A selection of Irish Times concert reviews 1998-2001
I wrote professionally on music between 1994-2001, contributing to a variety of newspapers and magazines in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere. I enjoyed certain niches in certain publications – I was, for example, primarily ‘the folk guy’ in Q and Mojo, the ‘local bands guy’ in Belfast daily The Irish News and pretty much ‘our man in the North’ for Dublin broadsheet The Irish Times’ arts desk.
Having decided the time might be right to trawl through the archives of oblivion (if I can find them), here’s a first selection of some of the concert reviews I contributed to The Irish Times during the period 1998-2001 – including a couple of reviews which were commissioned but didn’t run owing to unexpected space restrictions, late advertising additions and the like.
It may seem like an eclectic bunch of acts to you – well it does to me too! But I was always mindful of Charisma Records’ founder Tony Stratton-Smith’s maxim ‘everything good of its kind’, and I hope I managed to give a fair and objective hearing to everything I reviewed. To a large extent I was lucky enough to be able to cover artists I was personally enthusiastic about, but I was almost always willing to review whatever the Arts Editor asked – up to and including pantomimes, stage musicals and avant-garde theatre. With the exception of Gaelforce Dance – a truly execrable piece of Riverdance bandwagonry that deserves to be named and shamed even decades after the event – I’m happy to leave my opinions on most of those kind of events in the vault. After all, it’s nobody’s vault but mine.
I’ve enjoyed re-discovering and re-reading these time-capsules. In some cases I have no other recollection of the event at all, in others it’s still crystal clear. But here it is: folk, blues, jazz, pop, rock and beyond. The first instalment, with much more to follow.
Colin Harper, September 2011
Waterfront Hall, Belfast
Published: Irish Times, January 12 1998
We may never know if Robert Johnson sold his soul or if Elvis still hangs around supermarkets but the orthodoxy that an evening in the company of Richard Thompson is a fast track to doom and despair is, on the hard evidence of this commanding, soulful and extraordinarily dynamic performance simply wrong. For two thirds of the show, entirely alone, he powered through material that ran the gamut of light and shade, here demonstrating a consistency in both quality and accessibility that has not always been the case with individual albums.
Kicking off with the 1988 single ‘Turning Of The Tide’, the notion of one man, one guitar as a limited sonic experience was immediately out the window. With a singular technique, and the canny use of effects via the mixing desk, a pulsing bass figure and scurrying, mischievous lead lines flowed with deceptive ease from the one set of fingers and thumb to drive home a song that, far from being miserable, was positively rocking.
For every archetypal Thompson ballad there were songs that revelled in the celebration of life. Embodying the characters in his songs, the passion of Thompson’s performance brought momentary life to the street-fighting deviant of ‘I Feel So Good’, the thrill-seeking biker of ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ and the shadowy heroine of ‘Beeswing’ – a song that, like his best work, explores complex emotions in a story that while complete in itself leaves a space marked ‘conclusion’ for the listener. When his son Teddy joined him for some “family favourites” at the end – proving himself a stunningly effective vocal substitute for Linda – we were in cosy, familiar territory, but the adrenalised powerhouse of Thompson on his own is an experience that adding to will never better.
Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill
Cornmill Heritage Centre, Coalisland
Published: Irish Times, August 4 1998
Over the past three years Hayes and Cahill have taken their remarkable, breathtakingly subtle artistry to some sizeable venues. Indeed, next year the plan is to limit their activities, in Ireland at least, to full scale concert halls. There can be little doubt now that they have the profile to do it but as Martin once put it himself ‘the muse has no interest in press cuttings’. Invariably, in my experience, what they do – a contemplative and spiritually charged take on traditional melodies – is enhanced by the intimacy of the space they fill. Tonight, in the plush, woody ambience of this provincial Heritage Centre with a capacity of perhaps 150, that view was proven once again.
Touring Ireland for the first time in a year, it was thrilling to hear almost an album’s worth of new material, and to hear the development particularly of Cahill’s guitar technique. Influenced no doubt by a beautiful new instrument, he played even less notes than usual – typically accompanying the laments and slow jigs with intermittent cascades among diminished and unresolved chords, creating a shimmering, harp-like effect. A Blasket Islands air, associated with fairy lore, was the apogee of the duo’s further developed experimentation with jazz voicings and deconstructed melody/harmony playing. Periodically wailing over the seas in mythic grief, pulling dissonances and chord drones from his fiddle against the tension of Cahill’s filigrees, Hayes used the tune to launch an extraordinary 30 minute medley climaxing in something akin to Vivaldi. A live album is promised; another album of the year can be safely predicted.
