Mary Coughlan live in Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast

After the lockdown, Mary Coughlan took the stage in Belfast's historic Crumlin Road Gaol for an emotional evening of music in the lock-up.

Mary Coughlan

Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast

After sixteen months with Covid restrictions bringing an end to live music, the obvious choice for a comeback gig may not be a place notorious for locking people up. The former Crumlin Road Gaol has been revamped with a great interpretative centre, a restaurant, and a performance space. That space played host to the legendary Mary Coughlan.

Covid – not the prison setting – had brought some restrains with it, however.  There were no drums allowed, and a perspex pane set in a pine frame was placed in front of the singer. Drinks were ordered by smartphones and delivered to the table by very pleasant staff.

At 9 o’clock, Mary took to the stage, and quickly used the Perspex to comic effect easing the disconnect that the frame may have created. She quickly hit her stride with a great performance of ‘Damn Your Eyes’.

My first ex-husband wrote this next song…

‘Doublecross’ was performed with the pathos of a woman who has lived the song, which she obviously has. This set the tone for the whole evening, an incredibly heady mix of earthy humour, and a beguiling voice wrapped around carefully chosen songs that touched the heart or moved the feet.

This is one written by my cheating bastard of a second ex-husband…

she announced before launching into ‘Two Breaking Into One’. It was clear Mary was having some breathing difficulties on a very hot arid evening, and she asked for the air conditioning to be turned off. Problem solved. Or if it was not, Mary drew on all those years on the road to cover it up.

Any Billie Holiday song is a gift for Mary’s voice. She sailed through ‘I Cover The Waterfront’ with a sass in her lilt, and the bluesy ‘The Whiskey Didn’t Kill Me’ is classic Coughlan.

Backing musicians Johnny Taylor on keyboards and Barry Donahue on double bass deserve a mention for exemplary musicianship throughout.

I am a big fan of The Blue Nile and her rendition of the heart-breaking ‘Family Life’ was quite exquisite. Perhaps resonating so dramatically with her own life, the emotions were raw and hit the heart with every word and note that Paul Buchanan has bequeathed to the world.

‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ made famous by Bonnie Raitt was again sung by Mary, with so much emotion and controlled passion. ‘A Leaf From A Tree’ and ‘Ancient Rain’ further tested the audience’s resilience to consoling their emotions.

Mary Coughlan has lived a life few of us could even imagine. Her life has been laid bare and it seems her voice wants to follow. There is nothing to keep just sheer pure emotion. The real winner in her tales of heartbreak, betrayal, and anguish is her audience. She is a special talent.