Orphan Brigade live in The Black Box, Belfast

Shows across Ireland are a sort of homecoming for founding member of The Orphan Brigade, Ben Glover. Belfast's Black Box venue is treated to a special one.

The Orphan Brigade have been touring England and Scotland these past few weeks, but this is the first of two ‘homecoming’ gigs for Glenarm’s Ben Glover. The Nashville-based trio that forms the core group of the Orphan Brigade – Ben Glover, Neilson Hubbard, and Joshua Britt – are joined on stage this evening by Colm McClean on guitars and Conor McCreanor on bass. Clearly this makes a big difference to the sound, and several times their additional presence on stage is acknowledged by Glover and Co. They both played on the new Orphan Brigade album, ‘To the Edge of the World’, written in various locations around the North Antrim Coast and recorded in a small, atmospheric church in Glenarm.

Ben Glover (c) Gerry McNally

This is part of the unique ethos of the Orphan Brigade – three key members who link and collaborate along the way with musicians that bring their best contributions. In the past, this has included the likes of Kim Richey, Kris Donegan, and Gretchen Peters to name just a few, but for their third album, these wayward orphans pulled off something of a coup. John Prine no less, with featured vocals on ‘Captain’s Song’, a sea-faring, sway-a-long shanty based on the saga of the infamous swindler Sorley Boy McDonnell. Such is the pulling power and respect the Orphan Brigade has garnered along the way since they first gathered in one of America’s most haunted houses, Octagon Hall in Kentucky, to record their first album ‘Soundtrack to a Ghost Story’. Despite the spooky goings-on in that significant and historical site, they survived to sing the tales, the stories, and histories of the house, home to tragic heroes and heroines, the fallen on both sides of the American civil war. Octagon Hall provided meat to the bones of many songs in this evening’s setlist – including ‘We Were Marching on Christmas Day’, ‘I’ve Seen the Elephant’ (a euphemism of teenage soldiers and their first encounters with the grotesque realities of war), ‘Harriet’ (who died tragically in 1904 and has haunted the Hall ever since), ‘Sweetheart’, and ‘Pale Horse’.

Orphan Brigade (c) Gerry McNally

However, tonight is about launching the third album ‘To the Edge of the World’. Any member of Orphan Brigade’s ever-growing fan base will know that their ethos is based on seeking out places steeped in mystery, history, myths and legends. Once the ideal place is found, they immerse themselves in the elements and see what emerges. It is an instinctive and imaginative creative process. The results are often original, unique and astounding as if the spirits of earth, wind, sea, and fire are roused by the muses to hear their song. I utterly love this approach. It speaks volumes about daring to go there, a somewhat courageous approach to song writing.

Their second album, ‘Heart of the Cave’, took them in to ancient caves deep beneath the Italian town of Ossimo. There they found the interred remains of a levitating, bilocating Saint, whom they nicknamed Flying Joe. And also possibly became the only band ever to use the word ‘bilocate’ in a lyric. ‘Flying Joe’ and ‘Alchemy’ are both on the setlist this evening.

Orphan Brigade live in Belfast (c) Gerry McNally

Since coming to the Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland earlier this year to write and record ‘To the Edge of the World’, it’s clear they were inspired and impressed by the scenery. In all weathers, they went out in boats, into the caves at Cushendun, sat beneath hawthorns and chestnut trees, and bravely ventured deep into Glenarm forest at midnight to write and compose.

This evening’s set opens with ‘Under the Chestnut Tree’, written about a Spanish sea captain buried in an ancient churchyard where the gnarled tree grows from his bones. Another track was written beneath a Hawthorn tree on Slemish Mountain. On Slemish, where St Patrick tended the sheep, a song is written in tribute, somewhat originally titled ‘St. Patrick on Slemish Mountain’.

They “spooked the bejaysus” (to use an Irish colloquialism) out of themselves writing in the deep dark woods of Glenarm forest at midnight. The song ‘Banshee’ was written there, more lighthearted than you might think, complete with woo-hoos, and a somewhat darker, somber song called ‘Mind the Road’, the only reference to troubled times in this neck of the woods.

The audience is captivated and appreciative throughout. The anecdotes between songs endearingly get across to the audience their genuine on and off stage camaraderie, a band of brothers. People have come from far and wide to tonight’s show from Italy, Estonia, Holland, and across Ireland.

A showing of hands indicates those of us at the gig earlier this year, when our vocals featured on the recording of the ‘Captain’s Song’, giving us carte blanche to say we’re on a recording with John Prine. We sing along again to the chorus…

Hearing these songs from ‘To the Edge of the World’ live reminds me just how much I enjoyed the album. These are ballads to some degree in a true story-telling style such as ‘Mad Man’s Window’, ‘Fairhead’s Daughter’, ‘Isabella’ (the ghost of Ballygally Castle) and the ‘Children of Lir’, a folk story every child in Ireland knows about the children turned in to swans by a jealous love rival. Nine of the thirteen tracks on ‘To the Edge of the World’ are included in this evening’s set. A few extras are included. Ben Glover’s ‘Oh Soul’ written with Mary Gauthier is a special touch. An encore of ‘Sweetheart’, an old-style gospel tune from the first album to round things off in upbeat style, then a further encore of the trio singing ‘True Love Will Find You in the End’.

A special note must be added here about the chemistry on stage, the mastery of musicianship, the enigmatic voice of Ben Glover, and the impactful mood-swings of Joshua Britt’s mandolin. Heart and soul went in to tonight’s performance. It went down a storm, those who were on the edge of their seats rose in a standing ovation to show their appreciation.

I wonder where they’ll end up for the fourth album? A few ideas may be afoot, and next year, we could see them back in Ireland for something extra-special with the Henry Girls if we’re lucky.