Matt McGinn Lessons of War - black box 2018

Review: Matt McGinn – Black Box, Belfast

In March, I had the pleasure of seeing Matt McGinn launch his fantastic new album The End of the Common Man at the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival. I had no idea that behind the scenes, Matt had been labouring away for almost two years on another project, Lessons of War.

The Colm Laverty-produced documentary on the project was airing this afternoon as part of the Belfast Film Festival, and there was the promise of a few tunes from Matt afterwards – a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Lessons of War is a global music project, bringing together musicians from areas affected by war or strife and the film is a lovely mix of talking heads intercut with shots from the recording studio. It’s narrated by Mr McGinn himself, and he does a great job.

Matt McGinn Lessons of War - black box 2018

We meet Yazan Ibrahim, a flamenco guitarist from the Golan Heights, and Elke Rost, a historian from a small town in Germany that was bisected by the Berlin Wall. Anthony Seydu runs a children’s music school in Sierra Leone, and Marianna Suri works with the Citizens of the World refugee choir in London. Closer to home, there are interviews with Richard Moore (Children in Crossfire) who was blinded as a child by a plastic bullet in Derry, and Mark Kelly (Wave Trauma Centre) who lost both legs in a paramilitary explosion.

Matt McGinn Lessons of War - black box 2018

All of them provide their own viewpoints on the nature of conflict and the role of music in healing and in making connections between people. The studio stuff is fabulous, with Matt supported by John McCullough (keys), Karen Porter (cello), Matt Weir (drums), Yazan Ibrahim (guitar) and local songwriter and activist, Joby Fox.

There are some great songs here, certainly enough for an album release. The film ends with the full video for “Lessons of War”, featuring the artists interviewed and many more from around the world.

After the film, Matt is joined on stage by Karen Porter and John McCullough. They start with “When Will We Learn”, the low hum of the cello is wonderful with McCullough’s keyboards adding the highlights and Matt’s voice and guitar holding the middle ground. They also play “Refugees” co-written with Brigid O’Neill, complete with it’s soaring chorus.

The instrumental “One Day of Peace” allows Karen Porter to take the lead on the cello and she does so beautifully on what is a slow and gentle piece but which sounds absolutely massive. I’d love to hear this played by a full orchestra. Matt sings another couple of songs co-written with other local artists, “Child of War” (with Stevie Scullion of Malojian) and “I Was There” (with Ben Glover).

Some lovely warm strumming from Matt on guitar turns into a cover of “I Shall Be Released”. It’s a good arrangement, with the piano acting as the backbone of the song and with Matt’s vocals coming across softer than in the Dylan original. There’s time for the title track from “The End of the Common Man”, which is a darker and more soulful track before Joby Fox joins Matt to play harmonica on a punchy version of “The Times They Are a-Changin’”. Joby shares the helpful advice he received from Steve Earle about playing harmonica, “blow like fuck and stamp your feet.” So that’s how it’s done…

Joby also treats us to what I suspect is called “The Crocodile Song”, written for his four year old son. The show finishes with Matt covering one of the greatest anti-war songs, Paul Brady’s “The Island ” accompanied by cello.

Matt’s current album is fantastic and well worth checking out, but all I can think of after this afternoons show is when will he get round to recording and releasing the music written for Lessons of War. The documentary is well worth a look, and hopefully it will get aired to a wider audience sometime soon.