Review: The 4 of Us – Ards International Guitar Festival
Two years ago, The 4 Of Us performed on a tiny stage at the back of the Ivy Bar as part of the Ards Guitar Festival and it was, to say the least, a lively affair. Tonight they are on the Queens Hall stage, the main venue for the festival and are playing to a packed house.
First up are Orlaith and Mollie, two local teenage Youtube sensations who bring a lot of hair, smiles, and crushed velvet flares to proceedings.
They play with guitar, bass (swapping instruments more than once) and drum machine and they give a performance that is full of an incredible amount of youthful energy. Maybe a little bit nervous at the beginning, they play mainly covers of classic rock songs (Walk This Way, Paranoid, Whole Lotta Love) and more middle-of-the road fare (Rhiannon and Teenage Kicks).
They also perform a number of tracks from their current EP Chains, and it is on these tracks that they shine; their own songs seem to fit their style so much better than covers. “Twisted” is a nice slice of power pop and “Wilderness” is full of big power chords and driving bass. One to watch I think, particularly if they start filling up their set with more original material.
Brendan and Declan Murphy take the stage and Brendan very quickly starts his trademark banter with the audience, noting that the band rarely risk mid-week gigs at this stage in their career.
They open with three songs from last year’s Sugar Island, an autobiographical album centred on family life and growing up in and around Newry in the 70’s and 80’s. Sugar Island is one of their best albums to date and “Bird’s Eye View” and “Home Town on the Border” are great openers, giving Declan plenty of opportunity to warm up his percussive and energetic guitar style.
Brendan introduces the title track from the album with stories of the nightmare that was (and maybe still is) single sex catholic schools in Newry. The track “Sugar Island” for my money is one of the best pop songs written in Ireland in the last 10 years, referencing teenage relationships and break-ups, and the title, as Brendan points out, has a little more poetry to it that Newry’s other teen hook-up spot, Friar Tuck’s Chippie.
Brendan’s vocals are sweet and soulful and Declan hits perfect harmonics on guitar.
Next up was the tale of how the band broke the British charts in 1993 via almost appearing on Top of the Pops, and travelled to London to promote their music. This leads into “She Hits Me” from the 1992 album Man Alive. Another great pop song that really deserved to do better at the time, but as Brendan pointed out – it has lasted longer than Simon Bates’s radio 1 career.
A bit more joking from Brendan about Declan’s tendency to get funky leads into “Sensual Thing” and Brendan stands clear to let Declan get on with a fine spot of 70’s funk. Declan throws everything into this – one foot working the wah-wah and the other thumping out a bass on his home-made stomp box.
“Maybe It’s You” and “Good Bad News” are in there too before Brendan takes a break to explain that the next tune is played in Drop D tuning, noting “this is a guitar festival after all.” Easier said than done, as it takes some time for the two guitars to get tuned, but really this is just an excuse for Brendan to slip in a few more jokes before we finally get to hear “Going South”.
This song has real resonance for anyone who travelled across the border when that involved queuing up to pass through the security check-point just outside Newry. In Brendan and Declan’s case (and mine too) it was for the purposes of holidays in “Ireland’s own Disneyland” at Butlins Mosney. I can attest that Brendan is totally accurate when he described Mosney as having the coldest outdoor swimming pool in Ireland, if not the world.
Declan gets a turn on vocals with “Working in a Coal Mine” after a lengthy, elaborate, and more than likely untrue account by Brendan, of the psychological trauma suffered by Declan at one point which explains why he doesn’t sing more. Somewhere in here he slips into “Lime in the Coconut“. Declan gets to play some more funky 80’s-style guitar on “Drag My Bad Name Down” and then we get “Mary”, much to the delight of the audience.
There’s not much more you can say about “Mary” when the lads play it live, and it’s a sure fire excuse to get the crowd up on their feet and singing along.
Before the encore, Anthony Toner steps back on stage to thank Brendan and Declan and surprise them with the Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of their work with the guitar.
The award itself is an Andrew Cooke original featuring twin guitars, one left-handed, one right handed and is presented by festival director Emily Crawford. As Brendan is quick to point out, awards like this either mean you’re dead or have only a few years left in your career.
The lyrical, poetic and 60’s folk influenced “Washington Down” is their first encore and it’s hard to believe that this was written back in 1989, appearing on their first studio album Songs for the Tempted. We need a big number to end the evening and we get it in a rollicking cover of James Taylor’s “Traffic Jam”.
As always, The 4 Of Us never disappoint live and I suspect that they could engage even the toughest audience and leave them feeling that they have had a great night. It was fitting to see them receive the Lifetime Achieve Award and I’m hoping that they have more than a few years left in them, mainly due to the fact that Sugar Island is one of the best albums yet, in a long and illustrious career.