Review: Kevin Doherty – The American Bar, Belfast

What can you say about Kevin Doherty? As one fifth of Four Men and a Dog he holds his own as both a musician and a songwriter in a group of very talented traditional musicians. But he also stands out. Within the confines of the band, his songs are immediately identifiable – ranging from poetical ballads to light, almost pop tunes.

Want to talk about the playing and recording with Levon Helm and Rick Danko? There’s another whole story. His background in music is diverse, taking in bluegrass, jazz, country as well as traditional, and it is as a solo artist his craft and musical sensibility come to the fore, making him one of the most interesting and unique singer-songwriters in Ireland.

This is the third time I’ve tried to see Kevin Doherty play live in the last couple of years and thankfully tonight I actually managed it. The concert tonight is part of an incredible run of shows in the American Bar courtesy of Old Flattop Promotions that has already given us shows by Andy White, Saoirse Casey, Paddy Nash, Wally Page, and with Brendan Quinn, Mick Hanly, The Four of Us, John Spillane and Tim Edey still to come.

Doherty takes the stage accompanied by James Delaney on keyboards and backing vocals. It has to be said that The American Bar must hold the current record for the smallest stage in Belfast and Doherty is a tall rangy figure squeezed in beside Delaney’s keyboards. The opening track is “Sweet Water”, the title track of his second solo album. This is a song that Paul Brady would be proud of, complete will full-on honky-tonk piano from Delaney. This is followed with “Maybelline”, a song about fear and doubt made up of snippets and snapshots of stories involving Johnny Cash and Henry McCullough.

kevin doherty - american bar 2018

“Esplendido Corazon” is a beautiful Spanish-tinged ballad that is simultaneously big and sweeping and also incredibly soft and gentle. Doherty’s story-telling ability is very much to the fore on “Jimmy Gallagher Played Saxophone.” This is an almost spoken-word and poetical account of his childhood memories and of the men he grew up around. It evokes almost religious ideas, and it’s no surprise that Doherty segues this seamlessly into “We Shall Overcome.” Doherty is not shy about referencing his musical influences, turning “Christine,” a new song and one that you could easily imagine Van Morrison singing, into “The Shape I’m In” by The Band. James Delaney gets a bit of space leading up to the interval and he fills this with some fantastic boogie-woogie piano that has the audience clapping along.

kevin doherty - american bar 2018

After the break, Doherty launches into a trio of American-themed songs, starting with the spiritual and slow “New York City”, via the old-school Americana road trip of “I Belong” and ending with a pure country number, which he notes is “the last of the American numbers.”

“Camden Street” is another new song and Doherty informs us that it tells of his 25 year exile in Dublin, this then leads into “Blooms Day,” recorded with Four Men and a Dog. This is, as Doherty points out, James Joyce in his calypso phase and it’s a wonderfully upbeat and rhythmical tune, loaded with catchy rhyming couplets as he provides us with a travelogue of Joycean Dublin.

kevin doherty - american bar 2018

If you believe Doherty, “Hold On” is the first time in 25 years that he has managed to write a song that has a real chorus and this is sung in a style that immediately reminds you of Motown and Smokey Robinson yet still manages to name check Icarus, Sisyphus and Samuel Beckett. The dark and Leonard Cohen-like “Rambling Irishman” morphs into Cohen’s “The Partisan” for the final few verses. Doherty finishes with the bright and bouncy “The Flood” and he and Delaney play this with a real sense of urgency, although Doherty does note at one point that he is playing far too fast.

This is another night of top quality music at The American Bar. I’d recommend you keep your eyes open for what is still to come on Friday nights in Sailortown – you won’t be disappointed.