It is customary at the end of a large open air gig for the audience to break into rapturous applause and cheers, for the artist to come back on stage to soak up the adulation. But what happened at Custom House Square at the end of the night was on another level.

It has become customary for Foy Vance to close his concerts in this manner. It was just as magical and meaningful last time it happened at the recording of ‘Live At Bangor Abbey’, a few years hence. Tonight, it’s moved up a scale.

What happens is this. The last song of the night is inevitably ‘Guiding Light’. Even if you don’t know the song you get the gist. Foy invites his audience to sing the chorus line ad infinitum.

When I need to get home you’re my guiding light. You’re my guiding light.

Quietly he leaves the stage. The Belfast Community Gospel Choir and Arco String Quartet remain. I was thinking, hoping, he might just come back on stage to claim his final applause – but that would break the spell. Instead, the audience sings on.

The sky has turned Quink Ink. The solitary seagull – that soared and swooped earlier – must have gone off and rounded up his mates, for a flock of seagulls swarms overhead, encircling the sky above the stage, their under-wings illuminated silver-white by the stage lights.

Slowly, then gaining pace, the audience dissipates. In patches and groups, people are still singing that one line – as they spew past the Albert Clock into Belfast and beyond. All the way to the Spaniard, I can still hear unified voices sing “when I need to get home you’re my guiding light”. Maybe it was just a mantra lodged inside my head.

Earlier Foy had said he didn’t want our applause, he wanted our soul. Collective soul, I assume. And we offered it up. He talked about touring with Bonnie Raitt, and how her critical acclaim and understated success is not guided by any fine-tuned marketing machine, but simply by her relationship with the audience. Clearly, some of that rubbed off on Foy – he says several times through the set how much it means to be back in Belfast. It feels like an honest connection. It is genuine gratitude – not routine hollow gushing.

He doesn’t take himself too seriously – there’s inevitably a bit of localised banter, a lot of talk about love, brothers and sisters. The son of a preacher man, there is an inescapable southern roots, gospel vibe. Coupled with that unique almost-gravel voice – more the rough edge of polished granite – it’s both deeply earthy and elusively divine.

Kicking off with the title track from ‘The Joy of Nothing’ (winner of the Northern Ireland Album of the Year in 2014), and into ‘At Least My Heart Was Open’, and the wonderful ‘Closed Hand Full of Friends’.

There’s a fair mix from both critically acclaimed albums ‘The Joy of Nothing’ and ‘The Wild Swan’. From ‘Janey’ to ‘Coco’, ‘She Burns’ and ‘Ziggy Looked Me in the Eye’ – then continuing that revolutionary vibe with ‘Noam Chomsky is a Soft Revolution’.

‘Moonshine’ was an interesting addition. Released as a single last year, it features on the soundtrack for the Ben Affleck movie Live by Night. Foy is now living at the foot of the Scottish highlands, where better than to have a little illegal whisky still on the go?

Which of course, he doesn’t as making poteen or ‘moonshine’ is illegal – but if he did, have a wee whisky still on the go, he’d write a song about it. And here we have it – with just a touch of poetic irony – in full glare of the Custom House! No finer night for it.

Foy welcomes on stage Darragh Murphy and his lilting uilleann pipe for ‘The Wild Swans on the Lake’. The audience hums and it sounds like bees swarming. A beautiful song of inevitable Celtic charm – it sounds and feels like an ancient, evocative traditional air but it’s not – first appearing on ‘The Wild Swan’, released just last year. Chills.

It’s been nine years since Amy MacDonald was in Belfast. She was a constant companion in my car many years ago – it’s hard to believe she released ‘This is the Life’ in 2007. Three more albums follow and she tells us she’s thirty next week. She opens with the crowd pleaser ‘Spark’ and I’m reminded of those spacemen flying high and astronauts in the sky – but ‘don’t worry, I’m OK now’.

She’s been touring and it’s good to be back in the UK – but hey Belfast – we are far too well behaved on a Saturday night!

I don’t listen to her much these days so it’s a joy to hear her powerful and authentic voice – I need to listen more. I like what I hear from the new album, ‘Under the Stars’ – particularly ‘Dream On’ and ‘Down by the Water’. I was hoping for more from the early years. I was hoping for her cover of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ – that would have gone down well here, but alas. Not tonight lass.

One of the many beautiful things about this CHSQ concert is the line up just got better and better, even though I’m looking at it in reverse. Foy Vance talked about the amount of talent that comes out of Northern Ireland – that’s not hyperbole – it’s totally true.

Portaferry’s own Ryan McMullan has a voice would curl steel girders. He’s been touring with Ed Sheeran – surely casting him straight on to that fan base’s consciousness. I’d first heard him in the Waterfront a few years ago, where he filled every atom with his version, a capella, of ‘The Lakes of Pontchartrain‘’ – but tonight it is his unexpected cover of ‘Maniac of Love’ – yes, that one from the 1983 film Flashdance – that wins us over. Something completely different but it worked.

The prize for unexpected cover song of the night goes to David C Clements. It took a moment to figure it out – a stunning version of Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’.

I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. Gig of the year so far, by far.

Photos by Gerry McNally Photography.