Blackwater Conspiracy live in Cookstown
Once again the Cookstown Rock & Blues Showcase has pulled it off – standing room only in the Railway Bar on a school night, this time for Dungannon rockers, Blackwater Conspiracy. Even on the first night of the Great British Bake Off, people still came out in their droves – impressive.
Blackwater Conspiracy are known as pretty serious rock band but on this occasion they veered off the beaten path and delivered an acoustic session, something we are told they don’t do often. If they don’t – they should! I have seen the full electric set-up on larger stages several times, and it’s always a blast, but I have to say I enjoyed this format even more. And to get the chance to have a five-piece band play on your doorstep on a Tuesday night, feels like something of a luxury.
The chilled-out version of the songs was a really nice change of gear and not only allowed us to appreciate more acutely the sensitivity of the song writing, but most notably for me, it really showcased Brian Mallon’s guitar skill, which is pretty incredible. Whether it’s skilful picking or sultry slide, the three guitars on three stools arrangement allowed us a close-up perspective on his playing which you just don’t get on the larger stages. He’s incredible to watch, Gram Parsons comes to mind.
Besides Phil Conalane on vocals and guitar, and Brian Mallon on guitar and backing vocals, the line-up also consists of Kie McMurray on bass and BVs, Fionn O’Hagain on percussion (in this instance on the cajon) and the ever effervescent Kevin “Kevy the Keys” Brennan on keyboard.
Phil Conalane is the quintessential blues rock band front man; he has the look, the swagger and one of the most powerful rock voices I have had the good luck to hear live, reminiscent I have always thought, of the great Bon Scott. Blackwater Conspiracy are a slick outfit, the music is as tight as can be, it feels like what it must have been like to see, at their height, one of the polished ’80s pop-rock bands like Aerosmith or, more contemporarily, Black Stone Cherry.
The other benefit of the acoustic set was the chance to hear the harmonies the guys achieve, that and the convivial banter between songs, giving them a laid-back almost ‘70s vibe. Laid-back though, did not mean any less exhilarating. The heads nodding in sync, the stunning harmonies, the fact that they are so clearly enjoying themselves, it was a joyous thing.
The set mixed up brand new material with known tracks from their 2017 album Shootin’ the Breeze, and one after another the songs sounded like classics. I keep wanting to use the word slick, but they really are. The gravel in Conalane’ s voice gives songs like Penny for Your Dirty Mind and Blackwater Swagger a certain grit, but the musicianship is charmingly polished.
The gorgeous piano intro on Waitin’ on Holywood could be Billy Joel – it’s not, it’s Kevin Brennan – but the classy sound adds a depth and warmth, making them so much more than just another blues rock combo. And he is such a showman; it is a treat to watch him. The instrumental interludes mid song are a delight – you could be in the presence of big classic rock idols like Lynard Skynard or their ilk.
Goodbye to Yesterday was among the new songs getting an airing and it sounds like an instant Conspiracy classic. The beautifully romantic In Another Lifetime is a monumental torch song; “Your tattoo says you were hurt by another man”. Who could resist lyrics like that? These bode well for the upcoming album which Phil tells me will be entitled Two Tales and the Dirty Truth of Love and Revolution – make of that what you will.
The only cover of the night was Black Crows’ Jealous Again – an accomplished version. Bangers like that, and their own tracks Shoot the Breeze or Roll the Dice, make me think these guys would not be out of place on the biggest stages in the country. I can imagine them easily rocking the Limelight or the Ulster Hall to their foundations. I guarantee that after two or three listenings to their biggest tunes, you’ll feel like they are rock standards you’ve known all your life. “Like a four-leaf clover, like a perfect moon” – isn’t that straight out of Steven Tyler’s lyric book?
A final new song of the evening, She Gets Me High, has all the makings of a stadium-filling power ballad. It’s brand new but by the second chorus people are already singing along. “The moon on her skin as she sleeps,” I can almost see the soft focus, black and white, MTV-esque video with some sultry super model in underwear writhing on silk sheets that in less enlightened times, would certainly have accompanied it! These are quality songs; everything you ever loved about classic rock, updated but retaining the sexy, romantic feel. And some of the best live musicians I have seen anywhere.
No BC set would be complete without atmospheric anthem, Hanging Tree. Moody and moving, dealing with the issue of mental health, this is a gorgeous song. The key change, the rhythmic percussive beat, the pulsing bass it reminds me in its intensity of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, and I think Lyndsey Buckingham would wish he’d written this one. The album version when Phil Conalane holds that note near the end, is great, but live, it’s spectacular. Intakes of breath all round give way to applause and cheers. That’s quite an instrument he has.
Just time for one more tune then before supper is served – and what else but a medley of Get It Hot with one of their best loved, most high energy, most fun songs – ’85 Rockstar. Has there ever been a more rock n’ roll message than, “Live fast, leave something beautiful”? I could feel myself throwing up my rock horns almost involuntarily.
I’ll admit, I’ve never really been a rock chick and I think I missed a trick; I cut my teeth on a combination of ‘60s folk and ’80s/’90s shoe gazing indie pop – but it is undeniable how much fun this band is, what a feel good sound they have and lately I find myself singing along to them in the car at full pelt. The guys must have been appreciative of the rapturous response they received and it was exciting to be part of it. I can only say, if you get the chance to see them live, or get hold of the album, you must. They’re great!