The Ulster Hall, Belfast
3rd November 2018
Ralph McTell’s love of Ireland, his affection for the city of Belfast in particular, is well documented. His first trip here was in 1968, and he continued to return and play in the city throughout the worst of the troubles. Tonight’s concert in The Ulster Hall had an almost “hometown” gig feel to it, as he was warmly welcomed onto to stage.
Interaction with the audience is a given at a McTell show, which he described as “a conversation with songs”. But what songs! Intelligent, original, pertinent to the world we encounter and the challenges we face on a daily basis. All human life is here.
It’s hard to believe that this is an artist once riddled with stage fright. Each song is introduced with an anecdote or explanation as the song’s direction or genesis. Some are deceptively simple love songs that convey more emotion in three verses, than many novels like the exquisite ‘Summer Lightning’.
Don’t let the day go down. The two of us still fighting. It’s not a storm at all. No it’s only summer, only summer lightning and we still got the night. So there’s time to put it right. Let’s go to bed.
The audience are enthralled from the start. McTell has such an easy-going style and presence on stage nowadays, it’s hard not to like him. The sound in the old hall is immaculate, and the sound from his Gibson J-45, used for the last 50 years, rings clear and crisp.
The story songs are really where Ralph enters into his own, and is rarely surpassed. Songs of miscarriages of justice like ‘Bentley and Craig’, and the struggles of Dylan Thomas young wife in ‘Caitlin’s Dream’ make you want to find out more about the background as soon as you get home.
At 73, the voice has developed an even richer, deeper hue, but that ring of truth remains. The fact that his name has become synonymous with the one song does him a great disservice. I am far from a neutral observer, having loved his work from an early age, but to my mind he has written some of the finest British folk songs of his or any generation. His guitar playing remains immense, and is given full rein to show his abilities on ‘Mississippi Rag’ and 12-string prowess on the nostalgic and touching ‘Brighton Belle’.
The epic ‘Peppers and Tomatoes’ is given a startling rendition. Written about the war in the former Yugoslavia, like many of his songs, it is transferable to any conflict, where a scapegoat can found. The ending of the song, continues to hit like a hammer no matter how many times I have heard it.
A new song, as aired on Jools Holland’s programme, ‘West 4th and Jones’ on the surface a tale about the cover photo on Bob Dylan’s ‘Freewheeling Bob Dylan’ album, is really more to do with lost opportunities of a generation that promised so much.
In the midst of all this there is that song, introduced tonight in the middle of his second set as a medley of my greatest hit! ‘Streets Of London’ continues to hit a chord with most people and gives a voice to the lonely, the alienated and the homeless. Cue a huge sing-along in the Ulster Hall.
Sadly, the problems that caused McTell to write this song remain as relevant today as they were when it was penned over 50 years ago. Perhaps even more so. Shame then, that those feelings of injustice and understanding, were not carried past the front door, by the majority of concert goers, as they pulled their coats tighter, on a bitterly cold night, and ignored the young man sitting on a sleeping bag with a foam cup, looking for money, on the streets of Belfast.
‘Maginot Waltz’, his story of two young men having a last trip to the sea with their girlfriends, before being shipped to France and their deaths in the First World War, gains added poignancy in the run up to Armistice Day.
After the gig, Ralph McTell signed happily for the punters who had shelled out on his CDs and music books. I heard he even sang a few extra songs on guitars that people brought along to have signed. That is one of the secrets of his success, aside from being a superlative artist. He sings of the common people, like the folksingers of old, and never puts himself above them.
He has a new album due out next year. Not that he has ever looked for a reason to play here. But I and many others will be back. Ralph’s love of this city is very much a two way affair.