Love, Violence, and Life for the Working Man
“We’ll start with a spooky one” said Kentucky-based singer Joan Shelley of the traditional folk ghost tale “Little Margaret” with which she started her set. Unaccompanied at first, even by her own guitar; the room was motionless and ready. Her warm coffee voice flowed through the song. It flowed through the room. It set the bar high. She was one of three members of The Certain Three Tour, which had travelled through Ireland and hit Belfast’s Real Music Club in February. On offer were three very distinct acts, three incredibly talented artists. Vikesh Kapoor, John Blek, and Joan Shelley herself.
Shelley followed her ghost story with the song “Sure as Night” from her Ginko album, and the true set really started. The set with her own songs, and her own poignant stories, with muted events, and yawning feelings, had started. Her fingers looked long and fine on the neck of the guitar as she moved onto “River Low” from album Electric Ursa. She held the room, just in the dip of the palm of her hand. “I’ve been silently admiring …” she sang, then she paused, “… the simple way she wears her hair.” There was a vacuum in that pause. Nothing filled it.
She proceeded to break our hearts with “First of August;” then a June Tabor cover of “Where Are You Tonight” immobilised the room. I’ve set up the link here for the June Tabor version of the song. Listen, become still, and then remember, the live Joan Shelley version was heart-rending. It was exquisite. Blek then joined her on stage offering up fragile harmonies on “Hollow Heart”, and to cap it all off, Kapoor helped them with the final gentle flourishes of her set.
John Blek took to the stage next. Blek is a folk/country singer from Cork, who hones a special Irish air into his music. He and his cowboy shirt opened his set with “I’ll Wait For You;” the drawn note on “wait” displaying the easy strength of his voice to the room.
He’s brave, John Blek. He doesn’t shy away from the big issues. “Mrs Black & Blue Eyes” from his band’s new album Cutting Room Floor was a gut-wrenching song about domestic abuse. It was based on true events, and the true feelings he had about them. ”Won’t you come with me, leave that dirty bastard be.” The lyrics were stark, they left nothing hidden.
He’s natural between his songs. He’s funny and personable; and he needs to be, because he won’t stop poking at things with a stick. “Crucify Me” was a superb a capella comment on religion. “I know religion is contentious here in Belfast …” But it didn’t stop him singing about it. Again his voice shone, and his sure footedness as a performer was displayed. Shelly and Kapoor joined him for a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I needed You,” with wonderful 3-part harmonies. Then the room was asked to join in the chorus/title of Blek’s own “Leave Your Love at the Door” which didn’t offer up wonderful 3-part harmonies from us, but a number of tables did put some sterling effort into it.
From this album he opened his set with “Bottom of the Ladder.” It set the mood for some clearly defined, guitar and harmonica centred folk. Throughout his set he gave us other tracks from the album. “I Dreamt Blues” started with guitar like an idling engine. ”Though the boss gave me a warning/I get run down by the foreman/I dream through my mornings/ I dream through my days ” The engine continued throughout. He stood on tiptoes occasionally as he concentrated on the harmonica.
“You guys want to join in? You can do the oohs, or the ahs, or you can snap. If you don’t know how to snap, then you’re out.” Bummer; I was out. But I didn’t care because the gentle easy version of “Mack the Knife” that he offered up was something I had not heard, or considered before. It was superb.
I was playing John Blek & the Rats in the car on my way home and wondered, as I often do, what the hell talented artists have to do to get the audiences they deserve. Then I put on Ginko when I got home and got all achy and blissed. That’s more like it.
Video Credits: grevis020160 The Emery Sessions, SXSW, vikeshkapoor, and KEXP.
Originally published on Creative Voices NI