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Paul Brady - The Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre, London, on 16 February 2004

Guests: Curtis Stigers and Ciaran Tourish

Almost five years ago, I enjoyed the remarkable pleasure of seeing Paul Brady perform at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank Centre. I remember that whoever was meant to be joining me that night had dropped out at the last minute (swine), and I couldn’t get anyone else interested in coming with me to see this singer/songwriter of whom they had never heard (philistines). So I went on my own, and my coat and I each had a brilliant seat just a few rows back with an unobstructed vista of the stage; I know because I remember my coat remarking upon the fabulous view and thanking me for its ticket. At the time, Paul had looked surprisingly like a serious English professor and was accompanied by a man (Steve Fletcher) whose long, dark hair, beard and sandals earned him the nickname Jesus--in my mind, at least. I also picture Steve in some sort of white robing with a cross hanging from his neck, but I think that’s just time embellishing my mental photograph.

That performance, the first time I saw Paul live, was outstanding, a truly moving experience. My only regret was that I have no mementoes of the evening. Photographs, as usual at the South Bank, were not allowed, and I’ve long since lost the set list I’d scrawled out in the dark. So when I want to relive the experience and my memory fails me as I try to clutch at the faded details, I boil away in frustration.

There seemed to be only one remedy for this five-year-old affliction: find a way to reverse the earth’s rotation on its axis, go back in time, relive the joy of the concert and somehow archive it in my typically overly thorough way. Or perhaps I had overlooked a second possible remedy, so the aforementioned thought could be Plan B. Plan A could be to wait for the mighty Paul Brady to return to the same venue, snap up front row tickets as soon as they go on sale, and have an even better time than in 1999. Mission accomplished.

So I found myself just after Valentine’s Day 2004 seated in the darkness of the South Bank Centre a few feet from the stage beside someone decidedly more interesting than my coat amongst several hundred other people who were mostly approaching or coming out the other side of middle age. A few minutes after the advertised start time of 7.30pm, the lights went down. Rather than keep us waiting for ages in the darkness in a Michael Jacksonesque attempt to build on our excitement, Paul Brady immediately bounded energetically up the three steps from the left onto the stage, calling out ‘ho!’ as his feet touched each level, thus setting the Santa attitude that was to prevail throughout the night. Indeed, he was happy, exceptionally jovial and extremely generous with his time and his talent.

Wearing a long-sleeved, untucked dark shirt over dark trousers, his fluffed wavy hair brushed back, specs framing his face with a look of uncommon intelligence, Brady still looked like an English professor. However, rather than a stern and serious one, he looked like the one all the students loved because he was such tremendous fun, young in thought and understanding, the one who let us all call him by his first name, encouraged our creativity and got us reading banned novels. His smile was already on full beam as he stepped up to the mike, the acoustic guitar he brought with him at the ready, and he asked us how we were doing, grinning when we all answered that we were fine (I thought of telling him about my cold and the hectic day at work but decided this was not the time).

He introduced the first song as being for the 90% of people out there with addictive personalities. I think that figure is probably accurate. I have always been a very strong, drug-free teetotaller, and yet I keep finding myself at the counter of Starbucks babbling a series of freaky phrases as I hand over my life’s savings in exchange for a Venti Skinny Dry Chai Tea Latte. Perhaps Paul’s first song, a new one, would hold the key to breaking free.

Finally, It’s the Right Time began in Paul’s unique lovely high voice, which almost sounds as though he should be straining to reach those notes, before plunging the song to deeper dwellings, his vocals always astoundingly clear and powerful. The lyrics of the marvellous, instantly appealing tune that surely has a bright future could easily be mistaken for those of a love song until he speaks of breaking free, although love can be like an addiction so the song could still apply. ‘I’m gonna just walk away / Into a life that’s mine,’ Paul sang wonderfully. The catchy, upbeat and uplifting song soon had us all beaming back at the smiliest man in music.

