Review: Malojian – Portico, Portaferry

Malojian’s third Album, This is Nowhere (2016) has just been nominated for the Northern Irish Music Prize and would rate as my favourite album of the last twelve months. Tonight we’ve travelled to the Portico of Ards in Portaferry for the launch of Stevie Scullion’s latest, Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home.

Partially written and recorded in, of all things, a lighthouse, this is a different record and sound to anything we’ve heard before. Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home has echoes of trippy psychedelia throughout. The usual band are absent and instead Stevie is supported onstage by cellist Laura McFadden, Una McCann on piano accordion and with Mark McKowski (Lost Brothers) and Andrew Murray on guitars.

The first thing that strikes you is how different this set up sounds compared to the musicians that recorded This is Nowhere. It’s less punchy, shorn of drums and bass, but instead has a richness, depth and maturity, and this is helped by the superb harmonies provided by Una McCann and Laura McFadden. The overall effect is much more melancholic and even familiar songs seems slower and more thoughtful.

The evening opens with a series of short films made by Colm Laverty using clips from the NI Screen archive intercut with new footage of the band writing, recording and performing. Each is distinctly different to the next, swinging from 1950’s Portrush to 1970’s children’s TV sci-fi. These are something more than simple music videos, and my own favourite was Battery, featuring a day-in-the-life in the police force circa 1978 . If you haven’t seem Colm’s film Document, which chronicles Malojian’s time in Steve Albini’s Chicago studio last year, you should do so immediately.

When the band take the stage, three things are immediately obvious. The sound in the Portico is wonderful and the audience are there to listen. The third thing? Someone decides it’s a good idea to project the previous short films onto the band as they’re performing. For me, this was a mistake although it didn’t come close to spoiling the evening.

Stevie eases us into the new stuff gently, with a couple of new arrangements of songs from This is Nowhere, “Bathtub Blues” (from Southlands) and “The Old Timer” (from The Deer’s Cry). Just before the audience think they’re going to get treated to a greatest hits evening, Stevie starts to introduce the new material. “Ambulance Song” sounds like a 60’s Byrds throwback and again, the vocals carry this beautifully.

I had heard “The Beard Song” before and as always it made me smile. The opening line of “Just because you grow a beard doesn’t make you cool” leads on to some musings about what is “hip” and “cool” today. Or maybe Stevie thinks that hipsters are just a wee bit daft. Either way, it works for me. A change of personnel leads to some old favourites sounding very different, such as a more threatening and ominous “Communion Girls” and a soaring and effortless version of “Watch the Rain”. “It Ain’t Easy” is a gem, but when the accordion and cello provide the backdrop it just goes somewhere else, building slowly but ending up massive.

Stevie finds time to throw in a few well-judged covers of Bob Dylan and Neil Young songs, all the while regaling the audience with tales of getting crisis loans from the DHSS to record his first album and the role of Fisherman’s Friends in a rock and roll lifestyle. “Some New Bones” is probably the most radio-friendly song on the new album and it stands out when given the full acoustic treatment and is performed in a more measured and dreamier way to close the show. As an encore, we get treated to Stevie’s take on Harry Neilson’s “Everybody’s Taking”.

A great night, a fantastic venue, and some real surprises. I’m now anticipating the arrival of the album through my letterbox even more than I was before.

Review by Michael Barbour
Photos by Julianne Rouquette