Northern Lights at the Black Box, Belfast
It’s a sell-out show – standing room only. Seems Sunday afternoon in Belfast really is the new Friday night.
Outside the Cathedral Quarter’s cobbled streets are sunray-soaked; inside the Black Box is cool as it ever is. On stage are three of Northern Ireland’s finest singer-songwriters – a triskele of talent. The idea to link these three together – under the moniker “Northern Lights” was inspired. You could say bards of a feather flock together, for the similarity in substance and style is striking. Matt McGinn, Ben Glover and Stevie Scullion of Malojian are perfectly matched, but each their own man. This “combo” just gels well.
There is humility, humour, good grace and mutual respect. Each artist has a growing catalogue, lists of credits and collaborations – from Matt sharing a stage with Paul McCartney to Crosby Stills and Nash; Ben writing with Gretchen Peters, Mary Gauthier and other Nashville luminaries to Stevie’s credentials well documented, most recently working with legendary producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and The Pixies).
This is the last in a series of local shows for the Northern Lights “collective” (although more follow in Europe). It’s incredibly relaxed. A genuine collaboration rather than “in the round” format.
First among equals is Matt McGinn with ‘I’m Not Looking Down Anymore’ from his excellent ‘Latter Day Sinner’ album; Ben follows that with a fitting home coming tune while Mr Malojian goes for the best rainy day song ever written (‘Watch The Rain’), one thing we’ll not be doing this fine Sunday.
McGinn’s ‘Lie’ is stunningly beautiful – but telling lies and selling your soul is usually not a good idea as Robert Johnson found out to his cost at The Crossroads; the legendary tale re-told with regret by Ben in ‘Oh Soul’. From the Mississippi Delta to Malojianland – for Scullion’s jaunty, whistling ‘Bathtub Blues’, famously written on the bog.
McGinn’s ‘You Have Your Dreams’ is a kind of ‘Streets of London’ Belfast style – except a) it’s better and b) it’s located on the Newtownards Road – in the rain (what else?)
Some brand new material from Malojian – a taste of what’s to come from the aforementioned Steve Albini produced album. Proof that artistic collaboration can move mountains – well material things maybe – Glover fills us in on the spooky shenanigans while recording last year’s outstanding album by The Orphan Brigade (a collaboration composed of Ben Glover, Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt, Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey and others). ‘Soundtrack To A Ghost Story’ was recorded in one of America’s most haunted houses. On the surface ‘Sweetheart’ seems steady and upbeat, but the undercurrent is chilling. “Don’t take my children away, they’re too young to see the end.”
The second half brings us much loved Malojian favourites – those tunes that stay lodged in your head (welcome ear worms). The between song anecdotes and the banter among friends is utterly natural and endearing – clearly these three are cut from the same cloth and their artistry woven by invisible thread, such is the ease of effort and perfect fit. ‘Julie-Ann’ (written after young Stevie spent a night on the tiles, literally – in Lurgan police station); ‘Crease Of Your Smile’ – the attempt to remember the faces of those dearly departed; and my favourite anecdote of the afternoon from that gentle Malojian-man: young Scullion goes to sign on the “brew”.
“What do you do?” asks the chap at the dole. “I’m a song writer”. Not many of those about Lurgan – so “I’ll put you down for factory work”. Yet out of that tort exchange at the dole office, came the memorable ‘What Am I Worth?’ Priceless!
The Northern Lights aurora is on full beam for this second half. Spotlight on McGinn for ‘Latter Day Sinner’; and a new song – simply titled ‘Refugees’, making powerful statements welded in music and song – just as Glover does right after with ‘Prisoner’ – a passionate song about letting go of the past.
If the first half was gentle and chilled, the choices for the closing section are potent, rolling over to the dark side – soulful, earthy and raw. I speak of McGinn’s soulful ‘Darkest Before The Dawn’ and of course Glover’s ‘Blackbirds’ – a gut-grabber, penned with Gretchen Peters and scooping Best Song at the 2016 UK Americana Awards.
Fuelled by murder, purged by poison, bad seeds and the smell of gasoline, ‘Blackbirds’ grips you by the throat and throttles. Then Glover introduces us to huffy Harriet in ‘Trouble My Heart’ (she’s the bold ghost of that big old haunted house where The Orphan Brigade was recorded.
What a Sunday afternoon – thankfully it’s scorching and bright outside – otherwise I might have been spooked all the way home. But these three had the audience hooked for knocking on three hours (interval included). Sadly, that was the last of the Northern Lights shows here – no doubt they’ll be back by popular demand sometime soon. One of the finale shows for Cathedral Quarter Arts Fest – just great to see the Black Box thriving at its best.
Photos © 2016 Nurse Ratched.