Hannah McPhillimy’s heavy water voice would splash off the books and hit the audience. She started with “Heart”, just she and her keyboard. “I’ve been swept up and buffeted” she sang, as the music bounced us off the rocks, off the books.
Travelling from an appearance at Other Voices in Dingle just the night before, she had faced storms to reach Belfast to open for Malojian in No Alibis Bookstore. She’s young, and appears shy in ways, but obviously brave. Her lyrics are honest to the core – and they are out there for us to pour through. I recognised “Take Care” and “Still” from her Atlantic Sessions performances last year. They stood out to me then too, the bare piano and spotless vocals. Everything tonight was with keyboards (she also plays guitar and violin) apart from the very last number. For “Homecoming” she came out from behind the keys and stood at the mic with her ukulele. There was Bagpuss goodness to the opening bars of this deceptively naive sounding song. “I might choose home someday” she told us, ending the set with a dark-hearted beauty.
Then, as if by magic, the Shopkeeper appeared.
Does anybody remember Mr Benn? The kids TV show where a bowler hatted man would visit the local fancy dress shop, choose a costume, nip into the changing room and head off on an adventure? The remainder of the night never quite shook that air of comical reminiscent magic. The shopkeepers could even resemble each other if the owner of Belfast’s last remaining independent book shop would adopt a fez and small square ‘tache.
Anyway, tonight Malojian, aka Stevie Scullion, had the support of long time accomplice Michael Mormecha on guitar and percussion. “Them’s nice shoes boy” Stevie mocked an audience member on finishing “Watch The Rain” from The Deer’s Cry. And here the contrast began. He could have sung us into dream-heavy sleep with the previous song, suspended lightly with Michael’s vocals, it was sweet and melodic and heartfelt. And as the applause waned, and we settled in our seats and we contentedly sipped our drinks, Stevie decided to build on the momentum of that mood by ripping the shit out of an audience member for their choice of shoe. And so the set began.
For “Bathtub Blues” off Southlands they inserted Hannah’s name, and No Alibi’s owner’s name, and they barely contained the teenage amusement that they squeezed out of it. They also gave us a truly superior whistle duet incidentally. “Micky was on the mess last night” Stevie squealed up about the apparently hung over Michael Mormecha. “He’s in a rock and roll band”, he told us with a grin and a pregnant pause (Think Mojo Fury and Loris). Michael sat on, saying nothing, leaving the anecdotes to the guy who thinks he’s funny. The quiet man and the story teller.
Then Stevie went to Hannah’s keyboards to sing “Beard Song”, but of course that didn’t go smoothly. There was some confusion and a bit of discomfort as he proclaimed that Hannah must have T-Rex arms to play these keys. (I presume he meant the dinosaur and not Marc Bolan). The song was a blinder, and despite the serious message they maintained the sweet harmonies and gentle touch that were evident throughout the night.
“The Old Timer” on the other hand was mellow and calming. Stevie sang with his eyes closed and Michael’s slide accompaniment helped it reach beautiful. Many of the songs managed this over the course of the set, and they manage this on the recorded versions as well.
In February they’re heading off to Chicago to record their next album, under the production of Steve Albini (Manic Street Preachers, Pixies and many more), and with that in mind they gave us a taste of some songs from this third record. There was the familiar harmony and storytelling, masterfully carrying us along on the new canvasses Stevie has created. I am genuinely fascinated to hear what Albini is going to do with them. 2016 is going to be a good year.
Then, as if by magic, the Shopkeeper appeared. Their last gig of 2015 was over; it was time for Mr Benn to put his clothes back on. Yeah, I know, that sounds a bit weird to me too.