It was a Sunday, slap bang in winter and on the cusp of Christmas, and while the people of Northern Ireland either cosied by the fire or rushed to immerse themselves in the religious experience of the annual markets, Junior Brother and company helped to warm the souls of the chunk of people at the gig in the Palm House.
With just a small smattering of people in the venue, the first act climbed up on stage. This was Joel Harkin, with little prior knowledge of the artist, I left finding out about his dead dog called Memphis, his despair at current social issues, his friend Mark, his girlfriend and his da. Such was the nature of his music, extremely personal and as he frequently reminded the audience ‘sad’. His engagement with the crowd was particularly interesting, as though there were just a few, his dry sense of humour shone through, at times feeling like an open mic stand up routine. Performing tracks from his Rose Water EP from 2018, his voice is clear and there is certain amount of space between words which help engage the audience who were able to picture the stories Harkin was telling. The highlight of the set was the song ‘A Letter to Mark Loughrey’, the guitar work was pretty and Harkin’s vocals dance over it.
An acoustic-guitar-bearing Ethan Hanna was next, he appeared nervous and this wasn’t helped by incessant chatter by a portion of the crowd while he played, though he powered through. When Hanna started singing his voice transformed into that of a man with a weathered huskiness. What stood out to me most was his proficiency on guitar, as the songs were given the gloss of some rich chord progressions. Performing half of the set with tracks from his 2018 release, Welcome to the Batlands and rather bravely testing three unreleased tracks. One of which though, was my highlight of his set. ‘Casual Radicals’, a song he described as being about “people who update their Facebook statuses without knowing what they’re talking about”. A relatable topic certainly, and it was rife with great lyrics like, “You don’t know what it means but you mean it, and then you’re gone”.
The final support act of the night came in the shape of The Mad Dalton who brought a different flavour with his brand of Americana with a little blues lilt to it, especially in his voice and phrasing. Performing songs from his own 2108 release, ‘Open Season’, he was very communicative with the audience explaining each song and the stories that inspired them. From his health struggles to a dedication to his mother who travelled a long way to see him perform which you could clearly see made this gig a bit more special to him. The highlight of the set came in the form of his Irish folk-inspired ‘Seafaring man’ which was a love letter to Belfast where he has lived for 16 years, having grown up in Canada and Scotland. At this point, the crowd had grown in anticipation for the main act but they were pleased with this ode to the city, as he left with just applause.
Following the tuning of the multitude of instruments needed for a Junior Brother set, he and two of his bandmates graced the stage. Without a word, they were straight into the building of the first folk odyssey. As soon as the first few bars of the song were played, what was immediately clear is how these songs were performed just how they sound on the record. Which, in an era of music with an increasing reliance on technology, the skill shown by the lads to create these songs with instruments which have existed for hundreds of years is special. Performing multiple tracks off the acclaimed ‘Pull The Right Rope’ released at the end of summer, donning his uniform with a sweatshirt and a pair of red chinos, he was considerably less chattier than his support, bridging each song with little quips like “Happy Christmas”, and at one stage promising an appearance from Santa. The instrumental breaks which are part and parcel of a Junior Brother song allowed for a few to engage in a jig as he transported them into his world. However, despite the brilliance of the longer tracks, the one that got the crowd bouncing was the anthemic ‘Hungover at Mass’ which was met with the loudest wall of appreciation, and rightly so.
A warm precursor to Christmas, a musical mulled wine, if you like (I don’t) by artists who all let us into their worlds, whether literal or just simply fantastical.