The Waterfront Hall, Belfast
3rd April 2018
It was a rainy night in Belfast, the tail end of the Easter break. The faithful fans of Beth Nielsen Chapman had braved the elements to worship at The Waterfront. The night before, she’d played the Portico in Portaferry. They were told they had to finish on time because people had to catch the ferry. That must have seemed both quaint and poetic, especially as on the far side of Strangford Lough, Beth’s great-great-grandmother was born and raised near Downpatrick, on a poverty-stricken, tiny patch of land. She tells us she went to visit the place – and was clearly moved by the experience, a chance to reflect on her ancestors, on their home ground.
That was just one of the many anecdotes and stories Beth Nielsen Chapman charmingly weaved through her set. Her warm, humorous, kind and affectionate character shone through the gaps between songs – yet clearly, her thinking runs deep, her insights into life and the human condition profound.
In her engaging chats with the audience, we learned so much – not least that it often takes several years, maybe even decades for a song to be made, while others just come forth unannounced. It is life’s experience that forms the songs, yet sometimes, it takes years for that life experience to manifest fully, so the song can take form. A case in point is her opening track – ‘Life Holds On’ – which took from the age of 11 to 35 – seeds that were sown in the mind of a child, wondering how life grew out of the cracks in the concrete. It is a song about hope – and that’s a theme that seems to flow throughout the set. Hope. And love.
Joined on stage by her ‘band’ – the Three Rs she jokingly calls them – local woman Ruth Trimble, Liverpudlians Robbie Vincent and Robbie Taylor (who had already treated us to half a dozen songs as support).
There’s a joyful sort of camaraderie at play on stage – among such a bunch of talented multi-instrumentalists, each accomplished songwriters in their own right.
Tonight Ruth Trimble flits between piano and bass guitar. She also double jobs as Beth’s tour manager, hard drive, and all-round multi-talented right-hand woman. In fact, she may just be one of Beth’s best discoveries. The young Drumbo pharmacist was working in Boots when she sent a demo to Beth, got a scholarship in 2009 to one of Beth’s legendary songwriting workshops in Nashville, Tennessee – and three solo albums later, she’s running the show – most recently accompanying Beth with Kimmie Rhodes and Olivia Newton-John, and even catching the attention of the Old Grey Whistle Test’s whispering Bob Harris.
That aforementioned distinguished gentleman is also a fan of Robbie Vincent – who was handpicked to perform on the recent BBC4 special, Old Grey Whistle Test Live: For One Night Only. It’s been a good year so far for the Liverpool man – he also just picked up 2018 UK Album of the Year at the UK Americana Awards for ‘I’ll Make The Most Of My Sins’.
Such is the pedigree on stage at the Waterfront studio tonight. While there are moments from Beth’s back catalogue, the emphasis is on her latest album ‘Hearts Of Glass’. The cheery ‘Enough For Me’ with its whistling intro (skilfully delivered by the Three Rs on this occasion) to ‘Old Church Hymns and Nursery Rhymes’, a song Beth originally wrote for Waylon Jennings (as featured on 1990’s ‘The Eagle’).
Between songs, Beth fills us in on the circumstances behind these songs. For example, the beautiful ‘Epitaph For Love’ had haunted her for eighteen years, but never materialised. It began during her grief for her first husband who died in 1994 – but it was only when she hit a rough patch in her second marriage, a row that almost ended things, that ‘Epitaph For Love’ emerged fully formed.
As already mentioned – the L word features routinely in Beth’s canon – next up, ‘All For The Love’, often selected as a wedding song, with low divorce rates (although there is no empirical evidence for this).
Things take a darker turn for ‘Rage On Rage’, also from ‘Hearts Of Glass’ and based loosely on stories she heard as a young woman about her great-grandparents stormy marriage and the impact of alcohol addiction.
Just like an Irish sky the mood changes again, for ‘Happy Girl’ and a playful song about chocolate and vanilla – well, it is Easter after all.
Another song written and performed by Willie Nelson makes it on to ‘Hearts Of Glass’ – ‘If My World Didn’t Have You’ was penned by Beth after her second husband’s leukaemia diagnosis (thankfully, a curable kind), and following that rough patch, ‘You’re Still My Valentine’ is an old-fashioned love song, recently written, but feels as if it belongs to another time.
The richness and beauty of these songs from ‘Hearts Of Glass’ performed live, is tantamount to this woman’s outstanding and inimitable talent. Her many collaborations and covers with and by the great and the good reflect that.
Now, both Beth and Robbie Vincent have had the great honour of attending and writing with Chris Difford (founding member of Squeeze and prolific songwriter himself) at his renowned songwriting retreats in an old stately home near Glastonbury. Here, she wrote ‘Come To Mine’ with Chris, the upbeat, joyful opening track of ‘Hearts Of Glass’, a sort of celebration of friendship.
A fine night of quality music with a clearly appreciative audience. She rounds off with a couple of favourites – songs made famous by Faith Hill (‘The Kiss’) and Willie Nelson (‘Nothing I Can Do About It Now’) – both well-known songs and clear crowd pleasers. For the encore – ‘All You Need Is Love’. Naturally.
There is a standing ovation. It is the last night of the tour. But Beth says she’d like to be back in Belfast before the end of the year. Let’s hope for better weather next time – outside, the rain still pours.