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Review: The Breath – The Duncairn, CQAF 2019

This is a first – The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival comes to The Duncairn, and it’s great to see the festival broadening it’s range of venues, especially when it’s as great as this one. And what a band they booked to celebrate this – The Breath’s second album Let The Cards Fall was a strong contender for best album of 2018 and with Armagh-born singer Ríoghnach Connolly fronting the band, there’s a real local connection.

Lemoncello are the support act and (the clue is in the name) this is Claire Kinsella on cello and Laura Quirke on guitar. The sound these two relatively young artists make is evocative and atmospheric. Quirke’s fingerpicked guitar serves as a counterpoint to the sweep and swell of Kinsella’s cello. Their sound is hard to pin down – some hints of Irish traditional but with influences from the folk scene of the late 60’s and early 70’s as well as more modern pop references.

There are some lovely songs in their repertoire already. “Mantelpiece” and “Stuck Upon The Staircase” are intricate and well-crafted pieces and both have a quiet intensity that contrasts with the unassuming and unaffected delivery of Kinsella and Quirke. There’s also an interesting detour into the world of the French chanteuse with a cover of Barbara’s “Dis, Quand Reviendras Tu?” Quirke totally nails the delivery of this and other French influences can be heard on the Paris-set “Sunday Strolling.”

The creative heart of The Breath is Ríoghnach Connolly with long-term collaborator Stuart McCallum on guitar. Rounding out the band on stage tonight are John Ellis on keys and Luke Flowers on drums. As soon as Connolly takes to the stage she jokes with the audience and informs everyone that she is not drinking due to being “up the duff.”

Most of tonight’s set comes from the current album, augmented by tracks from the band’s debut album Carry Your Kin. Everything is their own, and as Connolly replies when requests for cover versions are shouted out from the hall, “you’ve got the wrong band, we only do originals!”

There are strong pointers towards traditional Irish folk, English alt-folk, world music and ambient music styles. McCallum’s guitar is heavy with echo and Connolly’s flute playing adds to the ethereal effect. Ellis acquits himself well on keys and it has to be said that Luke Flowers comes close to stealing the show with his incredible technique and showmanship on drums.

Opening with the short instrumental “Ditty” and moving on into rich, complex songs such as “All That You Have Been.” This is introduced by Connolly as one of “the grumpy songs,” later speaking of the songs that make up the band’s “syllabus of sorrow.”

On many of the tracks the band produce a wall of sound, with the astounding range of Connolly’s voice at the centre; at times this is low and husky and at others high and sweet and she soars and fills every inch of the Duncairn’s space.  They play three older songs come back-to-back with “For You,” “Carry Your Kin” and “Antwerp” all sounding as fresh as when they were released. “Antwerp” definitely wins the prize for funniest introduction of the night, especially when Connolly notes how it managed to confuse the Belgians.

“Let It Calm You Down” is a thing of beauty; delicate and dreamy and reminiscent of a tone poem. Connolly’s punchy vocals tie this together and her flute introduces a warm, almost honeyed feel to the song. The set ends with a jazz-tinged version of “What You Owe” which has that touch of darkness found in some of the band’s music. As an encore, and Connolly makes it clear how much she hates doing encores, we are treated to “Let The Cards Fall” and this ends with Connolly standing centre stage with her left fist raised in salute.

Connolly is an amazing talent, possessed of a voice like no other singer you have heard. McCallum is an understated but excellent guitarist and their songs are a joy. Ellis and Flowers are wonderful tonight in their respective roles. As a front woman, Connolly excels – forthright, funny and occasionally very sweary. A fabulous first for both the CQAF and The Duncairn and one of the highlights of this year’s festival without a shadow of a doubt.

Photographer and sometime reviewer with an eclectic taste in all things visual and musical. Still struggles to understand jazz.