Now in its fourteenth year, the Belfast Nashville Songwriters’ Festival is something of an institution and this year’s line-up is impressive. Billed as “5 Days, 30 Concerts and 120 Songwriters”, and all within Belfast’s Clayton Hotel, this is my kind of festival – all under one roof.
With so many acts to choose from you might think I had tough choice to make – but with Hilltown’s Matt McGinn launching his newest album tonight, there really was no other choice. Gracing the stage in the Olympic Ballroom, otherwise known as the “big room” of the festival, McGinn always guarantees a great show.
Support came from Ben Cutler, a singer-songwriter from Belfast who surprisingly, is just 14 years old! Starting with a cover of Gareth Dunlop’s “Wrap Your Arms Around Me”, young Cutler is clearly inspired by his Northern Irish singing-songwriting predecessors and he is making great strides towards following in their footsteps. Impressively next, he performed two original songs; one as yet unnamed and one called “Don’t Be Blue”. This kid is one to watch.
Matt’s set began with the first three tracks from the album we were here to launch; The End of the Common Man. The title track is a commentary on the ever more prevalent problem of homelessness on Ireland’s streets. Track two, which has hints of Springsteen, laments that particularly Irish phenomenon of not getting ahead unless you’ve got the “Right Name”. Track three, “Somewhere to Run To” Matt tells us, is a tale of unrequited love, and with plaintive lyrics such as, “just be here before the morning, I’m not sure if I could hold out longer than that”, it’s obviously a song of longing. He must have been gratified at the great response these brand new tracks received.
As a fan of Westerns and inspired by a local news story, in “Marianne”, Matt has created a romanticised epic tale of deprivation, murder and family broken apart when a desperate man is driven to turn to crime to feed his wife and children. That’s why this Belfast-Nashville festival is tailor made for performers like him; with his fictional account of a robbery of the Pony Express, surreally inspired by the real-life robbery of a Castlewellan ATM, sung in an unmistakeable Hilltown accent, McGinn takes some of the best bits from both sides of the pond to create his own distinctive sound. Add a few minor chords when our protagonist urges Marianne to raise up the kids and find herself a better man, it really tugs at the old heart strings.
Urging us to charge our drinks, dance in the aisles, let our hair down and generally steel ourselves for the next couple of hours, Matt then performed “Lie” from his last album Latter Day Sinner, showcasing his voice at its most sweetly melodic. A couple more tracks from that album, followed; “I’m Not Looking Down Anymore” and “World of Time”.
Up to this point I’ve neglected to mention his accompanying musicians for the night; Colm McClean on electric guitar and slide pedal steel guitar, John McCullough on keyboards. McClean is renowned for his skill on this quite specialist instrument, and he is admired by other musicians and music fans alike. McCullough I feel like I have seen play live more than almost any other musician now, so prolific is he within the NI music scene. But it’s not hard to see why every local musician wants him at their side; he is phenomenal. On half a dozen occasions tonight, his piano solos elicited spontaneous applause from the audience, he’s a joy to watch.
Between tracks, Matt McGinn is witty and dry and full of little anecdotes! He has such likeability; he exudes warmth and he never stops smiling! He seemed delighted to welcome Brigid O’Neill on stage next and bravely they debuted a track that they’d co-written just days earlier; “Prayers”. These guys are an “oul hand” at harmonising together so it’s always going to sound good, but it was lovely to hear that partnership again on a brand new song and it got a great reaction from the audience.
Back to the new album then for the next few tracks beginning with “Bells of the Angelus”, and a much more bluesy sound. This was a real exhibition piece for the incredible musicianship on that stage; there was another fabulous keyboard solo, a solo too from McClean, meanwhile Matt sat back in his chair singing and playing and just looking like he was having a blast. Once again, this song demonstrated just what a tight little trio this is.
“Medicine Joe” remembered Joseph Medicine Crow, the last surviving chief of the Crow Nation of Native Americans who died in 2016 at the age of 102. Another sit-down track for Matt this, and another display of the versatility of style and subtlety of touch of John McCullough on keys. “The Overlanders” gave us Hammond organ sounds recalling vibes of Manzarek or Georgie Fame, and McCullough not content with playing one keyboard, instead played two at the same time.
The second guest of the night was Gareth Dunlop and together they sang “The Long Way”, which they’d written together. This song Matt told us, was dedicated to those people who just, “don’t know how to take ‘er handy”. Dunlop’s voice is inarguably pretty flawless, but in my estimation, Matt’s is even more interesting in it’s warmth and character. The two together I must admit, are stirring. The other musicians took a back seat for this one; just two voices and two guitars – sure what else do you need?
Time for a bit of satire next with “Trump”, a scathing commentary on the current state of affairs in US politics, likening their president to a lumbering pachyderm. Cries of, “Do it again”, could be heard from the crowd when it was over – but it was a pretty physical number and Matt confessed he’d need to chill out for a bit first!
Nearing the end of the set and Matt gave us his first cover of the night, and it was a surprising one, “Whiter Shade of Pale”. Sometimes when artists cover such well-known tracks, you find yourself asking, what’s the point, why tamper with a classic? Not so here though I must admit – the McGinn spin on a standard was very pretty. Even more impressive when he hinted that he’d thought he could catch McCullough and McClean out with a song they’d not played before.
As part of a new initiative with the Belfast Film Festival, Matt tells us that he has recently become involved in a project called Lessons of War. Combining music and film, the project launches in the Black Box at around 2pm on the 15th of April, and tonight we got to hear one of the songs Matt has penned for it with Ben Glover. Then one of the liveliest numbers of the night, again taken from the new album, this one entitled “Out Sinner”. Alternatively titled the RHI Song (wink wink), this song is the outcome Matt tells us, when some things just really annoy you! I wonder if Arlene was within earshot? Another incredible McClean electric guitar solo and manic keys this was a vehicle for Matt’s seemingly boundless energy!
Keeping it lively then with “We Can”; co-written with Ryan McMullan it’s a fantastically upbeat number with hints of Jackson Browne. An epic battle between Matt’s guitar and John’s keyboard brought the house down and provoked a cry of, “I love you!” from one particularly over-excited audience member. Perhaps in need of another wee sit down then, Matt treated us to the stunning, “Darkest Before the Day”, of which the legendary Whispering Bob Harris once said, “What a truly beautiful track”. The response to the opening bars made it clear that this audience agreed.
The downtime was short lived, and Matt was back on his feet to finish his set with an old favourite, “Latter Day Sinner”. Already running over time, the band were called back to the stage with chants of, “One more!”, and in honour of International Women’s Day earlier this week, the encore song was “Woman”, which sounded fantastic even though John McCullough and Colm McClean had apparently never played the song before. If that’s true, there’s some kind of witchcraft going on here – there’s no other explanation!
The End of the Common Man is available to order now at http://mattmcginnmusic.com/shop