- 06 Sep 21
Lady Soul, Live In Belfast.
The last gig I worked at, as in reviewed, was a tribute night to Leonard Cohen on March 5th, 2020, in the Bord Gáis Theatre, and I very nearly didn’t go at all because I had a bit of a head on me after the strange atmosphere of the Electric Picnic 2020 launch that took place the evening before. That was the night I knew something was up. It’s usually packed with every freeloader in the business – and I’d be leading the charge – but it was half-empty, people were wary of each other, and, for the first time, someone offered me their elbow by way of a greeting, rather than an outstretched hand.
And then, that was it, we were out of business. Worst things than that would happen, I lost people I loved, I had to lock myself in my home for months on end, I missed my children, I missed my friends, but I also missed something that’s been a part of my life for thirty-five years. I’ve never been overtly fond of restaurants or nightclubs, but a gig, whether it be in a sweaty basement, a darkened theatre or even, God help us, a communal experience in a field? Well, I couldn’t live without those, but then we all had to.
The other thing is that writing about gigs might just be the best part of what I get to do for Hot Press. Reviewing albums and books, writing articles and conducting and editing together interviews are all well and good, but trying to capture the lightning - or the slow moving tumbleweeds, as the case may be – of a live gig in a bottle, attempting to put into words the experience that you and the people around you have had is a visceral and exciting pursuit. It’s never just a case – or it certainly never should be a case - of ‘the band came on, they played A and then they played B’ because we all know there’s more to it than that, there’s a magic in the air on the best nights, a magic which is nigh-on impossible to get down on paper, but it is good sport trying.
Streamed gigs just don’t cut it, which is not to knock anyone involved in putting those things together, some with pretty astonishing production values, and hats off to the government for funds that allowed such things to take place, but they just don’t. I was involved with introducing two of them in Whelan's last Christmas and the artists played their hearts out, but when a song finishes to silence, it kills it. Music needs an audience to feed off. And don't get me started about keeping that audience in pens. Music needs to move.
With all that in mind, I pretty much jumped down the phone to say yes when Bronagh Gallagher’s manager Ciara asked if I’d like to go up to Belfast to see her charge play a show as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. To be honest, I probably would have agreed to Limp Bizkit supported by Red Hot Chili Peppers at this point (No. I wouldn't. Nothing could ever be that bad.) but it certainly helps that I happen to like Bronagh Gallagher. I might be on my own here – although I doubt it – but far too much Irish music is drowning in saccharine over-emoting. Bronagh Gallagher, on the other hand, has got soul.
Even the train journey up North was exciting in its own way. Gaggles of kids got on at Newry and Portadown, headed for a night in the city. The old man/father in me thought they were a tad underdressed – “I hope we get the weather you’re expecting,” etc. – but it’s a joy to see some real life. The hotel was ridiculously swish. I had to check twice that I was in the right place. I had an hour or two before the show. I took a shower, utilising the supplied shower gel. I’m a reasonably well-educated man, went all the way in school, a few times, but what the Jaysus is bergamot? I know now it’s a citrus fruit because I looked it up – you didn’t know either, stop lying – and it certainly was preferable to my usual aroma. I then put a robe that was possibly fashioned from angel’s kisses, spread myself out on a bed that should probably be underneath royalty and switched on the massive television set. Flash Gordon was just starting, the Queen one with all the alien women in rubber. “Hmm,” I thought. “Maybe I should just say that the bag is at me, stay here, order a bit of room service, maybe even get a manicure…” No, boy! Get up, put your pants on, and go to work!
Belfast is beautiful and walking around the middle of it, even when you don’t know where you’re going, is a very pleasant experience. I got a bit lost, of course, but found Writer’s Square eventually – I could hear it before I could see it. St. Anne’s Cathedral towers above the marquee, giving anyone pause for a second look, but I was almost nostalgic for the portaloos. Look! There’s a bar I’m actually allowed to walk up to! Well, it would be rude not to do so! I should add here that entry was on the a strict show us your vaccination cert basis, as well it should be. The good people working this festival, which has been on the go since the year 2000, hosting everyone from Adam Ant to The Zombies and is now a full eleven days of music, theatre, comedy, film and chat, are not messing about, they’re following the rules – capacity was doubled from 150 when permission was given – and getting the job done properly. I meet a couple of people – Bronagh’s sister Louise, Derry singer songwriter Sus McCaul – we have a couple of jars, we talk. I’m grinning like a schoolboy in Amsterdam, this is the kind of thing we all took for granted in the before. Let’s not do that again.
After a few straighteners, I’m given a white wrist band that allows me sit at the top table with Gallagher’s family, and the legendary Terri Hooley, who insists on calling me Frank, repeatedly, but he’s Terri Hooley, so he can call me whatever he likes. Anyway, that’s not important. It’s showtime.
You couldn’t accuse Gallagher of not making the effort. Her rigout is fantastic, although I suspect there’s a harlequin in the Belfast commedia dell’arte society calling the police to report a stolen outfit. It’s a gorgeous, sparkling, dazzling yoke, but it fades as if to sackcloth when she opens her mouth. Hers is a voice that is as warm as dip in the Mediterranean and as welcome as finding a tenner in your pocket. When her voice cracks and she steps back from the microphone to holler some more, she takes your heart with her.
