Amanda St John live at CQAF

An empowering and soulful night of gospel and blues in The Black Box, Belfast as Amanda St John wows at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

Effervescent – one word to describe Amanda St. John’s stage presence.

Her obvious joy and enthusiasm to be on stage at the Black Box for her long-time-coming album launch bubbles over. It spills onto the audience and assorted musicians that buffer a queen bee, for she certainly has that quality.

In a dress that would give Jessica Rabbit red dress envy, Amanda comes across as a natural, a complete ‘pro’ content in her own skin, at one with a definitive talent. She makes it seem effortless – yet it wasn’t always so.

Years spent engulfed in self-doubt and persecution, tied up in perpetual knots that prevented her from reaching out and up for the good fruit; stifling the artist and performer she shielded inside.

Amanda St John

Photo © Bernie McAllister (CQAF)

Seeds sown in her early teens (singing in pubs and with cover bands) took forever to germinate; cramped by turbulent and difficult life events – the type that if left untendered stunt growth. It was a near death experience in 2011, a serious car accident that ended with her 300ft off-road, down a mountainside – and fighting for her life that changed all that. Hence, the epiphany – that this life is for living in the here and now.

Little wonder then that Amanda’s debut album is titled ‘Grow’, and that many of her upbeat songs belt out positivity and her live-for-the-moment, no regrets philosophy.

I’d listened through the album a few times already – and confess it took a while to grow on me but grow it did. The wow moment on ‘Grow’ is the opening sequence, a potent introduction just 1 minute 27 seconds of gospel harmony, the word ‘grow’ as drawling mantra. Only 87 seconds, with what sounded like a full gospel choir, I didn’t think it would possibly be included in this live set – but proof that anything is possible, Amanda takes to the stage to say she’ll be doing the album all the way through, kick-starting with that invitation to ‘Grow’. Well, stone the crows her two backing singers are superb, even if one is still aching from running the Belfast marathon the day before, bless her – doesn’t stop those vocals roar.

It’s a tight squeeze on stage – an eight-piece band – including trumpet, sax, drums and the rest. Yet it takes that to fully reflect that big, bold ethos and sound, to capture all the moods and moments of ‘Grow’ – an album that features strong, one-word titles; ‘Stop’, ‘Reach’, ‘Notion’, ‘Melodies’, ‘Ready’.

If she’s nervous, it doesn’t show. She can banter with the best of them in that North Antrim accent. Her voice is flawless.

Clearly she’s held in high esteem by talented peers of pedigree. Linley Hamilton’s name may be synonymous with jazz here. He has been a huge support to Amanda, a constant mentor, and champion (he joins the band on stage with his trumpet). She collaborated with MOBO nominated local jazz musician David Lyttle on the outstanding ‘Melodies’; and worked with Nashville writer-producer John Niven, with a bow of credits to his name); and of course, all produced by local maestro Michael Mormecha. She does them all justice here tonight.

‘If I Should Fall’ and ‘Big Strong Man’ stand out.

Lovers of soul, gospel, blues will fall for it. Anyone who needs a high dose of positive, empowering, rejuvenating music as medicine will get into that zone through Amanda St. John and ‘Grow’.

May the fruits of her labours grow long and strong.