Kudos to whoever came up with the idea, because putting Brendan Murphy and Anthony Toner together was inspired. These two fellows of the Northern Irish music scene have discernibly different styles and back catalogues but together they provided an evening of great music, great craic and easy company; although it was a little disquieting at first to see Brendan without his brother Declan at his side.
Throughout the night they alternated their songs, beginning with Anthony’s Cousins at Funerals. It’s always good to start he says, with a song about illness, alienation from one’s family, and ultimately, death.
Most of the songs were preceded by an anecdote and friendly chat between the two and it felt very much like we were sitting in their living room so relaxed and informal was the mood. Brendan chose tracks from amongst The 4 of Us’ hits as well as his solo album Walk With Me including Act My Age and Coming Home. Anthony too gave us a selection of old tracks and new. The friendship between them is unpretentious, they just get on well. Anthony sang East of Louise for example and asked if there were any Louises in the audience. There weren’t. Brendan teased that he’d have had more luck if he’d picked a name like Mary.
In 2015 the song Sunlight was selected for use in the acclaimed Irish movie My Name is Emily. With his usual wit, Brendan recounted the tale of how he and Declan, suited and booted and flanked by friends and family walked the red carpet to the Irish premier at some plush hotel in Dublin, only to discover that the track wasn’t quite as pivotal in the film as they’d been led to believe. Although the snippet used was short enough to render it barely recognisable, it still went down well tonight as one of their most popular songs.
An Alphabet is the touching single from Anthony’s new album, Ink. Ambling through the alphabet one letter at a time, he paints a picture of little slivers of life, including what it’s like living with a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s. It is a sad song knowing its inspiration – the loss of his mother and his father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis all happened within a brief period – but it is also a song full of love. With admirable good humour, he told a story of some of the more amusing moments that have resulted from his father’s condition such as the occasion when after spending several minutes talking to his own reflection in a window he remarked, “that’s an awful nice fella”. When Anthony acknowledged that he was in fact right about that, the affection in which he holds his father was tangible.
The Road to Fivemiletown is the beautifully tragic pastoral tale of a young bride who marries out of necessity and to escape a tyrannical father rather than for love. It’s sadder still when we learn that though he husband is a good man who swore at the altar that he’d never let her down, still after years of marriage she mourns the love she could have had when “she draws a disappearing heart when there was no one else around on the steamed up kitchen window”. Brendan told us that this was his favourite of all Anthony’s songs. It’s mine too.
Both songwriters having grown up in Northern Ireland – Anthony in Coleraine, Brendan in Newry – they have a certain affinity owing to that shared experience and they agree it was often a “colourful” place to spend their formative years. In Sugar Island Brendan recalls the so-called “bridge of sorrows” in the centre of his home city which was the seat of many hook-ups and break-ups for him and his peers during their teen years. In Bird’s Eye View he depicts his memories of more troubled times with vivid imagery; “Smoky night in a northern town, See the sky crack open, Blades come hovering down”. The words are utterly evocative of the ‘70s for anyone old enough to remember them.
Including the spoken word track Exit Wounds on his new album was a brave move on Toner’s part, by his own admission. But he pulls it off. It’s the story of an incident from his youth when a friend’s father placed a loaded gun in his hand, just for the craic it would seem. It’s a snapshot of a remembered moment in time, flippant to a point but with the cautionary line, “if you hold a loaded gun, it’s something you never really quite unhold”.
Another distinctly Northern Irish song is Great Big World, a charming recollection of a childhood spent on one of Coleraine’s biggest housing estates. Recalling the stealing of a magnifying glass and playing football on a waste-ground, the storytelling is guilelessly redolent of simpler times when it was the biggest thrill in life to find a “dirty book”. At that point Anthony referred to Brendan to vouch for him that there was nothing a boy could do but take a look, but Brendan was having none of it and retorted, “keep me out of it!”.
The biggest reaction of the night thus far was to Maybe It’s You, inspired by a series of lonely hearts ads. It’s still one of The 4 of Us’ best loved songs even though lines like, “I’m into Pulp and The Spice Girls” place it firmly in the ‘90s. She Hits Me was one of their most commercially successful songs, entering the UK Top 40 but as comically self-effacing as ever Brendan recollected the occasion when sitting in a London taxi cab, buoyed by hearing his own voice on Radio1 and fully expecting it to soar towards the top of the chart the next week, he was quickly deflated when Simon Bates said as the song ended, “I think it’s the end of the road for that one”. Still, the song has stood the test of time with the fans and it was well received tonight.
Both artists gave us the big hits we wanted and expected to hear. Sailortown and Well Well Well prompted an enthusiastic response from the audience, as did Mary, on which Anthony accompanied Brendan. Recalled to the stage by the eager applause of the audience, they ended the night with another couple of songs which they sang together. One of the highlights of the evening was their sensitive cover of Neil Young’s Helpless on which they had duetted before during a performance of The Band’s famous The Last Waltz album. After all as Anthony said, he’s always covering their songs!
This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment, they complement each other very well and I can’t wait to see them together again. If you missed this chance there is another opportunity to catch them together in The Seamus Heaney Centre, Bellaghy on the 16th of June when they’ll be joined by fellow singer-songwriter Matt McGinn. It seems fitting that these modern-day poets will get a chance to perform in the home place of Northern Ireland’s best and most beloved poet, a venue whose motto is Life, Literature and Inspiration.