Arriving at Ballymena’s Braid Arts Centre for tonight’s The 4 of Us gig, I was taken with quite what an imposing building it is; acres of glass and stone grafted onto the original listed building in the 2008 refurbishment project, makes for a striking contemporary landmark in the town. Inside though, the integrity and the original features of the old Ballymena Town Hall are still evident in the stunning auditorium with its ornate vaulted ceiling and impressive stage.
The evening’s entertainment began with a little over half hour set from local singer-songwriter Al Black. Lyrically his material is a little dark by his own admission, though he did dedicate one rather more romantic track to his wife who was present. He proclaimed that she deserved a love song, not least because of the years of sticking her head round the door during rehearsals to ask him if there was any chance of him writing something a bit more cheerful. Mild mannered, understated and melodic he might be, but with track titles including Petrified, Dust and Bones and Ghost of Me, cheerful isn’t the first word that leaps to mind to describe Al Black; but he’s made peace with that. In fact, he cited a favourite quote from lauded Irish poet WB Yeats as an inspiration; “Being Irish he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy”. If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about Black’s work you can check out his material on bandcamp.com or get hold of his recordings; Proof of Life? and his most recent offering, Sunshine Through Dirty Windows.
The main event began when Brendan and Declan Murphy took to that stage at nine-ish with a rousing version of their 2002 hit Sunlight. The boys may be a little older these days than the desperately pretty, fresh-faced boys we remember from their late ‘80s beginnings – but make no mistake, a set by this current incarnation of The 4 of Us is no middle-aged, safe or unsurprising experience! And they still look great; their looks belie a career that has lasted nigh on thirty years. Everyone who’s ever seen the boys live will concur that Brendan is the consummate professional; a slick raconteur with a spiel as sharp as scissors. And it would seem, he only improves with the years. Far from the tousled haired, indie poster boy we remember from the days of Songs for the Tempted and Man Alive, Brendan now epitomises the dapper front man; more Rat Pack than Brat Pack. His voice too has improved with age; it can still hit those unfathomable high notes of You Make Me Feel and Sunlight but it has also developed layers of richness and warmth.
But no man is an island, and Brendan can’t – and doesn’t – do it alone. Stage right stands Declan Murphy, seemingly brooding in black and every inch as indispensable to the success of the Murphy Mix as his big brother. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship – and MAN can they read a room! A look here, a raised eyebrow there, an almost imperceptible dialogue that exists between them and you get a sense that the set list taped to the stage is “for guidance only”; in the words of Ry Cooder and sometime 4 of Us member John McCandless, it’s “as loose as a goose”!
A couple of tracks from the new album Sugar Island came next; the title track followed by Bird’s Eye View. At least half of the tracks on this album are inspired by the Murphys’ experience of growing up in Newry during the ‘70s, but their treatment of the material is nostalgic without being schmaltzy and there is warmth and humour in the songs so no need to fear a very worthy album about “The Troubles”. A pleasing mix of older album tracks and some more songs from the new album comprised the rest of the first half of the set. Ballads Walk With Me and Into Your Arms were delivered with a hat tip to Nashville songwriter Sharon Vaughan with whom Brendan has collaborated, both stateside and in the glamorous Cullybackey. And speaking of Cullybackey, reference was made to Amberville Studios in the village which Brendan called their “home away from home” – unsurprising considering the catalogue of material they have performed and produced alongside long time friend and collaborator Enda Walsh.
Standouts from among the new tracks are the smouldering Good Bad News, and their homage to Johnny Cash, Just a Drop. Brendan admits that the latter was their bare-faced attempt to finally gain their father’s approval for their music, he being a fan of Cash and Haggard, and since only the music of someone who’s at least seen the inside of a prison cell really speaks to him. It was here that we first got to hear Declan’s new toy, another percussive pedal to complement the tried and tested stomp box, and which we are told he has invested in heavily; both financially and emotionally. And as Brendan asked, who needs a drummer when you’ve got Declan up there creating his own percussion section?
A visit to their debut album, Songs for the Tempted took us to the interval. Declan’s guitar skills are mesmerising, and he achieves something that few before him have ever managed – he is a red-haired Irishman who knows how to funk! His super funkadelic intro to Sensual Thing, complete with stomp box and wah wah pedal is virtuosic. The powerhouse that is Declan’s left leg was arguably the star of the show and the resonating stomp that made my heart thump and my teeth rattle made me feel like I was 19 again!!
Part two opened with another new song, Going South. With its visions of soldiers crouching in hedges and casual smoking in a car packed with kids in a queue of cars trying to escape the North on a day of pipe and drum parades, it could hardly be any more evocative of the ‘70s. A new video to accompany this track is pending we’re told, the second in quick succession as the new video for River Flows was released online just over a week ago. The nostalgic trip continued with Hometown on the Border, a more explicit commentary on what it felt like to come from this little isle of ours and on the realisation that in the eyes of the world, circumstances here weren’t as “ordinary” as we viewed them as children. High Wire Walker and Little Things are also to be found on Sugar Island though thematically they differ in that they don’t deal with the Murphys’ childhood experiences. Standing side-by-side with their guitars, Brendan’s left handed stance next to Declan’s right (à la Lennon and McCartney), and with their familial resemblance, there’s an aesthetic symmetry – it’s almost like they planned it.
Next it was Declan’s turn to take centre stage. Feted as “the quiet one” of the twosome, it’s true that Declan rarely says a word on stage, but his contribution suffers not for that; he is the knowing foil to Brendan’s skilful patter! Brendan regales us with the tale of Declan’s ill-fated attempt to share singing duties on their debut album back in ‘89. Ending in an alarmingly expensive month long recording session, there was only the Damascene track Lightning Paul to show for it – that and Declan’s resulting lifelong mortal fear of singing, and often speaking, in public. Together with Declan’s knowing nods and Brendan’s appeal to the audience to cajole Declan out of his singing retirement and give us a song, the resulting earthy, un-sanitised rendition of Lee Dorsey’s Working in the Coalmine, is most gratifying. Declan’s voice surpasses expectation, and the response from the audience is rapturous.
After that, it’s hits all the way! An (approaching) middle-aged audience were transported back to their glory days with classics including You Make Me Feel and of course the perennial Drag My Bad Name Down. Mary was the inevitable finale; long a radio favourite, the boys managed to keep it fresh with audience participation and singing it as a round. For their encore they began with the silky Washington Down which they dedicated with thanks to Al Black. That was followed by their version of Girls Aloud’s Sound of the Underground which actually is even better than the real thing, and the night ended with the raucous and tambourine punctuated James Taylor classic, Traffic Jam – always a crowd pleaser.
Off stage afterwards, the boys are as charming and approachable as they are talented and engaging on stage. Everyone who wants an autograph, a picture, or even just a hello and a quick hug, is accommodated. Nothing is too much trouble and the crowd were very appreciative. As they milled about the bar, lots of flattering superlatives could be overheard. Many who were self-proclaimed 4 of Us “virgins” admitted to being suitably impressed and CDs appeared to be flying off the merch stand. Surprisingly, Declan is actually the more gregarious of the two off-stage, while Brendan is more quietly modest. Together though they are a class act, and for the old faithfuls and the newbies alike, no-one who was at that gig will have seen them for the last time.
As the rest of us filed homewards, the night’s work wasn’t over for the Brothers Murphy. They headed off to Amberville to burn the midnight oil, knock out another couple of hours in the studio and, I like to think, maybe open a nice bottle of red….