When he finished that brilliant opening, Paul, still oozing cheer, sincerely conveyed that it was great to be back in London. ‘It’s good to have you back!’ two people from opposite sides of the hall shouted simultaneously in stereo, whilst the rest of us sent the same thoughts to him telepathically. As he busied himself with tuning, which he did remarkably quickly whilst making even those random pluckings of the strings sound impressive, he explained that he would be singing some new songs that he had been recording over the past few months. Hurrah, that means a new album at some point soon, and it was fantastic to have confirmation that my Starbucks song would soon be available to encourage my will power like a hypnosis tape that I could play and actually enjoy.

The next new song, Paul said, was ‘for all you workaholics out there’. Geez, this whole concert was designed for me. I wondered if his third song might be one that would hypnotise me into dispensing with the stacks of clutter in my home.

Sail, Sail On was for all those budding CEOs and captains of industry out there, Paul explained before delivering dark, quiet verses urging a workaholic to slow down and enjoy life while it lasted, lines that picked up and morphed into what could almost be another upbeat song. He continued to smile a lot during the tune as though he were genuinely having a fabulous time and the twinkling beam was not just to convince us that he was. As he sang the line about the workaholic looking around a room, Paul acted out that action to the beat he was bashing out on his busy acoustic guitar, and the crowd cheered gratefully at the end of the song, which was co-written by popular Nashville singer/songwriter Sharon Vaughan.

Paul then placed his guitar on a stand beside the second guitar that had been waiting for him on stage, between a Roland electric keyboard and a Steinway grand piano. Something half-obscured that looked worryingly like a ukulele stood just behind the centre stage microphone stand, and the background of the stage was just dark, as a huge curtain was draped over the famous organ pipes and warm wood of the back wall of the Hall.

Moving to the Steinway, Paul took a seat and spontaneously picked out part of a brief avant-garde ‘tune’ on the piano. The performance was not so much like Gérard Depardieu’s cacophonous party piece in the film Green Card as like a cat dancing over the keys. A few people seemed to hold their breath as they wondered whether he were serious, but most of us joined Paul in his happy joke before he turned to us to explain, ‘It’s the Festival Hall, isn’t it?’ Indeed, a leading concert organist, David Titterington, would be playing there the following night (perhaps that’s why we were unusually not entitled to gaze upon the pipe organ, lest we gaze too hard and taint its pitch?) and Brady’s performance was sandwiched between that of many classical artists at the venue (a classical club sandwich, if you will).

Paul’s music might not have been quite as old, but he did have a few decades worth of songs to showcase. He introduced the next one as going back to the late 80s, dealing with our obsession with looking into the future, always wanting to know what life would be like next week, next year. He added that we put so much energy into doing so that we were basically missing out on enjoying life as it took place. To stress the value of this observation, he looked up with the twinkle-eyed, delighted pride of an adorable young child first exploring the joys of independent thinking and said, ‘I dreamt that up all on my own. It’s profound, isn’t it?’

His dismissal of trying to see the future was an excellent point. For instance, forgive me if it’s in poor taste to say so, but I never understood why Princess Diana’s psychic was able to dine out on that claim to fame after Diana’s death that enabled her to attract new clients. I mean, surely if she were any good, she could have said, ‘don’t get in that car’.

Mind you, if I could look into the future just to a Wednesday or Saturday night, I’m sure the lottery win would help me better enjoy life as it took place, and I would promise not to miss out on that by looking into the future anymore. I would also promise to use the money to promote good and fight evil, of course, and not just spend it all at Starbucks on my habit, particularly as my winnings wouldn’t last long at their prices for a cup of tea.

