Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Sunday 9th September 2018

Lit by a single spotlight, Gretchen Peters picks a soft refrain as she sings the haunting ‘Arguing With Ghosts’. The song examines the ageing process and one’s own sense of mortality. It sets the scene for a night of impeccably played music, challenging ideas, and a little hope in these troubled times.

Gretchen Peters began her musical career writing hits for Patty Loveless, Bryan Adams, and Neil Diamond among others. Producing a number of fine country albums in her own name, her music over the course of the last few albums has seen her move from catchy love songs to more heady matters.

Belfast’s Lyric Theatre stage is dressed with the set for ‘Good Vibrations’, a play based on the life of local legend Terri Hooley. Initially the set of a run down city centre with shut shops and graffitied walls is a distraction but strangely, as songs emerge of troubled minds and a land divided by suspicion and racism, the backdrop actually makes sense in a way.

I get lost in my hometown since they tore the drive-in down.

Arguing With Ghosts

She tells us that she began to write the songs on the album on the night of the American election. But rather than angry songs of “Dump Trump”, these are much more considered pieces. She tells of the schisms and distrust that have continued to develop in her country since that night:

I come straight home from work and fix my supper. Don’t burn one with my neighbour anymore. Ever since he put that sticker on his bumper, I just turn out the lights and lock the doors.

Lowlands

The songs demand attention, as tales of young girls avenging their abused sister, depression, and unrequited love flow from the stage. Peters lets the songs speak for themselves before addressing the audience. She tells us the past few months she has been singing these songs about women, and it has been like touring with “a bunch of sisters”. Her band of three males look a bit sheepish at this point, but their time will come.

‘Blackbirds’ gets a call out for Ben Glover as co-writer. Ben has in fact become Gretchen’s partner in a number of compositions, including the gloriously brooding ‘Dancing With The Beast’ and ‘Truckstop Angel’.

Barry Walsh is Gretchen’s longtime musical and life partner. He helps move things along apace with little fills of keyboard and atmospheric stints on accordion, which helps give ‘The Matador’ its eerie feel.

Two other local men of note are rhythm section Conor McCreanor, and Colm McClean, who dazzles with several superb solos, never detracting from the vocal and the lyric, always inventive and fluid.

The pace changes up in volume and speed with an ode to veterans coming back to a world that has moved on without them in ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’, and the wondrous ‘Woman On The Wall’, where the female protagonist asks us to confront our own failures and fears while watching her own death defying feats:

They say I’ve got a death wish, yeah, but I don’t think that’s true. As far as I can see, it’s less about me and more about you. You see it ain’t your fears so much as what your fears reveal. I’m just the woman on the wheel.

The majority of the set is comprised from her last three albums. The one major concession to her delightful back catalogue is the haunting ‘Bus To St. Cloud’.

The encore is rememberable for two different reasons. The first is a spirited rendition of Rodney Crowell tune, ‘Ain’t Living Long Like This’, which sees Walsh kick his stool backwards, and fly at the keyboard with gusto, which is met by equalling shining solos from the Fender of Colm McClean. This is pure musical theatre at its best, with Little Richard present in spirit in the shape of Barry Walsh.

The second reason is very special. Gretchen Peters makes her way to the edge of the stage and delivers a spine-tingling solo version of ‘Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea’. In the hands of someone less adept, such a tittle could be a hackneyed, over-sentimental country and western song.

In Gretchen’s voice, it is a thing of pure beauty, leaving the audience with some balm, comfort and hope, in a world full of obstacles. Her voice is soft and you wish she could have sang more songs like this. But which songs would you have given up to make way?

Real love does not build walls our make mighty noises about its power. Real love can do huge things and right wrongs. But love that lasts does the little things that help us all get to the next day with hope.

But there is love that makes a cup of tea, love that loves both who you are and who you want to be, love that waits for you when you fall behind. That’s the kind of love I hope you find.

A perfect message to send us home feeling better about all around us after a truly special night of music.

Gretchen Peters Setlist Lyric Theatre Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland 2018