Brigid O’Neill & Band – ‘Touchstone’ album launch with support from Bruce Joseph McClements.
Thursday 14th September 2017 – The Black Box, Belfast
Album launches are unique occasions. Sometimes they can fall flat but often they are an absolute highlight, the culmination of all that hard work. I hoped and trusted that tonight was going to be such a triumphal night for Brigid O’Neill, and there was very much a sense of anticipation as I took the only seat I could find at the back of a very full Black Box. This too was pleasing, given another sizeable event was happening across town.
First up is Bruce Joseph McClements. Bruce and I have a little history. I am sure it means precisely zero to him, (and the rest of you for that matter) but my review of his album (no longer online) was my first review for Chordblossom; my first review ever (it’s been downhill ever since). Anyway, I was mighty glad to hear Bruce in the flesh and he was everything I expected, having some idea of the strength of his material. He is a consummate performer with a strong but, well-controlled voice, that can switch from sweet to powerful in a moment. He is witty between songs, self-deprecating and frankly, he makes it all look much easier than it is. Forgive me for not knowing all the names on his set-list but I can point to ‘Tired of this Game’, ‘All of You’ and ‘Half a Chance’ as songs that stood out for me. ‘Tired of This Game’ in particular was mesmerising. You could close your eyes and imagine yourself in a seaside pub somewhere, pint of stout on the table, dog at your feet, turf smoldering on the open fire, and Bruce doing his thing in the corner. Sure, he deserves a much bigger audience than that, but this is my eyes-closed moment, so don’t spoil it. I believe another album is in the offing – maybe it’ll even wing my way.
A short interlude allows us to sort ourselves out and get back in our seats as the band makes its way to the stage, including the main woman herself. As the band kicks in to show opener, ‘Turn and Face The Sun’, it is clear that these songs are going to be given the ‘full treatment’. What a band Brigid has assembled for this evening! Besides herself on vocals and acoustic guitar, are the immensely talented Anthony Toner on lead guitar and John Fitzpatrick on violin, the rock solid rhythm section of Conor McCreanor (bass) and Matt Weir (drums) and on keyboards, the man who makes the difficult look ridiculously easy – John McCullough. It is night that has a few guest appearances on backing vocals, but an ever present is the excellent Ellen Weir, whose voice is the perfect foil to O’Neill’s.
To be honest, O’Neill seems a tad nervous to begin with – unsurprising really as these events are always nerve-wracking affairs – often fraught with organisational issues which can cloud the enjoyment itself, if you let it. For this reason ‘Turn and Face the Sun’ is a smart choice as a set opener. It is such an upbeat song that O’Neill can’t fail but relax into the evening. She looks at the crowd, in rapt attention, she glances around and the band behind her – no reason to be nervous any longer. ‘Refugees’ is up next. It’s a song I first heard at the Chris Keys’ album launch show when Brigid was playing it with co-writer, Matt McGinn (who cannot attend tonight after the birth of his child). It was great in that format, but with the full band behind it, it just adds that little bit more weight to it. It is a serious song and it needs that weight behind it. As it ends, the crowd seem to applaud that bit louder as if to affirm the message in the song.
O’Neill has spent a good amount of time in Nashville, and ‘They All Said’ has more than a touch of Nashville in it, while still holding that celtic feel. And I think that is what O’Neill does so well, combining the two traditions together, almost seamlessly. The first guest appearance tonight is vocalist, Tiona McSherry and she plays her full part in what for me was the absolute highlight of the evening, – ‘Little Birds’ – the song which opens the album we are here to celebrate. It is a stunning rendition; a powerful blend of 3 voices in perfect harmony almost without accompaniment were it not for the low thrum of the band which sounds like the drone of the pipes. To be honest, were I to have written and performed this song, I think I would simply retire because I would figure I could never top it. The applause that greets the end of ‘Little Birds’ is delayed by a split second, and in that split second you can literally see faces in the crowd glancing at eachother as if to say ‘I can’t believe what I have heard’. Once they do realise that what they are hearing is very much real and needs to be acknowledged, the applause, even from this polite audience, is thunderous. My colleague and cameraman, wanders from his position at the front of the stage to me and says in my ear ‘what have I just heard there’? Talent, my friend, is what you heard – pure, musical talent.
It’s a testament to the strength of her material that the rest of the show does not dissolve into anti-climax after ‘Little Birds’, but it certainly doesn’t. ‘Breathe Slow’ continues the melancholy feel, and O’Neill masters a difficult melody. ‘Arrivals and Departures’ has echoes of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and ‘Carry the Torch’ is a wonderful dedication to her parents, who are in the crowd, as proud as proud parents can be. ‘Don’t Make Me Go To Town’ makes a very welcome appearance as it was the first song I reviewed for O’Neill and as I see people in the crowd react to the quirky, black humour in the lyrics, it is pleasing to realise I am not the only one who ‘gets it’.
Her co-conspirator and the producer of ‘Touchstone’, Gareth Dunlop, is then called to the stage, first to do a fine rendition of John Prine’s ‘Angel From Montgomery’ and then the almost Piaff-like ‘Misunderstanding’ from ‘Touchstone’, really showcasing O’Neill’s versatility as a writer a performer. ‘Running Back To You’ is pure Nashville though. ‘Rumour’ is a funkier little number and for once the usually controlled front-woman, lets go just that little bit more. I like this; it adds character to the vocal and performance. The title song of the album itself is a moving paean to friendship and support. It has an almost gospel quality which very much comes across live. The main set closes on a completely different note, with the cheekily suggestive ‘Iron In Your Fire’ which has more than a hint of New Orleans. Bows are taken, the band leaves the stage to a very well-deserved and lengthy standing ovation, followed by the obligatory calls for ‘more’. Brigid and the band dutifully return to answer the call and finish the night with ‘Wicked Ways’.
For my money you couldn’t get a better launch for an album – packed venue, an attentive and appreciative audience, a fantastically talented backing band and a virtually flawless performance. Having lived with ‘Touchstone’ for a few weeks, I can tell you it is a high quality release, perfect for those who like a mix of folk and country and have an ear for a sweet melody and sharply observed lyric. Surely, there can only be an upward career trajectory for this, by her own admission, late bloomer?