Meanwhile, Paul was still marvelling over the profound inspiration for a song that had come to him without his beckoning, before adding, ‘Of course, being me, sex had to come into it some time….and in the future, you’re not around when I need you.’ He said that women liked the song, and two had recorded it: Tina Turner in the 80s (I believe he said ‘in the’ vs ‘in her’) and, much to his surprise, Cher released a disco version in the 90s. He seemed to pause to build up the strength to say something kind about it, only managing a pseudo-enthusiastic, ‘it’s nice,’ which earned a few chuckles from the audience. He then played a gorgeous, pure version of Paradise is Here on the piano as we all gazed upon his right profile. When he got to the chorus, his faultless voice belted out some beautiful, luxuriously long notes, and he turned to us in a somewhat Tori Amos style of body-twist as he carried on playing. Well, he didn’t do the sex-on-a-stool thing that Tori does with her writhing legs, wrapping them around the piano bench, I’m relieved to say; he just gave us a bit of a tilt. His pitch was perfect, as it was throughout the night, and when he got to the ‘Right now’ lines, he growled them with gusto and, on the last line, threw in a lot of extra ‘now’s’ to drum home the point and keep us filled up for the evening. This version of the song was truly remarkable and he actually played the piano as though the tune were a multi-layered classical piece, ending it with just a bit of jazz. He deserved every bit of our London cheers, i.e. rapid and heartfelt applause with a mind full of enthusiastic yells that it seemed inappropriate to voice in the Royal Festival Hall.

Paul then moved to the Roland keyboard, which was positioned so that he was facing us. My wandering mind wondered whether some snobbism traditionally dictated that one’s hands should be seen whilst playing the piano, as that’s art, but hidden when playing the organ, as that’s Steve Winwood, Paul Carrack, the Doors….

As Paul introduced another new song, I had high hopes for him being viewed as the next Dalai Lama since here was another self-help song, or at least a sympathy song for Modern Man. This one, he said, was dedicated to the ‘old’ men in the audience who found themselves with all sorts of responsibilities--a two-year-old kid and another on the way, thinking to themselves, ‘What happened?’ ‘So this is for you boys if you’re here,’ Paul said, before adding ‘which you shouldn’t be,’ leaking a mischievous smile as the audience chuckled.

We then had the terrific pleasure of being introduced to the fantastic Locked Up in Heaven With You. Its start was slightly rocky as the keys pounded our ears, which Paul immediately (and politely) asked the sound chap to rectify, and instead the chap turned up Paul’s vocal volume so that won the battle over the blaring din of the organ. That was the one minor blip during an evening of otherwise crystal sound in the wonderful acoustics of the Hall.

Paul was beaming away as he sang, his left foot stomping the floor of the stage, and he seemed to enjoy this immediately touching song almost as much as us. I can’t be the only one who can barely wait to have it on my stereo at home to play at will. The song was a bit of a slow pop ballad over funky keyboard that somehow managed to twist naturally into a cheerful little tune. His voice soared throughout the brilliant composition, and he seemed to be smiling in tribute to the person to whom he had been shackled, and people around me were visibly moved by what appeared to be Paul being visibly moved. When will this fantastic new album come out? It is tremendously difficult to cope with being exposed to such greatness and knowing you have to part from it until you reach some unknown future release date; it’s like a long-distance love affair before the days of e-mail and cheap phone calls.

As we pounded our hands together in a show of admiration, Paul moved to the centre mike and strapped on one of the two acoustic guitars, picked up a bottle of water and, presumably to fill the brief silence with any form of entertainment, read from the label to us brightly: ‘naturally still!’ as he opened and poured a glass of water. He told us that the next song went back to the early 90s, and it was one of those songs of his that he liked because he didn’t know where it had come from. Sometimes, he explained, they just sneak up on him and take him by surprise and write themselves before he has a chance to try to work on them. The song first appeared on his 1991 album Trick or Treat, he explained, and then again as the title track of his ‘best of’ compilation Nobody Knows—which, in my opinion, is missing only the sublime I Will Be There. The mere mention of the classic song’s title turned the hall into a sea of grateful applause, which had quadrupled in volume by the time he had finished his gentle wolfman wailing in perfect pitch at the end of the song, having strummed his guitar so smoothly and freely that it looked as though his right hand didn’t even come in contact with the strings. My summary of this song’s delivery is: Wow.

He then changed his guitars, which looked so alike to my layman’s eyes that I could only imagine their individual distinction was that they were tuned differently. As he tuned the new one, he told us that he had gone down to Cuba for the first time a couple of years ago. The way that had come about, he explained, was that he had been touring England with a band when serious floods spread across the north, resulting in people actually rowing boats down the high street. Naturally, many punters couldn’t make it through the floods to his concerts, ‘which certainly put a dampener on things!’ Paul quipped. He praised the lively group of dedicated fans who had braved the dire conditions to get to his concerts, but said that when he returned to his hotel after one gig, he got the notion, as he often does when in his hotel room whilst on the road, to ring around his friends (you thought he’d say ‘the rosies’, didn’t you?).

