Review: Hue and Cry, Belfast Empire

After several months of rain, grey skies and below par temperatures, Sunday night’s glimpse of sunshine was very welcome. Approaching the venue, the incomparable Belfast Empire, I am pretty sure I saw Hue and Cry’s Greg Kane lounging on a fire escape to the rear of the building, soaking up the rays.

Support for the both of the band’s Irish dates was provided by A. Smyth. Smyth has been writing and performing music for over a decade. His former band, Vann Music, achieved notable success, and appeared at many of Ireland’s top music festivals.

A. Smyth

The improved weather was reflected in the summery attire of the gig going punters. Not so the band themselves though, who were dapper as ever in sharp dark suits and shirts, save Greg’s trainers under the keyboard.   Before the music began we were warned about Hue & Cry’s strict policy on photography; if you don’t video everything that moves and post it on social media – you’re out!

Opening with a dedication to strong men and women, the first song of the night was “I Refuse” from their debut album Seduced and Abandoned.  The next song we’re told, is about Saturday night sex, and as such, wholly unsuitable for this Sunday night in Belfast.  Nonetheless, “My Salt Heart” from Stars Crash Down seemed a popular choice.

The line-up on stage for the night was a slick seven-piece outfit; vocals, keys, guitar, bass, trumpet, sax and drums. The funky brass section in “Ordinary Angel” got the dancing started in earnest. Then dedicated to all the, “50-somethings” among us, the title track from the latest album, “Pocketful of Stones”.

The men in Hue and Cry’s audience seem to just love the band; when Pat announced that they were going to play a song about women and men and their efforts to understand each other, men with camera phones seemed to suddenly rush to the front, swaying and pointing meaningfully while they captured their favourite track, “Violently”, and when it faded out, a huge cheer erupted from the crowd.

At this point, a young lad in the audience approached the stage, waving a vinyl album at Pat, angling for a signature.  Reasonably enough you might argue, Pat told him “not just at the moment” – he did have a show to do after all. The boy wasn’t taking no for an answer though, and after much cajoling and cries of, “Aw” from the audience, a rather pissed off looking Pat did lean down to grant the autograph. Some joker then proffered his baseball cap for a signature too and a broad Scottish accent from the band could be heard to hilariously shout, “Sign his bonnet”.

Next was “Let Her Go”, one of the most beautiful songs on the new album and one which was recorded with Pat’s daughter, Eleanor Kane.  On the record this is a compelling and emotive track, detailing the struggles of a father trying to accept his daughter leaving home for the first time. I expected to miss her powerful vocals, but in fact, on stage, the song worked well with one voice.

Pat introduced the next song as one about systemic, economic collapse; “a cheery number”, he quipped, a romantic little ditty during which he suggested we hold our partner’s hand and look deep into their eyes – this was “Heading for a Fall”.  During this song I got chatting to a guy beside me who could actually have passed for a Kane brother himself. Will is a life long fan of Hue and Cry and had been at their gig in Whelan’s on the previous night, before travelling northwards to see them again in the Empire.  He’s actually seen the guys regularly since 1994 and showed me a photo on his phone from about that era when all three of them had hair! Greg took up the guitar for this one, and the frantic clapping, thumping drums and Pat’s energetic moves made it a rousing number.

After namechecking the band and recalling Belfast gigs gone by, they launched into “Strength to Strength”, with its, “instantly rejuvenating powers”.  Another track from the newest album is “Deepest Space”; “like 85% of our songs it’s about the difficult relationship between men and women”. It was inspired by the scene in the movie Gravity where Clooney cuts the cord and floats off into space, and is a metaphor for some guy cutting a figurative cord to test his relationship. With sultry verses, upbeat chorus and cool flute, it has an otherworldly sound.

“Little Man” from the 2012 album Hot Wire is the high point of the evening. JP Spears provides a rap at the end that is so sharp and exciting! Who knew Scottish that rap was such a huge scene? But this soft-spoken bass player has an alter ego; alongside the likes of Loki and Far in Jim, he’s one of Scotland’s best rappers, and goes by the moniker Top Dog. The response was uproarious!

“Looking for Linda” had couples rushing to the front to dance, and with the enthusiastic call-response, it got the biggest reaction of the night so far, followed by, “It Happened Here”, the politically themed, raucously good opening track from Pocketful of Stones, which went down a storm.  All too soon, we were told there’d be one more new track, then one we know and that’d be it.

With a dedication to a beloved daughter, who decided to follow in the footsteps of her flaky, creative parents and become a singer, we were treated to the beautiful, “The Way she Flies”, ending with Pat’s palms turned to heaven, as he silently mouthed, “What can I do?” into the ether.  Then it was time for Hue and Cry’s finest moment. Though there have been fourteen albums and thirty-one years in the interim, it’s undeniable that their best loved and most iconic song is the spectacular “Labour of Love”. The available space in front of the stage was suddenly jam packed with dancers, and we were transported in an instant back to their late ‘80s heyday. It’s really a phenomenal song.

With that the band left the stage, after a set of just over an hour. When applause and feet stomping summoned them back, at first only Pat and Greg returned. In Belfast Pat told us, it was only right they’d do a Glaswegian song, one of harmony, peace, love and justice, and with that they played the traditional sounding, “Mother Glasgow”.  With that, the full band returned for one last number, the title track form the 1991 album, “Stars Crash Down”.  At one point, reclining against the wall and wiping his brow, Pat sat back and allowed the band to shine. The sax solo was funky, and Greg’s keys gave the place an air of a groovy piano bar.  The night ended with a little audience singalong; “build us a city of love”, we chanted until Pat blew kisses and left the stage once more.

Though a disappointingly short set, it was a great evening of music. Pat Kane has one of the most sweet, soulful voices out there, the band are accomplished, and the songs have stood the test of time. Better still, the new material is just as good, and they are still easily the best act there is for this particular brand of slick, blue-eyed soul.