Waterfront Hall, Belfast
Published: Irish Times, October 30 1998
“People ask me what ‘American Pie’ means” says Don, mid-way through his enviably well-attended show. “It means I don’t have to work any more if I don’t want to.” And therein, perhaps, lies the problem. McLean at his best is a songwriter of rare character – lyrical poetry, wistful but enduring melodies, sparse but effective guitar accompaniments and a soaring, crystal clear voice. All highly distinctive and, to judge from tonight’s audience, of broad appeal across gender and age.
The problem, similar to that affecting Nanci Griffith, is that here is an artist who really doesn’t need to be out doing it and while that means a fun, relaxed sort of show packed full of quirky little covers of songs they happen to like, it inevitably means a blunting of the artistic hunger that made them great in the first place. With bass and keyboard accompanists – the keyboardist with a penchant for a truly horrible ‘wedding band’ string sound, but excellent when he stuck to piano – McLean rattled through good-time covers of Hank Williams and Buddy Holly songs and a couple of schmaltzy recent originals.
The second half shifted up a gear, with some surprisingly good Appalachian flat-picking instrumentals and Tony Bennett-esque arrangements of more unfamiliar songs but it was the quality of McLean’s older material – not only the hits but the album tracks – that stood out. One forgets how many he’s had: ‘Castles In The Air’, ‘And I Love Her So’, ‘Mountains Of Mourne’, ‘Vincent’ and so forth. The voice was as good as ever, the melodies strong enough to drown out an irritating keyboard. Nobody went home disappointed.
The Divine Comedy
Ulster Hall, Belfast
Published: Irish Times, December 9 1998
‘What a strange looking person’ said the young lady next to me as Neil Hannon arrived on the stage, to the fanfare of his conversely anonymous six piece band. Hannon may not yet be a household name but with a carefully cultivated image like a millennial Gilbert O’Sullivan – pudding bowl haircut, clothes harking backwards – he’s well on his way. This was his band’s first time at headlining the Ulster Hall and amidst all Hannon’s poise and mock-vaudeville persona he was clearly and rightly proud to have made it this far with an image, personality and musical ideas that are not obviously in the mainstream. As a handful of his singles demonstrated though, Hannon is a master of the classic pop song. The forthcoming ‘National Express’ sounded immediately brilliant, with a timeless Christmassy feel. He will, of course, not be releasing it till January. But the real surprises were in the darker, richer soundscapes of his show-casings from the recent Fin De Siecle album – from quasi-orchestral bombast to soaring, cinematic ‘60s Euro-pop, this is clearly a man who is drawing inspiration from (or subconsciously reinventing) the whimsical fringe of progressive rock. I could swear one new song had cheekily revamped the riff from Jethro Tull’s 1977 pastoral romp ‘Hunting Girl’, and another from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’. Elsewhere there might well have been a sheen of Caravan, The Moody Blues, Hatfield & The North… There was even a gong and a marimba on stage, and they weren’t there for show. Neil Hannon is possibly steeped in a grander tradition than we all imagined, but either way this was a triumph of a gig from an artist unusual, at least, in the late 1990s.
Waterfront Hall, Belfast
Published: Irish Times, September 24 1999
Carefully-paced is the byword for the BB King show these days: he’s 73, a little frail and vocally not as powerful as he once was. But nobody can say he’s lost the knack for playing an audience or playing guitar. The start of the show was uncannily similar to the concert scene in The Blues Brothers – seven-piece band onstage in cabaret attire, grooving their way through lengthy instrumentals, cheesy fellow cheer-leading in anticipation of the main attraction. 10 minutes or so later the main attraction finally arrives, although the choice of ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ – one of his signature tunes certainly, but too fast for his voice to succeed these days – did not assuage one’s doubts. Happily, the rest of the more mid to slow-tempo 90 minute set did. Holding court from a seated position, the thrill has not yet gone for that unique BB King guitar – the tone, the vibrato, the squeals and flurries. Everything about his playing that made his reputation is present, correct and still offering a good deal more than mere proof of identity. Giving his sidemen plenty of room for solo spots and establishing instant rapport with the near-capacity crowd, there was little in his repertoire that hasn’t been there for 20 years – though ‘I’ll Survive’ from the recent BB On The Bayou was one surprise – but he still plays around with arrangements, making even ‘The Thrill Has Gone’ sound fresh. There was no encore, but he promised to return next year.