So he telephoned—and he warned us of some impending name-dropping—Bonnie Raitt, as she lived in Los Angeles and he felt like getting some sun (I’m sure he meant to say that he felt like seeing her and wasn’t using her for her climate). However, when he asked if he could visit her there, she said she’d be away in Cuba with some other musicians, so he asked if he could join her—Cuba is warm, after all, and not known for fierce flooding. So he bravely caught an Aeroflot plane that stopped at Shannon Airport on its journey from Moscow to Havana. On the flight, he was served with a tall glass of a clear liquid, which he downed in one stroke thinking it was water before realising it was Vodka. The song, The Hawana Way, the bonus track of his recent Songbook album, tells what happened when he arrived in Cuba.

But before he leapt into the song, he endeavoured to teach us some of the lingo so that we fully understood the lyrics. Paul, it seems, is not one of those songwriters who prefers to be mysterious and opaque, replying to questions about the meanings of his songs with, ‘What does it mean to you?’ Paul likes to be understood—a sensible plan for a songwriter, surely; otherwise he could sing them in Bulgarian. First, did we know what Mojitos were? ‘Yes’, most of the audience replied in a dreary we’re-not-stupid-teacher chant. ‘Of course,’ Paul said, ‘You’re in London, you would know that one.’ I didn’t know what they were, but my teetotaller status contributed to my ignorance, as they’re cocktails made with Bacardi, limes and sugar. Next in the language pop quiz was Habanas, which the sinful audience also knew were Cuban cigars (contraband where I come from). The audience weren’t such smarty pants when it came to ‘abagons’, which Paul explained were blackouts that were visible in some areas at any given time in Cuba. I assume he wasn’t referring to the type of blackouts brought on by too many Mojitos and Habanas, but rather the blackouts that frequent Latin America as guerrillas blow up power pylons, although in Cuba, they are perhaps attributable to an overloaded system.

By the time Paul got to the explanation of ‘Coco taxi’, I had resigned myself to cribbing my neighbour’s paper, so I missed the full explanation, but I understand that they are little three-wheeled motorcycle taxis housed in bright yellow fibreglass that can even travel down narrow alleys. Paul said he used ‘Hawana’ in the title as that was how the natives seemed to pronounce the capital city’s name. He didn’t explain absolutely every Spanish word and Cuban reference (well, we need some homework, don’t we) nor did he turn into Billy Bragg and add an extra verse about Bush and Guantanamo Bay—for which I was grateful as I get enough torment during the day for being American. Of course, as an American, I was never allowed to go to Cuba so it still fascinates me when people here just pick up and go, and I’m grateful for the musical influences on such wonders as Paul (though you have to pick those chunks out of the mixed batter) and the late great Kirsty MacColl.

The stage was bathed in pink and purple light as Paul beamed away and belted out The Hawana Way with an utterly booming voice. Turning into a tiger at times, growling out some words and having great fun with the performance, Paul created a better rendition than on either the recorded version or that heard on his recent arresting appearance on TOTP2 on BBC2, both of which were wonderful. That comment is quite surprising considering that I’m a sucker for brass, which featured on both those versions but clearly not on this solo acoustic one. During the instrumental moments, Paul would back away from the mike, bend his knees and lean slightly towards his guitar neck, as though he had to concentrate on his playing (as if!). I almost expected him to scuffle across the floor like Chuck Berry, such was his stance. As he sang the line about packing ‘my Rennies, Pepto-Bismol, Paracetamol’ (I suppose people accustomed to Mojitos and Habanas would be intimately familiar with those other products), a coy little grin slipped onto his face as though he were laughing at his own joke and his own human limitations. His voice was masterful, and our huge cheers at the end were reflected in Paul’s huge smiles. It was not quite Salsa, but just as fun.

