The last time I saw live music at the Lyric Theatre it was The Four of Us performing against a minimalist set for Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Tonight, Gretchen Peters takes the stage and the backdrop is none other than the stage production of Belfast’s very own Good Vibrations. The juxtaposition of musician and theatre set is unusual to say the least; classy American country/folk/Americana meets 1970’s troubles-era Belfast.
Peters is a huge name in songwriting, working out of Nashville and having written hits for Etta James, Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Neil Diamond. Her songs have a reputation for being intricately crafted and she doesn’t shy away from speaking about darker subjects, and complex, difficult characters.
As a performer in her own right, she released what is her 8th studio album Dancing With The Beast in May of this year, and is briefly touring Ireland at the end of a run of European dates. There is a full house to hear Peters in the Lyric tonight, and there is a real sense of anticipation before the show, with people talking about the last time they saw her play in Belfast.
The band make their entrance in darkness; an arpeggio on guitar is followed by a single spotlight picking out Peters and her acoustic guitar, and the band slip into the opening track of Dancing With The Beast – the slow and poetic “Dancing With Ghosts”. The song deals with ageing and loss, with Peter’s poignant description detailing how the narrator lights a single cigarette each day, and watches it burn in memory of someone now gone.
“Wichita” follows next, a dark and at times brutal tale of abuse and revenge, told from the viewpoint of a 12 year old girl.
There’s not a lot of chat from Peters early on in the set but she lets her lyrics do the talking for her. She tells stories full of darkness and menace; “Blackbirds” starts out with whiskey and a shotgun and ends with murder and arson. Ben Glover gets a name check as co-writer on this and also for his work on “Truckstop Angel”.
It’s maybe five or six songs in before Peters starts to talk to the audience. It’s fascinating to hear how she started writing the most recent album the day after Donald Trump was elected in America, and how she felt that things quickly changed in her local area. She describes this perfectly in “Lowlands” which paints a picture of suspicion between neighbours and the increased isolation which results.
Peters takes time to explain how the songs on Dancing With The Beast are written as narratives told by different female voices; different ages, different backgrounds, different experiences but all unquestionably female. Peters comments that performing these songs are like being surrounded by sisters – it is, as she says “a great thing.”
It’s not all doom and gloom though, with Peters providing enough light to act as a counterpoint to the shade. “Say Grace” is a simple yet beautiful song about the positive and redemptive qualities of religious faith. There’s an anger in “When All You Have Is A Hammer” about the treatment of returning army veterans, and with “Woman On The Wheel”, she uses the tale of a knife-throwing act in the circus, as a metaphor for troubled relationships.
Her cover of Tom Russell’s “Guadeloupe” is atmospheric, with husband (and long time partner in music) Barry Walsh picking up the accordion to lend the song a very appropriate tex-mex feel. The sound tonight is excellent with Walsh covering accordion and keys, and local musicians Colm McClean (guitar) and Conor McCreanor (electric and double bass) rounding out the band.
The crowd loved her version of “On A Bus To St. Cloud” but the next song of the set was even better – “Idlewild” from 2012’s Hello Cruel World. This opens with a child in the back seat of the family car listening to her parents’ fractured conversations, and it covers everything from racism and JFK’s assassination, to the Cold War. The finale was a rousing, rock-and-roll cover of Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” complete with a duel between lead guitar and keys.
I thought this was a fine and very uplifting end to the show, but Peters wasn’t finished. The band left and she walked to the very front of the Lyric’s stage with her guitar, and sang the simple and completely endearing “Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea”. This was a thing of absolute beauty and worth the ticket price on it’s own.
Yep, this was an evening of light and shade, with a lot of serious shade early on and some magnificent light towards the end. Peters has to be applauded for her willingness to tackle the difficult stuff, but her song-writing goes way beyond the doom and gloom and brings real joy, and a genuine feeling of warmth. A couple of standing ovations were no more than she deserved.
By the time she’d finished I’d completely forgotten about Terry Hooley and Good Vibrations; there can surely be no bigger compliment that that.