Review: Remembering Neil Johnson – The Duncairn, Belfast
For those not already in the know, Neil Johnson was a well-known and well respected music journalist, reporter and feature writer for the Belfast Telegraph. In the mid 1970’s Johnson discovered a love of Irish folk and trad music after getting his hands on a copy of Leo Rowsome’s Classics of Irish Piping album sometime during 1976.
From this point, Johnson began writing a regular column in the Telegraph, celebrating (and championing) Irish folk music and in the process became a crucial voice and central figure in the folk music scene. Often to be spotted at the back of a venue clutching a small whiskey, Johnson was renowned for his passionate writing and pithy, pun-ridden bylines. Tonight’s concert in the Duncairn was a fitting and timely tribute, showcasing the artists that Johnson himself would be writing about today if he was still with us.
The comperes for tonight are Maurice Leyden and Jane Cassidy who take time between acts to read extracts from Johnson’s columns and you cannot help be struck by the concise and insightful words.
Seàn Donnelly opens proceedings in his typically laid back style with a lengthy tale of come-all-ye sessions that took place in his native West Tyrone. ‘Believe Me Sligo’ is a mainstream folk track with hints of traditional influences. Donnelly also sings the great emigration song ‘Sailing Off to Yankee Land’, a song much loved by another champion of local music, Gerry Anderson.
Next on stage are Maurice Leyden and Jane Cassidy accompanied by Frank Cassidy on bouzouki and their daughter Anna on keyboards. ‘Silver Bridge’ allows Jane Cassidy to show off her beautiful clear voice, while Leyden and Anna Cassidy get a chance to duet. Leyden reads one of Johnson’s favourite poems “The Clogher Valley Station” by F.W. Marshall. This is followed by ‘Up in the Mountains of Kilkeel’, a lovely version of ‘Daily Growing’ and finally ‘Green Grows the Laurel’ which gives the audience a chance to join in on the chorus.
Len Graham is one of the great names of folk singing and he sings tonight unaccompanied, with intricate detail on the history and provenance of the songs he presents. ‘The Yellow Bittern’ is a poetical metaphor, drawing the comparison between a bird that dies of thirst during “the little ice age” of 1709 and an alcoholic craving a drink! Graham recites Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Memory of My Father’ before delivering a note-perfect version of ‘Welcome Poor Paddy Home’.
After a short interval, Nollaig Casey and Artie McGlynn take to the stage. Casey is elegant in black lace; McGlynn wears jeans and a loud checked shirt, topped off by a big, black fedora.
Casey does the talking while McGlynn sits impassive, taciturn and face seemingly set in stone. Casey’s playing is wonderful as always, and McGlynn provides the perfect guitar accompaniment as they work through an all too short set of jigs and reels.
‘The E Minor Reel/Lads of Laois’ stand out as does ‘Cape Clear’. It is when Casey introduces this tune that McGlynn finally speaks, pointing out that the title means “no parking in Ballymena.” Cue riotous laughter in the audience. The stand out song from their set may well have been another favourite of Neil Johnson’s – the lovely ‘Christmas Eve‘
The final act of the night are The Sands Family with Colm on bass/accordion/guitar, Anne on vocals and bohdran, Tommy on guitar, and Ben on mandolin. They play a wide range of songs tonight, from Colm’s comedic ‘Look Where I’ve Ended Up Now’, referencing modern society, politics and social issues to the jaunty ‘Fox’s Conversation’.
Ben Sands gives us his wonderfully wistful and melancholic ‘Coffee and Cheesecake’; strangely this was also a favourite of Gerry Anderson. The finale involved all of the evening’s performers on stage doing a roaring version of the old Irish song ‘When The Boys Come Rolling Home’.
It is surely a mark of true talent when music journalism makes such an impact on people, not just in print or on the page but in every day life. Johnson’s love of music, and Irish folk in particular, shone, through everything and everyone on the stage of the Duncairn tonight.
This was simply a fitting tribute to remember the work of an outstanding local music writer, journalist, and man.