Paul took us back in time again with the next number, which he said went back to the late ‘70s when he released an album with Andy Irvine, the mere mention of which earned a fair amount of applause from the audience. The song, Arthur McBride, was also covered in the last century by Martin Carthy and Bob Dylan, amongst others, and although I have known people to dispute its origin in terms of when it was written and where (the most popular opposing claims are that it came from Ireland—specifically Donegal; from Scotland, suggesting that he was ‘MacBride’; and from East Anglia). Paul’s definitive version is apparently what inspired Dylan to record the song. Paul told us that it came from the early 19th century when Britain and France were permanently at war and recruiters would try to convince the poor that it was in their common interest to get their heads blown off. Of course, Paul said playfully, the Irish quite liked the French as they had made several abortive attempts for a decade or so at the time to ‘set us free.’ Unfortunately, Paul explained, they would always mess it up by getting distracted by the bright lights, women and wine, and he said this failed attempt at neutrality took place in Ireland.

Paul’s delivery of the history behind the song was playful with a wry smile and the audience punctuated his comments with laughter. Here was an entertaining history lesson, really, and I was astounded to learn the following day that a few people had taken great offence at Paul’s supposed ‘anti-English feelings’ and his politics, as though he had rammed some sort of fierce Republican views down the throat of the audience. I seriously could not believe they attended the same show as me. Trust me, had some supporter of the IRA—or any terrorist group—stood on the stage expounding the benefits of bombs and blowing up innocents, I would have been the first out the door. I had particularly noted that Paul’s concert was devoid of any ill feeling or political statements of any kind, be they about the Iraq conflict, the common anti-Bush feeling over here or any issues to do with Eire. He stirred up nothing but a jovial party atmosphere, as far as I could tell. My only conclusion can be that a few people in the audience were unfamiliar with all of Paul’s work, which is fair enough as he has had an extensive career and I myself am a latecomer to the glory of his talents, and in their naïveté, they were unable to distinguish storytelling with characters from real life, or humour from baleful pronouncements. The loudest shouts to broadcasters about supposedly offensive programmes seem to be inevitably from people with no sense of satire, and I think we experienced the same sort of thing here.

The perception problem amongst some of the more sensitive members of the audience must have arisen both here and when Paul later performed Nothing but the Same Old Story, about which I will comment more later. In any case, the fact about Arthur McBride’s story is that the hated recruiting sergeant would offer a pittance to destitute people—in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and even England—who had no choice but to accept the meagre offerings, then found themselves serving in the army for an almost endless term with barbarous treatment, and that is if they were lucky enough to survive the combat. The song is anti-conscription, anti-war, not anti-English. As Paul suggested, the Irish were in a particularly tricky position in the early 19th century as they generally would probably have had more sympathy with Napoleon than with the force for which they were fighting. That is, as I understand, a historic fact, not some sort of propaganda that Paul dreamt up in an attempt to encourage rioting in the Festival Hall.

Surely most of us understood and appreciated his fine delivery of this sarcastic but somewhat disturbing ballad, which I believe he said he used to only sing on Christmas morning (well, makes a change from Jingle Bells or Slade’s screeching). He picked out an exquisite introduction on the guitar, but then hit one string that he thought was out of tune, and he chastised it as if it were a naughty dog, commanding it to go down. He quickly fixed that and repeated the stunning and now flawless introduction, captivated us throughout the verses of the traditional folk ballad, and mesmerised us with a marvellous delivery of guitar parts in between some of the verses. When he finished and the crowd calmly roared with appreciation—presumably with the exception of the one or two who misunderstood what they had heard, Paul beamed widely, raised his arm in greeting to us and said that he would be back in 15 minutes. Rather than advising us to hit the bar, as many would, Paul suggested that we get to know our neighbours. I presume he meant the person we were sitting beside rather than encouraging us to run home and give our next-door neighbours a hug instead of fighting over overloud stereos and straying cats. As I was on the aisle and knew the person I’d come with, I’m afraid I disobeyed orders, but it was a kind thought.

