It was a cold Belfast Sunday afternoon at Cathedral Quarter’s Out to Lunch Festival. The fare was two-course.
There was Australian singer-songwriter, musician, and composer Emily Barker, who’s now based in London. Barker has written award-winning music for TV and films and, with her multi-instrumental trio the Red Clay Halo, has recorded four albums.
But first up was Ciaran Lavery, our home-grown master of music and words that sear into where it hurts the most. He has one album, one EP, and an otherworldly collaboration with electronic musician and composer Ryan Vail under his belt, and 2016 is promising more.
As Lavery pointed out, there is something different about an afternoon show in a bar. It’s all so much more low-key, daytime chatting. When it started, though, we were halted. The room hadn’t noticed Lavery walk on stage. We noticed the sound of him knocking the body of his guitar. Slowly, rhythmically. That’s all it took. We stopped mid-sentence.
It seems signature now that he starts with a bare, soul-crushing version of a maestro’s song. Today it was Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “Careless Love”. There wasn’t a whisper; the dark room was eyes-front.
Lavery didn’t speak for three songs, which he played into each other. Then, after an effortless version of “Shame,” he started to talk – pointing out the Christmas decorations that had escaped eviction, and telling us about his new album — probably coming out in May. Then he sang us some tracks from it.
“Blood Red Fist” emphasized the grit in his voice. The mood of the song gained ballast from its roughness. “Crumble all your troubles in a blood red fist,” he repeated.
Then there was “Tell Them All”. I’ve written about “Tell Them All” in previous reviews. I’ve described it as “the song with the line, ‘your hair made love to the waves of the radio'”, because I never knew its name. Today he named it, but that line still stands out. The song stood out. A happy-in-love song, a dreaming and planning song. Not necessarily his usual fare.
A cappella, he sifted the sand in his voice and it drifted off the stage in a shower for the next song. “Once you let the bad in, you cannot close the door,” he sang. The “bad” was stretched, he was letting it in.
Lavery’s set continued with a mix of his known songs as well as his new. He was hitting the beat on his guitar again on “Little More time”. “Clean the table and go / make tracks in the snow”. Then there were long sweet “oohs” from him and his guitar. Gorgeous song.
There was a dark country blues twang to “Train”, and some superb lines — “My family love me / I’ve tested them well over time”.
His guitar had two distinct sounds coming from it, one of which lightened the other but didn’t make it light, by any stretch. “Life don’t go by any faster just because you run”. The “run” was half spoken, half yelped. That song is from the new album too. When he finished he told us he wrote that one to get into the dance music scene. “You can wave your glow sticks at that”, said the sardonic sod, smiling.
For the last song, he called Emily Barker to join him. She bounced onstage and smiled a hello to us and got no response. She didn’t care, or didn’t notice. They gave us Lavery’s “Left for America” as a parting gift from him. Barker’s subtle, sweet vocals iced the chorus, finished it, made it sound and taste beautiful.
“I never knew my place anyway”, the pair sang from the song. But they did — they did know their place, and how to sing it, how long to hold it, when to end it, how it would mute us. They both knew.
A while later, Barker returned on her own and opened with “Little Deaths”. Accompanied by a slow, deep beat at the control of her foot, it was the essence of English folk. The dark room contained its pin-drop silence until she finished.
“Nostalgia” was the follow. Her eyes were closed, even as it all turned loud and seemed to bash against the back of the room – this lone woman and her guitar.
Only the moon understands the beauty of love
When held by a hand like the aura of nostalgia
The song was wind-burnt and heart-torn. It’s no surprise this was picked up for a major TV show (Wallander). Incidentally, she won a Bafta and Royal Television Society award for music she collaborated on for that show.
Barker had two mics. Beside the regular was a beautiful Copperphone Mini that she uses for her harmonica. It helps things sound like an old radio. She pulled it closer for the new song “Stockholm Down Below” and put the harp rack on over her head. There was her gentle but strangely commanding voice; there was the harmonica’s new melody and urgency. And there was the guitar — the 1938 Gibson that does a lot of her shouting for her and backs her up when she’s trying to explain things. They’re a team, Emily Barker and her guitar. And the guitar knows when to say nothing. A capella “Precious Memories” was cannoned from the stage. The man in front of me was intermittently shaking his head as she sang. With every note-perfect line, she held us firmer in the palm of her hand. Clicking her fingers into the Copperphone, eyes closed.
There was a lot more strong-voiced clout from Barker on stage that day. She sang a song for the original soul sister — Sister Rosetta Tharpe. “Bye Bye Sister, Goodbye” was rumbling and sandy and clear all at the same time. She held up the guitar to impress us again with her playing, but she messed it up. “Oh shit”, she said. “I’m used to playing that on the piano”. We cheered, and Barker knew it didn’t matter. She knew she’d got us with “Little Deaths” right at the start of the show.
Barker is not perturbed at the thought of making her audience cry, either. There was the incredibly moving “Lord I Want an Exit” sung with a young voice that made the words even more gut-wrenching. “Over My Shoulder” was written with Boo Hewerdine. It’s about leaving home and looking for somewhere safe to live: “Please don’t tell the children I never learnt to swim”. We all visualised those scenes on the news. In the darkness I saw silhouettes of people wiping their face. She made us cry.
Later on that night, she would be playing another gig, this time performing songs from her soundtrack to the film Hector — the story of a homeless man. The film slowly pieces together that man’s story, his reasons for being homeless. Today she sang “Anywhere Away” from the film, and sweetly managed to mould us into the emotional shape that she required for that song — a tactic she was given permission to use from the second she had walked onto the stage, and one which she practiced relentlessly throughout the set.
She had turned us into her own emotional Playdough, and that was fine with us.