Having a voice and talent like that is one thing, but Gallagher is also smart enough to surround herself with the band she deserves. This is some sort of dream team, the kind of gang I might hire should I win the lotto and finally be able to bring the my troubled rock opera Pat Carty: My Struggle to glorious life. A lot of it’s in 16/8 time, it goes on a bit, and it is, as a friend recently commented, “pure shite”, but these men have the chops to carry it off. If you’re not familiar with the names of Conor Brady on guitar, Dave Hingerty on drums, Cian Boylan on keyboards and ‘The’ Robbie Malone on bass then you might be reading the wrong magazine. They’re all masters of what they’re at but the thing that separates the best musicians from the rest of us who just happen to own instruments is their ability to play together as one unit, one eight-legged-groove-machine. I don’t doubt that each of them could casually knock out solos that would take the ears off the side of your head but that’s not what it’s about, they’re here to play these songs and that’s what they do, perfectly.
“We wrote that for you today,” says Gallagher in her Derry brogue as they finish the opener that might be called ‘Right By Your Side’. “Belfast, we’re here! I nearly choked up, I was trying to be cool. I just want to hug you all!” That’s her musical approach summed up; time is not wasted trying to be cool, her warm songs of love just go straight for the hug and the heart. And talking of warmth, the sound of Conor Brady’s guitar in ‘Every Place’ from 2016’s Gather Your Greatness has a tone like a rug in front of a fire in a ski chalet after a day on the piste, probably. He weaves it around a sashaying Gallagher, catching and reflecting the light in that outfit. We are in business, and the crowd react accordingly. You can see it in the eyes, we’ve all had just about enough of this sitting down shit. Something’s going to give.
‘Shortcut’, the closing track from the 2012 Bronagh Gallagher album, pushes further against this barricade. It has been, as the song nearly says, a long road in, and we’re surely gonna take a shortcut out. There’s a lovely descending middle eight, there’s some choice chords from Brady, Hingerty on the ride cymbal and then Gallagher giving it some “oh, oOH, OOOOH!” Then, during ‘Lonely Girls’, Gallagher picks up the tambourine – a crucial instrument in soul music – while 'The' Robbie Malone gets busy behind her, Brady goes from a one-note solo, which would have been grand on its own, into a bit of a mini freak-out that drops the jaw, and just listen to the way Bronagh sings "wrong" in the middle. They are cooking.
That voice shakes the tarpaulin with "Oh, oh, ohs" over the tremoloed minor chords of ‘Make It Easier’, ‘Truth Or Dare’ is just a great single, there’s another new song, Gallagher remembers hearing Toots & The Maytals and The Meteors for the first time on the same night out that ended with her puking on Pickles the Psychobilly’s shoes, she compares The Undertones, favourably, to Stiff Little Fingers, and she gets down on one knee during a life-affirming, take-me-home-and-look-after-me ‘Hand On My Heart’.
I know what you’re thinking. It does indeed sound like a great night out, and all this would have been a perfectly fine way to spend an evening, with everybody smiling and shouting and roaring, the band just standing there being perfect, and Bronagh Gallagher being Bronagh Gallagher, one of the greatest soul singers on the island. All that would have been fine and no complaints, but we’ve been locked down, prevented from the getting down, and Gallagher was housebound just like the rest of us. This is their first gig in eighteen months, there are lights, there is a crowd and there is, as she reminds us, a space for dancing at the front, for dancing in the street. She’s calling out, offering her outfit as very tempting reward. They launch into ‘Crimes’. “You get any closer, it’s gonna be a crime”. It was, until very recently. That’ll do it, the crowd has had enough. Suddenly, as if by magic – and what else could you call it? – people are up throwing shapes, hugging and kissing, grinning like loons, Jaysus, watch out for me pint missus, sure we could all die any fucking day anyhow, come on! The band play an unplanned ‘Radio’. It’s hardly her greatest song, but it judges the mood perfectly. We’re getting down, it’s very nearly like it used to be, there’s a pep in my two-step and a lump in my throat, the joy of living, the release of it all, there’s no writing this, you've just got to be in it.
Frankly, from there on out, Gallagher and the gang could have started clubbing baby seals on the stage and they still would have got a rapturous reception. She brings attention to her fabulous hair, bought off the internet, “J. Lo my arse!” She brings her nephew Fiontan on stage to play drums, they do ZZ Top’s ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’” which leads to more freaking out. We then get a passionate speech about Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace documentary and the recent Summer Of Soul movie which had tired hacks like this one weeping in the cinema. Any other band would be shooting themselves in both feet by bringing up these sort of masterpieces, but Gallagher and the A-Team go straight into ‘Love Is Gonna Find You’ with the leading lady testifying, sanctifying, and proselytising before Brady heads for the sky and the band go with him. It could have finished there but there’s more – stories about forgetting lyrics in the Limelight, birthday cakes and wishes, ‘John Eagle’ played for Terri ‘Frank’ Hooley, heartfelt thanks to everyone involved and then a big finish with another new song, ‘Glory Days’, which has the whole place singing along after one chorus. This gig was fucking something.
The mood backstage is as jubilant as one would expect. Everyone’s taking pictures, and swopping stories, grinning all the way around their heads. We drink the place dry before heading off back to the hotel, which is when I remember that my southbound train is leaving at nine in the morning. I make it, barely, with the head hanging off of me like you wouldn’t believe, the same way that it was eighteen months ago. Being out of practice for so long meant writing this review was, as I’ve said elsewhere, akin to a giraffe trying to roller skate. “We can tell,” says you. Whatever. Hello, Hello, it is good to be back.