Mary Coughlan live in Belfast
It’s become something of an annual event for a Mary Coughlan gig at The Black Box this time of year, and so in what’s now effectively a tradition, she’s back – on Thursday 26th November – this time with a new album under her belt. ‘Scars on the Calendar’ is her first since 2008’s ‘The House of Ill Repute’, reframing her three decade collaboration with Erik Visser (this is the ninth album produced by Visser for Coughlan).
While the crowd are in buoyant anticipation of the flame haired fiery one, we have the talents of Brigid O’Neill (accompanied by John McGurgan). First time I’ve seen her and she’s a great vocalist – with a fine collection of songs, including some from her 2014 EP ‘Arrivals and Departures’ that show her range and talent – from ‘Don’t Make Me Go To Town’, ‘Wrong Time, Wrong Place’ and the weighty symbolism of ‘Helium Balloon’.
‘Mid-Week Magic Club’ was inspired by The Black Box’s own event of the same name, finishing up with the catchy, strong country vibe of ‘You’re Never Gonna Get To Heaven’. Later, when Mary Coughlan thanks her support act and says there’s one of these songs she’d like to pinch, I’m left wondering which one it could be for truly, they are all contenders.
Then along came Mary – kicking off with ‘Meet Me Where They Sing The Blues’, and while misery may love company, they say, this one gets the set off to a momentous start. It’s far from miserable Mary this night (although God knows she’s had her share), for you can sense the joie de vivre from the back. She’s on form and that energy ripples round the room.
She knows how to entertain, she doesn’t need to know how to hold a note – that just comes naturally, all the way up from the base chakra. Surely, she is one of the greatest female voices forged from this land. Not far from sixty, it’s a miracle she’s still standing, a testament to some core inner strength that saw her kick the booze and reclaim her career, with an esteemed place in Irish music history (rather than just a foot note).
With her earthy humour, colourful language and Celtic goddess credentials, she slides into a song written by her first ex-husband (that gets a whoop), ‘Double Cross’ with its ironically memorable chorus (‘It’s all quite forgotten now’).
Responsibility for a repertoire as extensive as this, it must become increasingly impossible to compile a setlist, but this would be remiss without an offering from the new album. ‘Blood’, from ‘Scars on the Calendar’ – needs a story and of course, in the Irish tradition, Mary is a natural storyteller – taking us back to the hauntings of her early years in Galway. After mitching, ‘acting the maggot’ and getting up to all sorts as a schoolgirl and teenager, to being admitted to a mental hospital aged just 16 – sure it all makes for great material, and hence, we hear ‘Blood’, about broken homes, broken families and other cheerful stuff.
So, to lift the tempo, but still in the groove of those lost years, comes the humour of ‘You Came Too Soon’, about um, granny turning up at the front door when innocent Mary was doing nothing more innocuous than listening to Leonard Cohen to drown out the sounds from above. Young people yesterday, eh? So, how to follow that then? Ah, a song about knickers. Heavens above. What would Donegal granny say?
She swigs on a bottle of water. When I first saw her, sometime in the late eighties in London, she swigged on champagne. She staggered back and forth back then, this time, I get a sense of real joy and love for what she’s doing, celebrating her gift and surrounded by an ace group of talented musicians – ‘the absolute legend’ Jimmy Smyth on guitar, Johnny Taylor on piano, Cormac O’Brien on bass and Dominic Mullan on drums.
And even though these are soulful, at times sorrowful songs, delivered with real honest emotion, I can’t help feeling this sensation of joy and earthy humour – of really just having fun because she can. And she does.
‘You Can’t Make Me Love You’ is hardly the most joyous of tunes, but when followed by ‘Seduced’ and ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking, she’s stomping around that small Black Box stage as if it’s too small to hold that fulsome spirit. Fun times indeed.
Mary’s version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ has become legendary – with Jimmy’s interpretation and Cormac’s bow on double bass, she invokes that deep, dark sound only she can do with an intensity of emotion that can knot stomachs and shred hearts.
If ever a song evokes that Celtic pagan heritage it’s ‘Ancient Rain’, powerfully and melodically celebrating Samhain, yet nothing could prepare you for Mary’s version of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ to seal the night, followed by ‘You Send Me’ as encore – solid proof, if any was needed,that this woman’s all soul.
If you missed her this time, you missed out. She’ll be back this time next year. Make it a date.