The Portico, Portaferry
28th July 2018

Rodney Crowell is rightly regarded as country music royalty. A two-time Grammy winner, recipient of six Americana Music awards, member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, his work has been covered by numerous music legends including Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Van Morrison, Bob Seger, and Willie Nelson to name a few.

So, when news broke of a tour in smaller, more intimate venues, such as the beautiful Portico in Portaferry, tickets sold like hot cakes. The ornate Presbyterian church, 177 years old and lovingly restored three years ago, allegedly modeled on the Temple of Nemesis on the Greek island of Rhamnous, is a perfect backdrop for what was simply a stunning tour de force by Crowell.

The evening begins from a high point with local man Matt McGinn providing a high quality set of songs to the assembled masses. Presented with Matt’s usual wit and Bonhomie, he asks the audience to open their hymn books at page 112, to much mirth, before delivering a short set. His soulful voice, slightly reminiscent of Van at times, resounds with the odd Northern Irish inflection that makes his songs so grounded and real. We are very fortunate to see such a rich vein of local talent at present, and Matt is right up there with the very best, particularly when producing songs of the quality of ‘Somewhere To Run To’ and ‘Darkest Before The Day’.

After a short break, on to the stage strides Rodney Crowell accompanied by two, accompanying musicians. Over the course of the next two hours, we are introduced to the delights of guitar virtuoso Joe Robinson and fiddle and mandolin player extraordinaire Eamon McLoughlin.

Opening with classics ‘Glasgow Girl’ and ‘Earthbound’, the bar is set high for the evening but it’s a level of consistency that never lets up.

Crowell’s voice is seemingly as strong as ever and belying his 67 years. ‘Stuff That Works’, a co-write with his old friend Guy Clark, might be as succinct a review of this gig, as you need.

Stuff that works. Stuff that holds up is the kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall. Stuff that’s real. That stuff you feel is the stuff you always reach for when you fall.

Crowell has taken his glorious songbook, stripped it down to its bare essentials, and adorned them in a fine new set of clothes. Gone are the singing lap-steel, and bass and drum replaced with the guitar of Joe Robinson and the emotive tones of McLoughlin’s violin.

Robinson’s, playing is incredible, and I do not use the word loosely. A previous winner of Australia’s Got Talent, I am sure I am not the only person counting the digits on his hands such is the dexterity exhibited and the sweet sounds emanating from his instrument. At one point, Crowell, displaying his trademark generosity, sits at the back of the stage with his fiddle player, while Robinson plays a bewildering and quite moving instrumental version of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’.

Eamon Mcloughlin’s contribution to the night is no less a deal. His melodic and insightful playing on the mandolin is only bettered by his bright and sensitive fiddle playing. Throw in an ear catching turn on vocals on ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’, and you have a stage full of talent which delights and enthralls its audience in equal measure. To say that the live version of ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’ is every bit as good as the recorded version which features Rosanne Cash and John Paul White from The Civil Wars, is an indication of the sheer quality of tonight’s gig.

As Rodney suggests:

Sometimes you get it right!

There’s a lot of humour here too. “Here’s a cautionary tale”, he tells us before the genre-defining anti-country-and-western song.

It’s hard to kiss the lips at night that chew your ass all day long.

A title right up there with ‘How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life’.

Songs that have become staples in the Americana songbook continue with ‘I’m Learning To Fly’ and ‘Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight’. This is a personal favourite, covered so beautifully by Emmylou Harris.

Rodney tells the audience that the last ferry will leaving soon so they have to finish. One wit shouts out, “Let them get the boat, we’re staying tonight. Sing on!” Sadly, it is time to finish, and how do you finish such an exemplary show? Simple. A singalong, a Townes Van Zandt song, and the classic, ‘Pancho and Lefty’.

Rodney Crowell’s last two albums ‘Close Ties’ and ‘Tarpaper Sky’ have generally been regarded as his strongest in years. His new album is ‘Acoustic Classics’ and replicates versions of some of the songs played here in the Portico. On the basis of this show, it will be a blinder. There’s not a sinner in this church would disagree.