Friday, 21 March 2014


Live Review

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

There was a double dose of the Craic on St Patrick's Day in the Second City as the Symphony Hall played host to Dubliner Mary Black and Donegal family band Clannad

Mary Black - photograph copyright Chris Egan
Veteran Irish/country singer Black, who has been singing and entertaining for more than 30 years, opened with Another Day, a fairly fast number then slowed it down straight away with the Jimmy McCarthy ballad Bright Blue Rose a favourite which features on several of her albums.
Black is one of those singers who seems to have been around for ever and in her impressive career it's simpler to list who she hasn't been on stage or sung with. This on top of her carving our a solid career as a solo artist to where she has become one of the most respected female singers not just on the Irish circuit but globally, from her early days as part of De Dannan to her string of award-winning albums.
She gave the audience a good range of  her repertoire which included Mountains to the Sea, one from her most recent album Tales From the Steeple and which is a travelling song with a beat of wheels rolling along. By now Black was really get into her stride although for a St Patrick's Day concert the audience was remarkable sedate, perhaps they has burned themselves out during the big parade the day before.
Black has one of those "Biddies" voices which is in no way meant as a criticism or a derogatory term but alludes to her singing style still has that discernible link with the grandmothers and mothers who would sit in cottages around the fire or while doing weaving or other traditional crafts and singing passed down airs and ballads. They are sung in such as way as to distinguish it as uniquely Irish and full of the Gaelic tradition.
Black pulled out a couple of poignant ones with All the Fine Young Men about the tragedy of World War One and indeed all wars. 
Then from her Full Tide album an emotionally charged ballad about her dead mother, Your Love. It was preceded by Black giving a moving account of her relationship with her mother and her emotions and feelings in the time leading up to her death. 
As a change of pace she moved into the calypso beat of Carolina Rua which then gave way to the slower ballad The Moon and St Christopher a number written by a good friend of Black's and recently part of the Transatlantic Sessions, Mary Chapin Carpenter. Black ended her set, rather appropriately, with Song for Ireland which she sang with genuine emotion.

Clannad, who this year received a life time achievement award at BBC2 Folk Awards, took to the stage opening with the ethereal and atmospheric Vellum from their latest album Nadur, which for all you non-students of Gaelic means nature.

Moya Brennan - photograph copyright Chris Egan
The slow, atmospheric tune eased the audience in with the gently haunting sound of Moya Brennan and the deep rhythmic thud of the drum.
The family band then gave the eager audience a good mix of old and new starting with another one from the same album Rhapsody na gCrann (Rhapsody of the Trees) which by Clannad's standard was a little more harsh sounding and had the feel of marching through the forest rather than enjoying being among the trees. 
Brennan's voice is just as other-wordly as the first time it came to major prominence more than three decades ago when they charted with the Theme from Harry's Game, which they also did as part of the set. Pol Brenan wrote the Ivor Novello-winning song with his brother Ciaran. Her wonderful tones filled the hall alongside the Irish harp which quite rightly took centre stage.
It was classic Clannad with Turas dhómhsa chon na Galldachd (My Journey to the Lowlands) a Scottish Gaelic song, this was followed by another from their newest album Lámh ar Lámh or Hand in Hand to which they tagged on a slip jig. The first part opened with the gorgeous plucking of Brennan on the fine Irish harp which stood proudly and sang beautifully as she stroked her expert fingers across its strings. The slip jig filled out the piece with the cymbals, flute and harp creating a wonderfully complex mixture of sound.
Brennan then showed what a lovely traditional voice she had with Nancy of My Thousand Loves, a rolling ballad of a man besotted by the lady of the title. It had the Biblical quality of Song of Songs where the woman of the piece is lauded in fine detail. 
Pol Brennan introduced another new song called Brave Enough which had a really strong beat that battled with both of the Brennans as they sang about having the courage to face all situations.
With the traditional and dark tune, Two Sisters, the band tried to get the audience involved on the chorus with mixed results at first, but then they got on board as it's a wonderful folk tune about treachery, murder and rivalry and has one of those songs which defies you not to get involved. With drums and flute it almost turned into a rousing march.

Last of the Mohicans
They moved from this to I Will Find You which has the sound which defines the group and was featured in the Hollywood hit film Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day Lewis. It seemed a natural follow on that they would then move to another soundtrack they produced that of Robin of Sherwood which included the theme, Robin the Hooded Man, which - not surprisingly has a very 80s sound to it, Hearne, The Ancient Forest, Together We and Lady Marian, so no one could say they didn't get their money's worth on that one.
They then slipped into the one most people, outside of Ireland anyway, associate them with The Theme From Harry's Game which has lost none of its magic and still sounds as good today as it did when it first burst onto UK TV screens. It was fair to say no one in the UK had heard anything quite like it at the time and it's also fair to say that a lot of people watched the series about the troubles in Northern Ireland purely because of the track. From around the same period they sang In A Lifetime which was also famous for featuring Bono of U2. Towards the end they went back to the traditional with Seaweed which opened with just a quick burst of their combined voices and the cymbals creating a sound of the rolling sea. 
The light ballad then jumped along as Moya's voice slipped in and out between the male voices of the group and then for a big finish gave each of the musicians a chance to do a solo.
And they gave the audience a hint with one of their last songs Go Home before being called on for an encore.

All pictures courtesy of