftop romance. Sugar by the shore

Summer in New York


The Light At The End Of The Line is a sublime collection of songs by one who has given us some of the classics of the era. It will sit very snuggly with her best work.