I can’t resist, I just got to open this review with “we are gathered here today, to celebrate the launch of Matt McGinn’s second album, Latter Day Sinner.”

I can’t resist, for maybe there’s a latent lay preacher in me, or some residue left from my teenage years in the convent, a fascination for iconography and places of spirituality, but here I am on the fiftieth anniversary of my birth, in a church by choice, when I generally avoid them at the best of times, only darkening their doors on occasion of births, deaths and marriages.

I can’t resist the temptation to say that I applaud this growing use of churches for gigs, not just for the enhanced acoustics therein, but for the respect in which the quality of musicianship is honoured.

Some of the best gigs this year have been in Bangor Abbey (Steve Earle, Voy Vance, Lloyd Cole, Eddi Reader), and a memorable one last December in Lisburn Cathedral with David C Clements, Malojian and Rosie Carney. I missed the previous gigs here in St George’s where the altar was graced by the likes of The Webb Sisters, Mary Gauthier, and as Matt McGinn later quipped, God.

Hard acts to follow, but McGinn elevates the congregation by his presence, humility, subtle wit, gentle banter, and sheer song-writing brilliance.

Earlier in the day, I’d had the most peculiar, somewhat surreal conversation with a stranger in which the parable of the talents came up – and the choice whether to bury them, or make the most of what we’ve been gifted and here, is an assortment of talents before me.

On Hammond/keyboard John McCullough, on drums Rab Bennett, bass/double bass by Conor McCreanor and Colm McClean on pedal steel guitar (which injects intermittent ethereal rendition) and additional acoustic guitar.

At first Matt seems a tad tense, but that soon dissipates. Kicking off with the opening track from the new album, the melodic ‘I’m Not Looking Down Anymore’, complete with some outstanding lyrics. By the time the second track on Latter Day Sinner ‘Lie’ is served to us live, McGinn is more relaxed, the tension has dropped from the shoulders and he’s starting to enjoy the moment, albeit with an endearing, self-effacing quality that suggests he has no idea how warm his stage presence and kindly physiognomy come across to the congregation, like some latter day beatific sinner.

‘Lie’ is pure quality. The opening bars chill the spine. ‘Lie’ allows McGinn’s voice to soar and to shine, with purity and clarity. ‘Lie’ betrays his talent, there’s no hiding it now.

Welcome on stage the first guest of the evening – Rachel Coulter (Farriers) looking statuesque and stunning in an LBD*. She joins McGinn on the album and again here on the altar. ‘What Happens’ is delivered with grace and dignity, voices blending in perfect unity. Rachel hasn’t sang the song since it was first recorded a year and a half ago so she clutches a folded lyric sheet in her hands, regardless, the words flow naturally.

With snippets of banter between and about the songs, the fourth song is the quite refined ‘We’re Fine’ most of the time, dedicated to partner and child at home, followed by ‘Fall Into You’ dedicated to the audience, bless him. Again, he hits the high notes with the ease of an eagle in full flight.

Now McGinn tells us that while he was singing, he had decided he wasn’t going to talk between the songs after that. However, this next song, he decides, needs some explaining and am so glad he did for it’s enlightening.

‘You Have Your Dreams’ is a ballad-esque, poignant, heart-twister of a tune, and all the better now I’ve heard the tale of its inception. It goes something like this: A couple of years ago, Matt was driving down the Newtownards Road, rushing to a gig. For a few days he’d had a melody floating around inside his head but the words hadn’t yet found form. Out of the corner of his eye, beneath the gawdy blue cross of a church, Matt sees a wee woman sitting on the steps, so he puts his imagination into gear and comes up with a story, which may or may not be the true but the essence is probable, so he went home, and wrote the song called ‘You Have Your Dreams’. Despite the gut-wrenching lyrics, this is about glimmers of hope in rain-drenched inner-city despair and darkness.

And now for something a little more up tempo – it gives Matt great pleasure to use the phrase – “here’s one from the old album”. ‘Livin’’ was released in 2011, and Matt treats us to the title track, followed by ‘Ring The Bells, also from the first album – a song written 16 years ago about a good friend who went to the US of A but didn’t make it back. Given the nature of the venue, ‘Ring The Bells’ is an appropriate offering of ‘Livin’’, dyin’ and the joys and suffering in the interim. ‘Ring The Bells’ even has the possibility of being a Christmas song, whether that was the intention or not. Maybe Matt might give that some consideration.

McGinn gives “the lads” as he calls them a break, as he welcomes up the aisle his second guest of the evening – no less than Ben Glover. There’s clearly a creative connection between this pair. Two years ago, they went down to Hilltown to write a few songs, ended up recording them, and the collaboration resulted in an EP titled ‘The Crossroads Sessions’.

In harmony they sing ‘The One Thing You Can Believe In’ but the best is yet to come – a rendition of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ (or ‘Will Ye Go Lassie’, originally penned by Francis McPeake). Beautiful.

Back to Latter Day Sinner, ‘World Of Time’ as solo, then a nod to the song writing skills of Gareth Dunlop and Kim Ritchie before he heralds in the full glory of the assembled musicians as they come back for the closing songs. Matt shows his gratitude to those who’ve helped make this a special night from the band, the guests, the sound guys, to the reverend and venue manager John McArt.

Despite being “dosed with the cold this week” there’s been no hint of that in his voice, as they close with the rousing, spiritually tinged ‘Darkest Before The Day’. Along with contemporaries and friends like Messrs Glover and Dunlop, Mr McGinn proves in ‘Latter Day Sinner’ that he’s on a par with the crème de la crème of Northern Irish song writing talent.

May he no longer hide his light beneath that bushel, may he shed the yoke and let it burn bright. Best wishes to Matt McGinn with this truthful and beautiful offering ‘Latter Day Sinner’. Buy it for someone you love for it’s a gift, or put it on your Christmas list. Well done!

*LBD – Little Black Dress for the uninitiated.