Chris Keys ‘Life In Motion’ album launch with support from Chris Molloy & Brigid O’Neill
Saturday 9th June 2017 – Black Box, Belfast
The first thing I look for as I walk into any venue is how full it is. Having been on both sides of the fence I know how it can be to set up a night like this and it going off like a damp squib as promises of ‘sure I’ll be there’ are not fulfilled. Anyway, no such problem for Chris on his big night as the Black Box is packed and myself and my colleague have to find a seat at the very back of this great venue.
First up is Co. Armagh native, Chris Molloy. What struck me immediately is his pure, fragile, relatively high pitched voice which is such a great asset to possess. Once a few early butterflies dissipated, he showed he could use this asset to create interesting songs, full of melody and no lack of crescendo. His style is that of the observational story teller of life around him; colloquial, maybe a touch trite for some but nonetheless interesting. His third song of the night, ‘Time’ is the one that I felt was his highlight; where I felt Chris himself seemed to throw off those nervous inhibitions of his earlier songs and really let loose a little – I even remember his eyes being open some of the time during this song (sadly not captured on camera)! His was an enjoyable, if short, set which was greeted with warm, richly earned, applause.
After the most brief of intervals, Brigid O’Neill takes to the stage with her stage partner Matt McGinn. I have been waiting to see Brigid in a live setting since I reviewed her single ‘Don’t Make Me Go To Town’ last July. I liked her quirky lyrical style and although there is no getting away from her celtic roots in terms of her vocal delivery and style, she can, as her set tonight showed, move with ease from one genre to the next without the set appearing haphazard. Her singing is simply immaculate; the kind of voice that is so natural and, thankfully, so free of all the horrible modern inflections, warbling and ‘doing the octave’. Brigid’s set is strong from the get-go. ‘Refugees’ is hard hitting given what has been going on in the country this past few weeks and months. For a brief moment I wondered why Brigid needed Matt at all as she could totally enchant an audience all by herself, but it is soon clear that McGinn isn’t just another guitar added to the mix. If there was a male voice absolutely made to go along with O’Neill’s, it is McGinn’s sweet tenor. The great temptation would be to dual vocal all the way through each song, but no, they are cleverer than that and the effect is all the more potent for this subtlety.
After the show, as I give O’Neill my regards for her performance, she asks me how I would describe her music; what word I would use. I still haven’t quite answered that question, and anyway – what is this using ‘one word’ thing? It’s not an easy question to answer because, even as this short and sweet performance shows, O’Neill runs a whole gamut of genres: the jazzy/funky ‘Wrong Time, Wrong Place’, the sultry ‘Iron In Your Fire’, followed up by the complete opposite in the sweet ‘My Touchstone’. Just three songs that showed O’Neill is an accomplished writer and performer in a number of genres, with influences from Nashville to New Orleans, and her forthcoming debut album should be a more than interesting listen.
But it is an album released tonight we are all here to witness. ‘Life in Motion’ by local singer-songwriter, Chris Keys. I have seen Chris a couple of times as a solo artist, both times excellent, but I couldn’t wait to hear him with the backing of a full band behind him. As a artist who I know is strongly self-reliant, it must have taken a significant leap of faith to put up with all the stresses and strains of getting 4 other people to get in line with his thinking. But it is clear what Keys wanted – to match what he has done on the album in a live setting. And as the band kicks in to the set with ‘Fix It’, that hard decision is already clearly paying off. The fuller band sound just provides a better platform for all the nuances of the music than a one-man-band set up ever could. And the one worry I had beforehand that Keys’ voice, strong-but-understated voice might be lost in the extra noise a band naturally makes, does not materialise. Props to the soundman who kept Keys unique voice to the fore. ‘Under the Streetlight’ is a song I am already familiar with and while it could be done adequately by one man and his acoustic, the band just gives it more depth – not more volume, more depth. And this pattern continues for the rest of the set.
For me, Keys is one of the local artists who really put their money where their mouth is and give everything they do their all. Nothing illustrates this more than trying sync a live performance with a recorded video. A nightmare to set up and achieve. Many of us who maybe had the same idea know how difficult it is to pull off and would have chickened out long before the big night. Not Keys. Not only does he attempt (and succeed) to do it once, but dammit, he does it twice. ‘Broken World’ is excellent, but the second song played along to the video on the big screen to the side of the stage, ‘Stronger’ is a tour de force. It is all the more impressive because while ‘Broken World’ was good but a little restricted, ‘Stronger’ seemed more fluid and yet no less in sync with the video. Credit has to go not just to Keys, but to his rhythm section of Gareth Hughes (Bass guitar) and Marty Galbraith (drums) for keeping the band so tight and synced, while still allowing the music to feel natural and not stilted.
The other star of the show is John McCullough on keyboards whose fingers seem to travel effortlessly across the keys to really add that extra dimension to the sound. I would have loved someone of his talent to be available to me when I was on the other side of the fence. Doc Doherty’s work on the electric guitar is subtle and understated, part of the reason why Keys’ voice remains the loudest instrument – a guitarist intent on playing heavier with their right hand in a more riffing style just would not work. All in all, tonight is a triumph for Keys, and a culmination of many years of hard work. I have only one criticism – it was all over too soon – ‘You’ finishes a run down of all the songs on ‘Life In Motion’. My colleague (a first time listener to Keys who was left very impressed) and I could have easily sat on for another 5 or 6 songs, as could the receptive crowd. But over it is, and Keys now embarks on a series of shows promoting ‘Life In Motion’, including a number of shows in Europe. I suggest you check him out at your earliest opportunity.
‘Life in Motion’ can be bought online here