Almost three years to the day since his last appearance in Belfast, Martin Stephenson returned to the Black Box and enchanted a packed crowd with two hours of banter, craic, stories and great, great music. Those who say there are no characters left in music, obviously haven’t been to a Daintees show.
At times it is almost Vaudevillian in nature, but such a description might serve to deflect from the sheer excellence of the music. Stephenson writes brilliant songs and performs them with a style and joie de vivre that is infectious and unstoppable. That he is not lauded as a star is criminal, but for those in the beloved little venue in Hill Street, he is a delight to behold.
Few genres are left untouched; pop, rock, folk, jazz, Americana (Martin jests this is the musical equivalent of a flat white, as he can’t understand coffee varieties either), and “surf” music all get a run out. Bedecked in Hawaiian shirts, the superb band blasts off with title track of his new album and homage to Japanese guitarist Chi Chi Nakamura, with some great fiddle playing from Jim Morrison… cue some running Doors jokes from Stephenson.
Classics like the glorious ‘Wholly Humble Heart’, and ‘Running Water’ sit comfortably alongside newer songs like ‘Honour Me’ and ‘Sad Waltz’. He is joined on vocals by his partner, Anna Lavigne for the rather lovely ‘Paris in the Rain’ and the equally gorgeous ‘Signposts to Heaven’. Anna’s soft refrain lends a beautiful foil to Martin’s dulcet tones. Martin is well acquainted with Ireland having spent time in Cork and he knows his way about this town too.
This is not a “Hello Belfast” kinda gig. Bap Kennedy, our much-missed troubadour, is given a warm tribute by Martin. Past gigs are mentioned including a shout out to the lamented Rotterdam, scene of many a fine gig by so many artists.
Frances Black is also acknowledged for giving her support to the nearby St. Patrick’s Soup Kitchen and Martin suggests Boris Johnson could learn a thing or two by visiting the people who visit the Kitchen each Friday and Saturday night.
Belfast has taken to Martin as one of their own. The fabulous ‘Rain’ morphs into a rocking version of Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ to the delight of the crowd. A loving tribute is also played to Leonard Cohen and a solo version of ‘Susanne’ is met with some proper order at last, by a disappointingly at times, chattering crowd.
That’s what only the really special artists can do. Have you welling up with tears one minute with the lyric from ‘Me and Mathew’, written about his grandfather, and have you bouncing around the floor in response to the irresistible groove of ‘Little Red Bottle’ or perennial fan-favourite, ‘Wholly Humble Heart’.
And Martin Stephenson is special! Ending with the self-deprecating ‘Crocodile Cryer’ Martin magically unscrews the fretboard of his guitar and leaves the stage to his bandmates to finish the song.
This is a typical Stephenson gesture, making sure that all the band is feted by the crowd, as he is, as he battles his way through the crowd to the green room, at the back of the hall. Martin is the undoubted star, but his superb band all deserve a mention. Alongside the aforementioned Anna Lavigne and Jim Morrison, we have the stellar Gary Dunn on guitar, Chris Mordey on bass and the beautifully named Shayne Fontayne on drums.
Check out Martin’s classic early albums, “Gladsome, Humour and Blue” and “Boat to Bolivia”. Thirty years down the line, he is putting out albums of the same Quality in “Brady Square” and “Chi Chi and The Jaguar”. On record, the songs are great. In a live setting, the man takes over and becomes an entertainment centre on his own. If you missed this gig, I am truly sorry for your loss.