The second half of the sensational show began 30 minutes later, actually, giving us time to listen to the (highly suitable) Joni Mitchell CD they were playing over the Tannoy until Paul returned. I noticed as we waited that there appeared to be no one in the dress circle of the Hall this evening, that we were all downstairs and in the boxes, but that still made the count several hundred happy people enjoying the magnificent music. Once again, as soon as the house lights were dimmed, Paul appeared, and as he put on his guitar, some newly courageous members of the audience called out requests, but Paul just laughed. He commented that Monday night was a good one….He had just spent a week performing in Dublin, he explained, and on Monday, he found that everyone returned from the bar in plenty of time to see him play. Then, each night, they returned later and later until Friday, it wasn’t possible to get the audience out of the bar at all. Then, looking suddenly but humorously concerned that he was both waffling too much and insulting the alkies in the audience (although they presumably would have missed this story by remaining in the bar), he cut himself off with, ‘So, another new song’ and presented another delightfully appealing beauty.

The eminently irresistible new song, Smile, began ‘They say the world is heading for a breakdown’ and was instantly captivating, as were all of the new songs he played that night. Smile was extremely snappy and splendidly charming with upbeat guitar and soft vocals. With its bright refrain of ‘Smile, forget for a little while….live in the here and now,’ it had me wishing I could buy it immediately and play it a hundred times. If people like Paul got into the Top 40 (and if any of us could respect the Top 40 anymore), this should be his single.

As Paul sang, he demonstrated his repeated instruction to smile by grinning coyly whilst dispatching a side glance to the audience. After a while, he seemed to be staring directly at me, fixing his gaze like a spotlight so that I was initially intrigued but then simply embarrassed. I’d often seen old television shows like Cilla Black’s Surprise Surprise when Cilla would invite some huge fan of a pop idol to come sit on stage as said idol sang a song just to her. I always wondered how they coped. I mean, what do you do? Where do you look? That’s how I felt as Paul seemed to be treating me to this personal attention during Smile—it was horrifically embarrassing but a tad bit thrilling as well, although I was pretty certain that I was imagining it all and that, in actuality, he was merely staring at a spotlight and the individual heads in the audience were indistinguishable to him. However, as Paul wound up the melodious ditty, my friend leaned over to whisper that he seemed to have sung the whole song just to me. Although I still wasn’t convinced, I later realised that I was probably grinning at him like some demented psychotic with special needs, and since I was in the front row, I was lit more clearly than those behind me, and that combination would have caught his eye. Plus I was noting down the set list so perhaps he thought I was a journalist and he could charm his way towards a good review, not that he would need to resort to bribery. Perhaps it was just a matter of two big smiles communicating somehow in the moment.

Returning to chatty mode, Paul seemed to pick up where he left off with the previous history lesson by pronouncing, ‘So it’s official—the Irish like the English!’ Then he seemed to qualify the statement, saying, ‘Young Irish professionals like the English.’ (Perhaps his smiling at me was meant to bridge the gap, but I’m American….) He said that it hadn’t always been like that, that when he lived in London in the 70s, he played with a folk group called The Johnstons. The mention of that band earned some scattered cheers from the audience, and Paul seemed taken aback. ‘Do you remember the Johnstons?’ Getting an element of confirmation, he muttered with astonishment, ‘Oh, gosh!’ He said they had packed up the VW Beetle way back then and come to London. He spoke of a wonderful but tricky time when they were going to be the support band at the Royal Festival Hall when Joni Mitchell was headlining. The problem was, the Johnstons’ only hit had been a cover of Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, so naturally they wanted to play it during their set, but didn’t want to infringe upon Joni’s plans, so they had to ask Joni’s manager if they could play the tune that night. When Joni came on later, she introduced that song by saying, ‘I’m going to do a song now that I understand some Irish band had a hit with….’ Oh dear. ‘So that,’ Paul said with a grin (of course), ‘was my first introduction to the Royal Festival Hall. Tonight’s different,’ he added. ‘I’m in total control; everything is wonderful!’ He certainly did seem to be on a remarkable natural high.

