An expectant music-loving crowd filled the Ulster Hall waiting for Mary Black to produce her usual high calibre show. They were not to be disappointed. Indeed this gig surpassed her last stellar appearance at the same venue two years ago, before the world closed down.
Classic song followed fan favourite. Musical excellence, Mary’s natural charm, and supreme musicality were the watchwords for the evening. Richie Buckley’s saxophone, superb throughout the night, ushered in a quality version of ‘Another Day’.
‘Adam At The Window’ was followed by Mary relating an encounter with an irate “feminist” whose misinterpretation of the song led her to tell the singer that “Adam won’t have his way!”. The song is about a baby growing, rather than any misogyny. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s beautiful ‘The Moon And St. Christopher’, was delivered with such yearning and whimsy, that it was impossible not to be caught up in the sheer emotion of the song.
Shane Howard’s ‘Flesh And Blood’ provided a distinct pick up in the pace. It’s a pacey tale of communication and communion, and another jewel in the Mary Black catalogue. ‘No Frontiers’ was the first of two songs played with a backing track from The National Symphony Orchestra. Lifted from her ‘Orchestrated’ album, it took the song to a new level.
Mary and her sister Francis have a long history of being active in areas of social justice and activism, and Mary gives a glowing testament to a local charity – The People’s Kitchen – in Belfast, which supports people who are homeless and those on the periphery of society, and are collecting donations at the gig.
‘The Mountains And The Sea’ was a nice tie-in song to the charity’s work, as she sang of the importance of a home, and a place to lay one’s head. The greatest hits continued to come thick and fast, as one magical tune followed another.
A rueful ‘Circus’, the exuberance of ‘Carolina Rua’, and ‘Don’t Say Okay’, and a splendid reading of ‘Bright Blue Rose’, were all welcomed with rapturous applause.
But one of the biggest receptions of the evening was given to a stirring ‘Song For Ireland’, with Mary’s strong velvet-like voice, ringing clear as a bell around the old beloved venue.
The tempo changed constantly during the night, and the band was quite magnificent throughout, marshalled by the great Bill Shanley on guitar, the aforementioned Richie Buckley, Pat Crowley on keys, Nick Scott on bass, and apparently dispatched with some speed as a very late replacement on drums, Rod Quinn. An extended play on ‘Fat Valley Of Pain’ allowed each musician to really show what they can do.
Micheal McGovern, who had earlier delivered a fine opening support slot, returned to the stage to help Mary with a rallying cry for the oppressed that is Bob Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’.
Mary dedicated the song to her sister Frances, who continues to fight on behalf of the Palestinian people, and the Afghan people fighting famine. It’s a hugely emotive song and sung with great conviction and gusto.
The reasons for Mary Black’s success and status as a musical and national icon are clear. The beautiful voice, obviously, her skill at choosing special material and making a song her very own, her assembly of a superbly talented band.
But perhaps more than anything else, Mary Black connects with people. Her songs are delivered with style, and charm, and always with good grace. Her songs resonate with folk and live long after the music has stopped. There is an ability to interpret a song and make it personal to each person in the room and bind them together in a common experience. That is a rare talent.
We are lucky to have her.