Review: Anthony Toner – Lyric Theatre, Belfast

It may have been a sell-out launch event at the Lyric Theatre for Anthony Toner’s latest album, Ink, but he decided he’d ease us in gently, and started with ‘East Of Louise’ from his 2011 album, A Light Below The Door.

It wasn’t necessary; the theatre was row-to-row fans eager to hear the new album. He didn’t need to worry about losing our interest by not playing his old familiars. Still, ‘East Of Louise’ was a welcome, generous start to the night.

Anthony Toner has been putting to music the minutiae and enormity of life’s events, in his own understated, subtle fashion, for nigh on 15 years; and as we have tuned into his songs, one by one, over those years, he has managed to press buttons and brush past us with familiar lines or observations that we may not even have formed into words yet.He has though. He’s a master of that craft. As he stood on the stage of The Lyric this night, he introduced his next song with “I’m going to lighten the mood now with a song about mortality and death.” Everyone knew which song he was talking about; and the room was audibly happy to hear ‘Cousins At Funerals.’ A song, quite literally about “mortality and death,” no dramas, not even any tragedies. Just the events that happen to every family, put into words, wrapped in a song, recognizing what has happened to you too. That is Toner’s craft.

It was at this juncture too that pianist and keyboard player John McCullough joined him on stage. He was one of three guests that Toner had included in his line-up, adding different tenors and voices to his music that night. Starting as he meant to go on, McCullough walked straight over to the keyboard without a word, or a wave. Not a peep. Mr McCullough lets his music talk for him and in that sense the only time he stopped all night was when the various singers were performing solo. Other than that he wouldn’t shut up. His talk changed in mood – from upbeat and honky tonk to heartfelt and sympathetic. He did this with ease because Mr McCullough’s music makes him a raconteur, a keynote speaker. Who needs words when you have notes?

Toner’s new album, Ink, interspersed his well-known and his vintage numbers. This is his seventh album, back to basics with its pared back acoustic-centred songs looking at “love, loss and happiness” through the lens of a tumultuous couple of years in which he lost his mother, his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and he has just had to put what he is doing with his life into perspective.

Stand out for me on the night and on the album was ‘The Night Prayer of St Augustine,’ a wry, heartfelt account of his mother in hospital, who was keen to prove that she was not under the influence of morphine by rhyming off all of the books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelations. There is a delicate, intricate refrain in this song, repeated throughout its duration, as his mother in her fragile state repeated the verses of the bible. Toner stood almost to attention on stage. Feet together, concentrating on his guitar. There was a gentle backing track of strings or keys – a tender added atmosphere.

It took all my courage to put this on as it’s basically a monologue,” he told us about ‘Exit Wounds,’ a song from Ink about a man who should know better; a song that harks back to a young naive Anthony Toner. Not surprisingly the speech element made the words even more prominent than usual as he talked about a gun kept in a drawer “between his underpants and his socks.” The telling of a tale that hooked us in, made us laugh, made us think.

His second guest on the night was old friend EIlidh Patterson, who started her set with ‘Precious Cargo’ from her 2009 release When The Time Comes. She was joined by McCullough on keys, and Toner on guitar and vocals that accentuated her strong warm voice, and filled up the message of the song. Then they left her on her own, just her and her guitar, for an easy, unassuming rendition of her own ‘Still Learning.’ When Toner returned to the stage she remained to offer harmonies for ‘The Way Love Goes.’ “I always like to sing this with Eilidh,” he told us, “her harmonies are so good.” He was right.

During the intermission, as the voice of Gillian Welch drifted from the speakers, a figure wandered onto the stage and started messing about with leads and guitar. Ciaran Lavery was then joined by a sound engineer to make sure all was as it should be for his set, before he wandered off again. On his return, later in the second half of the show, Lavery opened with ‘Shame,’ just his guitar and harmonica; right back to basics – no sublime orchestral strings – just the man and the song and where it all came from. Then he moved to the front of the stage, and with nothing between us and him – no guitar, no mic stand, just his voice, he gave us a capella, ‘Let Bad In,’ the title track of his 2016 album. Bare boned the song was, accompanied by unconscious wringing of hands and pacing of stage.

The night was ended with all four on stage. Toner on his guitar played the simple opening bars to Simon & Garfunkel’s `‘Bookends.’ It unfolded in front of our eyes and was fleeting. It was beautiful.

Ink can be purchased from Anthony Toner‘s website.