A long-established feature on the Northern Ireland music scene, tonight’s Mandela Hall concert marks the biggest headlining gig in Belfast for Gareth Dunlop. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Gareth quite a few times now, and I have to say that he is an artist that always delivers something different. Last time out he was headlining the final night of the Holywood Harmony Festival and there was the promise of a new album in the pipeline.
Gareth has major links with Nashville, and was an early ambassador for the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival and the exchange programme between the two cities. He has paid his dues as a songwriter and as a producer, with his most recent album 79 being recorded and produced in his home studio in East Belfast.
He has co-written with some of Nashville’s best; check out his collaboration with Kim Richey on “One And The Same”. His songs have appeared in major TV shows (Lucifer, One Tree Hill, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Nashville) and in some indie movies with Gareth having made his acting debut in the film No Postage Necessary.
Opening tonight are two other local singer/songwriters, Nathan O’Regan and Wilfie Gilbert. It’s strikes me as a little unusual to have two support acts whose style and sound are so similar to the headliner, but both these guys are excellent at what they do. Of the two, Wilfie Gilbert has been around the longer and has the richer and more layered voice.
Nathan O’Regan is more the young upstart, full of good-natured and light-hearted banter but who tends to deliver a performance that belies his years.
As Dunlop takes the stage, Matt Weir on drums immediately strikes up a groove that sets the tone for the evening. John McCullough slides in effortlessly on Hammond Organ and the addition of a three-piece horn section adds another layer to the soul/funk/gospel feel.
We are getting gently eased into New Day, the opening track on 79 although the live version is a very different and more rhythmical animal to the quieter and softer album version. Next up is “Never Let It Die” which sounds like it could have been lifted straight off Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and we get to hear the wonderful Matt McGinn on electric guitar providing some nice licks.
“29 Times” is a stand-out song, complete with a soft rolling bass intro, and it strikes me that the material really suits tonight’s set-up. The horns give a 60’s Memphis Horns/Stax Records vibe and they add to the overall vintage feel of many of tonights tracks.
There’s a big intro and build up that leads into “Fool’s Desire”, as always one of my favourite tracks, and it stands out tonight, along with “Wrap Your Arms Around Me”
Wilfie Gilbert and Nathan O’Regan come back on stage to provide some backing vocals, and they manage to multi-task, taking photos of the crowd, and cracking open some beers.
Dunlop asks the crowd if they would be up for a spot of singing and we get treated to a lovely, laid-back version of “High Life” and I’m immediately reminded of the description given by Culture Northern Ireland of Dunlop having “a voice that could tame dinosaurs.”
John McCullough and Matt McGinn trade licks with the saxophone and this is followed by a big, punchy version of “Do What You Do”
This is followed by the gorgeous “Fired First” and “She Is The Fire”. which are played in a very simple and pared-back style, and there is time for Dunlop to dedicate the final song to his father Ronnie in the audience.
For the encore, Dunlop takes to the stage alone and plays piano on “The Moon and Me”, a delicate number that manages to quiet a very loud crowd. There was no doubt that the night was going to end on a big number, and the band return to blast out one final song – “What You Do To Me”
This was undoubtedly a big night for Gareth Dunlop and he wasn’t shy about letting us know how nervous he was about playing to this crowd in this venue. He has nothing to worry about on the basis of tonight’s performance; great songs, a tremendous voice (as always), an exceptional bunch of musicians backing him, and a lot of sheer pleasure and enjoyment, both on the stage and in the audience.