Launching his new EP all round the light said:, County Down troubadour Joshua Burnside returns for his second headline gig at The Empire, Belfast. Joined by local veterans Lambing Season and the newly-signed Brash Isaac, Burnside proves unrivalled in his craft and cements himself as a champion of the NI music scene.
An ample crowd is already gathered before the first act even take to the stage, in what might be south Belfast’s only properly air-conditioned venue (and in 22°C+ heat, there’s only so much a cold beer can do). Lambing Season, an experimental folk group, are back for their first gig in years. Squeezed onto The Empire’s tiny stage, the seven-piece create brass-heavy, folk-infused soft rock vaguely reminiscent of Arcade Fire. The band is fronted by multi-instrumentalist Gerry McCrudden who gives direction to his bandmates’ atmospheric harmonies and very talented trumpet playing. It’s easy to see why Burnside chose them to support him tonight.
Next up is Brash Isaac: frontman Andrew Cameron appears first sans band, guitar in hand, and dedicates his first song to an anonymous ‘Scott’. Cameron is soon joined by the rest of the band, plus female keyboardist Beulah Kim who often joins Brash Isaac’s live ensemble on backing vocals. For those who haven’t caught them on the Belfast circuit yet, they play radio-friendly folk rock with quite distinctive vocal tone and the odd catchy riff. Taking swigs of beer between songs, the band switch between slower and more uptempo numbers, encouraging the audience to “go fucking nuts” (even if they really aren’t that kind of band). New single ‘I’ve Got You’ gets an airing, as well as debut ‘In the Dark’, which is always a set highlight. Brash Isaac have plenty of potential and you can’t help but wonder why they haven’t had more of a breakthrough yet.
Not unlike the beginning of the previous set, Joshua Burnside emerges solo to perform a more or less acapella ‘Blood Drive’, the opener to tonight’s setlist and incidentally his debut album Ephrata. The song is as beautiful as the gig’s converted church venue, setting the tone for the night ahead. Burnside is visibly at ease on stage, and his effortlessly enchanting vocals are all that is needed to captivate and keep any chatter at the bar to a minimum. He sways wistfully with his guitar as his backing band join him for ‘Grapes’; Burnside’s knack for turning the mundane into the gorgeous in his lyrics – from clean white sheets to getting too drunk – shines through with the almost spoken quality to some of his songs. The array of influences on his sound makes him difficult to pigeonhole, incorporating Latin beats, African rhythms and more traditional Irish underpinnings whilst never losing his accent.
“My name’s Joshua Burnside and I’m happy to be here,” he declares a few tracks in. He half-jokingly asks someone to buy him a pint, to which several fans happily oblige. As one of this reviewer’s favourite artists, it’s not always easy to critique objectively, yet the feeling that the stunning ‘Holllllogram’ is personal to both singer and listener is powerful. The brooding ballad, written and recorded as a duet with Alana Henderson, spins the narrative of lovers estranged across the Atlantic and has coined one of the lines most synonymous with Joshua Burnside: “If I have to dance alone / I will”. Material from the new EP is scattered amongst fan favourites; lead single ‘A Man of High Renown’ sees Burnside joined by session mates to create the most Celtic flavour of any of his tracks so far (its lyrics also give the new EP its title). Other new recordings such as ‘Rearranged’, inspired by “a few things”, are lilting and poetic as ever.
Never one to shy away from a political statement, anti-DUP anthem ‘Red and White Blues’ goes down well as always, with its message ringing especially true in Northern Ireland’s current political climate. Likewise, Burnside harks back to his debut LP, performing ‘26th Street’, an ode to the street in Bogotá where the Columbian activist Jaime Garzón was assassinated. Tonight’s set is hardly short of an emotive moment; Burnside often sings with his eyes closed, and steps back from the microphone during ‘Tunnels Pt. 2’ to allow fans to chant a rumbling “Just let me go” back at him. A customary “one more tuuuune” lures the singer back onstage for a stripped-back rendition of Ephrata’s title track, demonstrating Burnside’s vocal prowess and smooth falsetto. The banner carrying his name falls down to reveal The Empire logo as the night comes to a close, a perfectly-timed coincidence.
As a musician, Joshua Burnside truly lacks local comparison. Not to mention, he exits the stage with not one, but two pints he didn’t have to pay for.