West Belfast Festival
Published: Irish Times, June 3 1999
This was the Scots/Irish band’s first time in Belfast in eight years, since when they’ve progressed from being a traditional music group to, well, something not at all clear. Capercaillie are like a Gaelic Roxy Music – poised, stylish, desperately poptastic and never in too much danger of breaking sweat. Singer Karen Matheson, with chiseled features, floppy fringe and star swagger carries off the Bryan Ferry role to a T. At one point, Manus Lunny played an effects-laden bouzouki solo – on his own ballad ‘She’s Not In Love’ – which was pure Phil Manzanera. There however the comparison ends, for what Capercaillie lack is a consistency of material and a clear personality of their own. Hybrids of Hebridean mouth music with soft-focus pop arrangements and drum beats borrowed from club culture got the dance floor filled, but then every track in between was either a straight-ish traditional set or an atmospheric ballad: there are aspects of what Capercaillie do that they do well, and this was certainly a polished performance, but the stop/start nature of the set was odd. Excellent musicians abide in the group’s eight-strong ranks, most notably Manus Lunny, whose songs have generally the greatest depth of character on their albums (only one played tonight) and flautist Michael McGoldrick, but too often these people are just a faceless ingredient in the soft-pop soup. The festival itself, running for another two weeks, got off to a flying start attendance-wise and there was, contrary to expectations, not a single politician in sight.
King’s Hall, Belfast
Published: Irish Times, June 5 1999
One has to respect Cliff’s achievements: 40 years in a business increasingly designed for three year careers; number one hits in five different decades; recently declared as more successful in some way than Elvis. The trouble is, this is the kind of stuff he lets us know between the songs – reflecting a rather uncomfortable side to the man that seems to dwell on career statistics and an obsessional quest for national airplay, having dedicated himself passionately to a career as, essentially, a light entertainer. As a casual observer, one could not help feeling during the show ‘yes, celebrate 40 years of great entertaining but accept that from here on the bulk of your audience just want a bit of harmless nostalgia’. What the capacity audience did get was a two hour show with immaculate sound and lighting, all the right moves from Cliff – a wave from the stage and everyone waving back – but rather top heavy with bland balladry. At times, it veered perilously close to some kind of dreadful, cheesy Royal Variety Show: sparkly backdrops, schmaltz and little substance. Bar the sprightly title track, material from his latest album Real As I Want To Be was time-serving. Cliff has the back catalogue to produce a sensational concert programme. Some of it – Dreamin’, Move It, Wired For Sound – was sprinkled here and there, but it was only in the final rock’n’roll medley that one felt the audience really responded wholeheartedly.
Ulster Hall, Belfast
Published: irish Times, May 10 1999
Defining the phrase ‘meat and potatoes’ rock in the grand tradition of, say, Rory Gallagher in the ‘70s, the most remarkable thing about this young Welsh trio is their popularity. An army of lads with crew cuts and Adidas tops, where once there might have been a sea of denim, leapt up and down with their womenfolk to the strains of blue-collar observations on life and big guitars – passionate and earnest like a down-beat U2 circa The Joshua Tree, but not so good on the memorable hooks. To be fair, Stereophonics only have two albums to their name and make no claim to be the saviours of the world. Singer/guitarist Kelly Jones does have a great voice and there are plenty of moments that verge on a great chorus or chord change, but only a handful of tunes really rise above the norm. Too much of their material merely plods where it should soar. ‘Pick A Part That’s New’, the new single, and ‘Plastic California’ from the current album – which was featured live almost in its entirety – were high points, and a beefy cover of The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ did not feel out of place. But their biggest and most recent hit, ‘Just Looking’, is by far their best work to date and would have been welcome a little earlier in the show. Judge for yourself with a complete broadcast on Radio Ulster, May 13th.
