Underneath the impressive vaulted ceiling, with church candles flickering on stained glass window ledges, we settled in to listen. Just listen.
Back when Ed Sheeran was a teenage guitar technician for the band Nizlopi, he saw this Northern Irish guy called Foy Vance on stage and a became an instant fan. In the exalted venue of Bangor Abbey, Foy played two sold out shows and the audience members were to experience what Ed, as a young musician, had found so captivating.
Once the crowd had settled into the wooden, pew chairs and the lights were lowered, Vance walked alone towards the majestic stage at the front of the church, accompanied by rapturous applause. Silence descended. With an acoustic guitar and without a word he began with ‘Indiscriminate Act of Kindness’, which, in this reviewer’s opinion is one of the most poignantly beautiful songs ever written.
A band, which included The Arco String Quartet, then joined him on stage (Foy now on piano) to provide the meat for the anthemic ‘Closed Hand, Full of Friends’ from his recent album. A thumping percussive beat, sublime instrumental harmonies and rousing backing vocals allowed the acoustics of this celestial venue to be fully appreciated. This got the crowd stamping their feet and provided the perfect opening for Foy’s first and gracious interaction with us. The album’s title track ‘Joy of Nothing’ followed, a song that was inspired by Foy’s move to the Highlands of Scotland and his appreciation for the simpler things in life. Here, playing his guitar with a bow, Foy’s vocal range moved effortlessly from his growly rasp to a pure and clear falsetto.
Moving through his set it was evident that here is a man, knocking on the door of 40, who has been through some pain. He has credited the death of his father with unleashing his songwriting abilities and much material has come from the ebb and flow of a great love. He writes with honesty and sings with such raw emotion that at times one was moved from goose bumps to almost tears. Still though, he managed to keep things light, with cheeky, comedic banter between numbers, stating at one point: “have you had enough about divorce yet?” and perfectly delivering a humorous narrative before performing the bluesy ‘Pain, never hurt me like love’. ‘At Least My Heart Was Open’ is peppered with a couple of expletives, maybe never heard before in Bangor Abbey, but only necessary to convey the angst in the song. It was a joy then, when Foy allowed us to gain insight into the happiest and most precious parts of his world, as he introduced a beautiful song written for his young daughter, Ella, who was in the front row.
With every ‘now’ and ‘how’, ‘out’ and ‘about’, Vance does little to betray his strong Northern Irish accent in song, and is all the more unique because of it. Mention was made of nearby Bloomfield Estate where he grew up, in less than stellar terms, but we know he is jesting. Clearly he is proud of his Northern Irish roots. A folk influence is undeniable, but stronger perhaps are the influences of blues, gospel and soul from his years living in the southern states of America as a young boy with his preacher Father. Is the song ‘Homebird’ definitely written about this land, I wonder? (now featured in a Denny advertisement, which Vance makes light of, without dismissing how lucrative this is for him!)
Towards the end of the evening Vance knew he had made firm friends with the audience and his repartee was flowing comfortably. The entire performance was being recorded for a live album and he announced, to everyone’s delight, that it was time for some singing from us. He gently coached us on the melody, words and where to come in on ‘Feel for Me Baby’and ‘You and I’, then laughs whilst asking us not to “balls it up” as “this is for an album”. Bonnie Rait’s backing on ‘You and I’is a lot to live up too, but we do okay. A well-deserved standing ovation follows as the band exit stage right, however we are left with an air of incompletion.
What followed was a wonderfully long encore, which began as with the first song of the night, just Foy and a guitar. He instructed us to cheer loudly after the first note of ‘Homebird’, “so that the Americans listening to the album will think ‘this guy is huge in Bangor, they know it after just one note!”
Vance often finishes his gigs with the lamenting and emotional ‘Guiding Light’ and there, in that spiritual setting, by the dim candlelight over the pews, he allowed us to quietly sing him, and each musician off the stage to close the evening. As Foy and the band gently laid down their instruments to our lullaby and gracefully walked down the central aisle, even though we knew there were no more encores, some of us could have stayed and sang that chorus all night, for this, was an atmosphere unlike any other. Jude Malone, GiggingNI.com