The Ulster Orchestra’s On Your Doorstep series has been breaking new ground in terms of collaborations with local artists from a variety of genres. Tonight is a one-of-a-kind concert; Rhythm and Blues Meets the Ulster Orchestra with Belfast’s Davy Watson performing with the orchestra as his backing band. Watson is maybe a contender for the title of greatest unknown treasure in Northern Irish music, having worked with artists like Bob Geldof, Madonna and Phil Lynott. Many people will have seen him perform in a number of residencies in various local establishments, often with his partner in music, vocalist Jackie Rainey.
It’s an all-seater affair tonight in the Ulster Hall and the support act are local band Gormacha. Gormacha are an interesting proposition – a three piece made up of Alison McGuinness on vocals, Dermot Rooney on dobro, and Rohan Young on Bodhran, who play a mixture of old blues and gospel standards along with some self-penned material. Their sound is unusual but it works; McGuinness’ vocals are soft but husky, Rooney’s slide playing is beautifully atmospheric and Young’s rhythm adds punch and momentum to the tunes.
Classic songs such as “You’ve Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell take on a new lease of life and it was interesting to hear “Out On The Western Plain”, an old live favourite of Rory Gallagher, given a new treatment. The original material such as “Mother’s Lament” is quite middle-of-the-road fare but it sits well alongside the covers.
There are hints (obviously) of blues and gospel in the band’s sound but also country and Americana influences. A blisteringly good version of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Blessed Be The Name” ends Gormacha’s set.
In the very brief interval, surveying the crowd, I was reminded of when the Beatles played the Royal Variety Performance in 1963 and John Lennon quipped “would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands – and the rest of you, will you just rattle your jewellery.” It’s a strange mix in attendance tonight, that’s for sure.
Davy Watson takes the stage in front of the assembled orchestra sporting what has to be the biggest smile I’ve ever seen and quickly gets into a slow blues number with Watson’s guitar complimenting the orchestra’s strings. On the second track, “You Take My Blues Away”, we get to hear the horn section come into their own on what is a more Stax-style R&B piece.
There are a number of really rich, lavish arrangements of Watson’s own pop songs, and the ghost of Rory Gallagher raises it’s head once more when Watson reminisces about coming to the Ulster Hall for his first ever concert to see Gallagher play.
There are some stand-out tracks in tonight’s set list. “A Prayer for the Lonely” showcases the depth that the orchestra bring to this venture, with the sound swelling as the song hits the chorus. Out of nowhere Watson picks up possibly the biggest and reddest bass guitar I’ve ever seen, and launches into the bass line for what turns out to be an excellent cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” (Are Made of This).
The orchestra’s bass strings chop out the rhythm, and the violins sweep in as the song hits the bridge and chorus. I hear a little bit of tambourine in here too, which makes me wonder if the Ulster Orchestra has a dedicated tambourine player and where you might get an application form for this particular job.
The very talented Paul Sherry joins Watson on stage to play lead guitar on a wonderfully arranged love song and there is a chance for Watson to set down the guitar and sing “Coming Home” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a Broadway musical.
“The House of Love” picks up the pace and after the obligatory thanks to the Ulster Orchestra, The Arts Council, and the Ulster Hall, Watson finishes on “When You Need Somebody” from his Heart and Soul EP. This was probably my favourite song of the evening and a track that really seemed to knit everything together.
Watson leads into this with a slow, sliding blues guitar intro, and the orchestra provide a great big gospel sound. I’d love to hear this song with a full choir behind it, but Jackie Rainey and Mark Graham hit the spot and and provide some great support on backing vocals.
Tonight was different, that’s for sure. Davy Watson is a musician who deserves a lot more recognition for his talent both as a performer and songwriter. Graham Stewart (conducting the orchestra) deserves huge credit for his work arranging these tracks and bringing variety and depth to the songs.
It’s a compliment to all involved that this was an enormous success, and as I was leaving I couldn’t help but start to compile a fantasy list, of other local musicians and performers whose work I’d like to hear given this treatment.