The Waterfront, Belfast
Published: Irish Times, March 23 2000
Michael Durkan, producer and director of Gaelforce Dance, claims in the souvenir programme that his creation is ‘vastly different from all the other [Irish] dance shows’. Well, it’s not. It’s the same old stuff – slicker as an ensemble piece and schmaltzier in tone perhaps, but utterly bereft of any originality or of any individual performer with either star quality or even enough personality to rise above this mire of eye-candy banality. The show is an Australian production with various North American performers involved, while Durkan’s bio reveals him to have made ‘numerous albums with the Irish Drovers’. That information alone speaks volumes. A narrator putting on his best Niall Toibin voice portentously sets the scene, but the storyline – two brothers, one girl, girl dies, brothers make up – is hackneyed at best and the whole affair a sickly blancmange of Enya, Eurovision and Jethro Tull’s Songs From The Wood. A row of musicians sit conspicuously at the back, coming forward to prance and posture expressively every time a costume change is required. Can there be anyone in the auditorium unaware that most, if not all, of this soundtrack is canned? It is not insignificant that the best composition by far – and acknowledged as such by audience response – is the Penguin Café Orchestra’s ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’, here renamed and seemingly credited to musical director/composer Colm O Foghlu. And that just about sums up the integrity of Gaelforce Dance.
Stray Leaf Folk Club, Mullaghbane
Commissioned by the Irish Times July 4 2000 but unpublished
Most roles and occupations in life are applied for, coveted, stolen or won; with others, the job is so novel it happens by stealth. After forty years in and around the business of ‘folk music’, Andy Irvine – promoting a splendid new album, Way Out Yonder – can no longer be seen as simply another jobbing traddie on the (increasingly busy) road. He is, of course, an institution in Irish music, but more meaningfully – and certainly more inspiringly to those who seek out his live performances – his musical reference points are wide and he is still driven by the passion and creativity of a man on a mission. Derisory of the often vacuous ‘legendary’ tag attached to players of a certain age, Irvine’s impetus plainly derives from each and every night’s task of engaging, informing, moving, interacting with and, most of all, entertaining his audience. The intoxicating blend of Irish music and Balkan tunes alongside humour, poignancy and original story-songs in the tradition of Woody Guthrie – rescuing heroes of the working classes from the footnotes of history – makes his artistry quite simply unique. Woody is often cited as the template for Irvine’s current path but a closer comparison might be the now all-but forgotten ‘Scottish cowboy’ Alex Campbell, who threw music together from every source of the day, infuriated purists, entertained mercurially and virtually invented, back in the fifties, the concept of the Celtic troubadour. Tonight’s show, at a slightly cavernous arts centre in a lonely corner of South Armagh, was hardly an easy one to get going. By the end of the night, however, Andy had created the kind of intimacy and warmth that will continue to ensure that his reputation never sets its backside anywhere near those bothersome laurels.
Guinness Spot, Belfast Festival
Commissioned by the Irish Times in November 2000 but unpublished.
Hubert Sumlin – best known as guitarist for the late Howlin’ Wolf – is one of the bona fide legends of modern blues. At a remarkably sprightly 68 he is also one of the last of the Chicago pioneers, and to judge from tonight’s performance it is difficult to imagine any of his surviving contemporaries still cutting the mustard and electrifying an audience with such energy and panache. Accompanied by the Sean Chambers Band – who opened proceedings with an enjoyable if formulaic set of blues/rock from the Hendrix and Stevie Ray tradition – this was Sumlin’s first visit to Ireland, and boy was he proud to be here. Noted for a decided quirkiness in his playing, the personality was no less engaging, and his obvious thrill at being welcomed so heartily resulted in a main set that was probably way in excess of his contractual obligations. Chambers’ trio proved both sympathetic and on the ball, while the maestro teased with a smattering of dextrous, if obscure, boogies and shuffles, laced with his trademark slides and over-bends, before letting loose with classics like ‘Spoonful’, ‘Little Red Rooster’, ‘Mojo Working’ and, what could have been the triumphant finale, ‘Smokestack Lightning’. Spurred on by his audience, a trio of deserved encores followed – one of them the most atonal, mesmerising and un-Chicago-like blues you could imagine. Ninety minutes plus of a blues legend, but not a cliched riff all night. Inspirational.
Waterfront Hall, Belfast
Published: Irish Times, January 18 2001
Those surprised by the absence of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ from the recent Beatles 1 compilation should remember or learn that the sixties were not only the decade of beat groups but of ballad singers and cabaret on a truly epic scale. Englebert Humperdink kept the fabs’ masterpiece from the top spot on that occasion, but it could as easily have been Andy Williams.
