The spire of St Malachy’s Church dominates the County Down town of Castlewellan. Inside, the church bears more resemblance to a cathedral, with its high vaulted roof and lines of pillars. If you’ve been here before it’s obvious why the Soma Festival favour St Malachy’s for their concerts – like many churches of a similar vintage and style, the acoustics are perfect. A sold out crowd are gathered here tonight to see the miracle that is Paul Brady. Arguably the greatest and most versatile songwriter even to hail from the island of Ireland, he is still touring, still writing and still releasing new material at the age of 71. Onstage, he has lost none of his infectious energy or sense of humour.
Opening tonight is local singer-songwriter Brigid O’Neill and she is accompanied this evening by John Fitzpatrick on violin. We get treated to some of Brigid’s better-known songs such as ‘Don’t Make Me Go To Town’ alongside some interesting new material of which ‘Rewired’ stands out.
Brigid explains the influence of recent trips to Nashville and how this has affected her songwriting. Her set is very well-received by an appreciative audience and Fitzpatrick’s violin adds a warmth and complexity to some of the slower numbers.
Brady takes the stage at 9.15 on the dot, he strolls on whilst strumming the opening chords to ‘The Law of Love’. The deep bass tones of his Lowden guitar fill the church and he is obviously in good form tonight, all smiles and laughter. From the outset you are reminded of how good a guitarist Brady is; switching from blues to country to jazz to pop and then back to Hank Williams to cover ‘You Win Again’, complete with a spot of yodelling.
There’s no album to promote, so tonight it looks like we’re going be treated to a retrospective from the last 40-50 years. Although he plays a few tracks from last years’ Unfinished Business, these only seem to act as a springboard in order to dive into his back catalogue.
The bittersweet but catchy pop of ‘Nobody Knows’ is followed by the intricate guitar of ‘Rainbow’, a song Brady explains, about second chances and falling in love again. Brady switches to the keyboards for a song from 1985’s Back To The Centre and then we’re treated to the jazz-piano style of ‘Unfinished Business’.
He takes the bouzouki for the politically incorrect ‘Wearin’ the Britches’ which he follows with a Planxty-era instrumental called ‘Out The Door And Over The Wall’ which he informs us was written in response to Andy Irvine’s obsession with Balkan-influenced music at the time. There’s a lot of banter with the crowd when Brady forgets the words to ‘Wearin’ the Britches’, but he perseveres until he gets them right.
Speaking of the politically incorrect, it would be hard to find a more violent song than ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender’, which contains more stabbings I think than ‘Little Musgrave’. It is however, a great vehicle for Brady’s lilting voice and has a history that dates back to 14th century Europe before making its way across the Atlantic to the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a great example of Brady’s craft, having been originally recorded in 1971 but re-visited and re-recorded for his most recent album.
We get versions of ‘The Long Goodbye’, another near-perfect pop song, co-written with Ronan Keating (and a US number one for Brooks and Dunn in 2001) and then ‘Follow On’, a cross between a love song and a prayer. This song was obviously written when Brady was in a very dark place. Seeing him sing this picked out by a single white spotlight and framed by rows of devotional candles on the altar seems very appropriate.
‘The Island’ is performed at a grand piano; and its sparse and brutal lyrics are magnified tonight. This is a young man’s song, full of frustration, sadness and regret, but it is also a tender love song. A combination of the universal and the personal, perhaps? It was breathtaking this evening.
Brady comes straight out of this and launches into ‘Crazy Dreams’ which nearly brings the house down. There are feet tapping between the pews as he finishes his set with ‘The World Is What You Make It’.
As an encore, Brady returns to the grand piano for ‘Mother and Son’, and while this was excellent it just couldn’t compare to ‘The Lakes of Ponchartrain’ which followed. If one song could capture Brady’s talent as a singer and as a guitarist, this might have been it – the vocals were wonderful, complete with a brief a cappella verse, and his voice filled the aisles of the church.
Paul Brady never disappoints, but tonight was something special. A combination of a great artist, in a great venue, with a great bunch of songs. A fantastic way to open this year’s Soma Festival, and with Damien Dempsey, Sharon Shannon and The Olllam still to come, it’s shaping up to be a helluva weekend.