Born in 1927 and debuting professionally as a backing vocalist for Bing Crosby in 1944, Andy Williams’ love of playing live is indefatigable. April to December he hosts a show at his own theatre in Branson, Missouri; the rest of the year he tours. This is a man who certainly doesn’t need the money – but gives terrific value in exchange for that of his audience. A sold out auditorium was treated not only to note-perfect renditions of all the key Williams hits – ‘Moon River’, ‘Love Story’, ‘Solitaire’, ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’ – but to the sound of a sensational fifteen-piece backing group, led by pianist Joe Delante. The Waterfront has often been criticised for its sound problems, muddy and loud or sacrificing a certain punch for balance, but this was both a big and a perfectly mixed sonic experience.
Unexpected highlight, aside from Andy’s likeable, gently self-deprecating wit, was an awesomely complex arrangement of ‘MacArthur Park, with blistering lead guitar from Bruce Windham, though a crack at Sting’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ felt a little forced. Surer footing was found on the recent revival hit of the almost outrageous 1967 track ‘Music To Watch Girls By’, while an encore of ‘Danny Boy’ was delivered with sincerity. A master showman, and still a great singer.
NTL Studio, Waterfront Hall, Belfast
Published: Irish Times, February 28 2001
John Martyn made some very beautiful and distinctive acoustic-based records in the seventies, most notably Solid Air –reputedly a ‘chill out’ fave for today’s clubby types. His reputation still rests on that body of work. In the eighties and thereafter he went electric and started making dense, stodgy funk albums while his vocal diction became increasingly impenetrable. Artistically, one has to respect his embracing of a new direction – and occasional new classics did result, not least the still-extraordinary ‘I Am John Wayne’, given a stunning performance tonight. Twenty years on, though, he is still ploughing that particular furrow – jamming away on a series of largely undistinguished funk-fusion grooves with an earnest looking trio on fretless bass, drums and keyboards. Ironically, from today’s perspective this all feels much more out-dated than his seventies sound. That said, judging only in relation to other (often blasé) Martyn shows in recent years, tonight’s performance had more commitment than usual. Yes, Martyn was indulging as ever in the frankly wearing persona of a stoned music-hall buffoon (and some of his audience clearly do revel in this) but there were chinks of a real person every so often and the newer material – Baby Please Come Home, Give Me A Reason, Suzanne – not only sounded more crafted and melodic than has been the case for a while, but saw Martyn endeavoring to communicate the lyrics rather than growl and scat his way through. You pay your money and you take your chance.
Esbjorn Svenson Trio
Harty Room, Queens University, Belfast
Commissioned by the Irish Times May 1 2001 but unpublished.
Veterans of only one previous Belfast concert (1996, to a small audience), this amazing Swedish trio have spent the intervening years becoming the hottest ticket in European jazz. In delivering both an electric atmosphere and a standing-room-only situation in the elegant and rather austere Harty Room at Queen’s University, Svenson (on the venue’s glorious Steinway piano) and his cohorts, Don Berglund on bass and Magnus Ostrom on drums, lived up to every inch of their reputation. What is so extraordinary about this unit – all in their early thirties – is their singular, and seamless, blending of the unassailably traditional and the utterly modern. Reflected by the demographics of their audience, they are the reconciliation between Oscar Peterson and the clubbing generation. The first half was dominated by three Thelonius Monk tunes – the playful major key romps Rhythm-A-Ning and I’m In You and that seminal slab of melancholia Round Midnight. All were treated with obvious deference yet every one was sparklingly reworked from the inside out, the first two building into grooves that recalled by turns the good-time feel of the scores to the 1960s Charlie Brown cartoons and the streetwise cool of ‘70s soul. Taking a more palpably European direction, Round Midnight devolved into a quasi-classical, windswept piano solo that recalled the modal musings of Jan Garbarek… and then back, somehow, into that joyous American soul vibe. The second half offered the trio’s own material, involving wah-wah effects on the double bass and ethereal motifs plucked directly from the piano wires. Nothing was gratuitous – joie de vivre and the restless quest for strikingly fresh, yet remarkably accessible music was at the heart of this incredible evening. A three week tour started here, and it could hardly have been bettered for audience or performers.