‘But back in the 70s,’ he continued, ‘it was not a good time to be Irish in London.’ He explained that there were bad vibes and paranoia as the political situation in Northern Ireland spilled onto ‘what you guys call the mainland’, he said to a laugh from the audience. So he kept his head down, he said; he listened to Irish traditional music in Irish pubs full of Irish guys ‘who built your motorways and tunnels’. Those guys, he said, would fantasize about getting back home whilst moaning about suffering here in the inhospitable climate. Perhaps sensing that he might be going on a bit too long, Paul interrupted his story and said brightly, ‘I’m enjoying this now—are you?’ The audience laughed heartily. ‘I’ll sing the song in a minute but it’s a very heavy song and I’m not feeling very heavy tonight—so if I don’t sing it in a heavy way, forgive me. Oh, one thing I must say about this song was that it was written at a time when it was a really big deal to have two cars in your driveway.’

Needless to say, the next song he performed was the consummately profound Nothing But the Same Old Story which, despite not feeling heavy, he sang with tremendous passion so it came across like a 3-D slice of life in the 70s for a grumpy, feeling hard-done-by Irishman in London, and I’m not describing Paul; I refer to the narrator. Perhaps Paul’s performance was in the spirit of the previous night’s BAFTAs; he really got into the role. He belted out the wonderfully apt lyrics with tremendous power, his eyes clamped shut, and added drama at the appropriate times. For instance, when singing the words of the resentful drunk immigrants at the bar, he changed his demeanour to that of a dozy looking, aggressive drunk saying Al Pacino-style, ‘You looking at me?’ He got so into it that when he sang, ‘Look out!’ at the end of one of the choruses, rather than just the usual ‘I’ll tear you all to pieces if you cross me!’ he added, ‘And don’t come too f**king close!’

It was perhaps this Oscar-grade performance that confused a few members of the audience into thinking that Brady was a highly political English-hating Irishman spouting commands of bitter hatred in hopes of inciting some to take up arms against us. But surely no one actually believed that Mark Knopfler was bitter about having to shift heaving white goods in Money for Nothing, so what’s different here?

There were some light-hearted moments in the song, too, like when Paul got to the line about the successful brother in America having two cars in the driveway, and after his explanation before the song of the definition of wealth at the time, he thought to update the line and thus sang, with great emphasis, ‘three cars in the driveway!’ and beamed for a second as we all chuckled.

He finished to the exuberant cheers that he wholly deserved and, just in case someone misunderstood his method acting, he added with a smile, ‘I was only joking actually!’ In fact, the song skilfully captures a slice of society and the angst of a particular culture in the time just as aptly as, say, The Specials’ Ghost Town later did the early 80s. It would be a crime if he retired it just because the mood of London—and specifically its relationship with Irish immigrants—is not quite the same as it was when he wrote it, and really it focuses on a certain type of character. At the time, the Troubles in Northern Ireland were starting to rage and the Irish in London were the underclass, undoubtedly viewed with suspicion, or as he puts it in this song, ‘In their eyes, we’re nothing but a bunch of murderers.’ But it captures the time and sociology so perfectly, it never quite dates. The principle is not much different from enjoying an 18th century oil painting showing the busy Port of London with dozens of tall ships crammed into the commercial Thames, or even Picasso’s Guernica. They are priceless, revealing portraits of the age. The gruff, bitter, drunk displaced Irishman during that period—before the celebration of all things Celtic that seems to have gripped the world today—is not, I am certain, a self-portrait or a modern one. In fact, any portrait of Paul as he was tonight would look a lot more like Tigger, all happy and bouncing with unbridled enthusiasm. It was never Paul proclaiming a hate war on Londoners. It’s a fantastically powerful song, true, but I’m amazed that anyone took offence. Oh well.

Next, Paul moved over to the electric keyboards and began playing Minutes Away, Miles Apart from his last studio album, Oh What a World. A chap near me had been shouting out for that song before, so now over Paul’s musical introduction, said chap shouted, ‘Thanks, Paul!’ Paul sent him a funny smile. This was a particular treat for me because I had recognised the song as a quality love song—or one, like The Long Goodbye, that starts out full of love that one watches deteriorate uncontrollably—when I first heard the album, but I did not honour it with numerous plays because of the criminal steel guitar reeking through it and the slightly over-sludgy production that combined to make the recording a bit too AOR goopy, Bryan Adams-type slush. I hate to say that about something co-penned by this man, but someone hearing the album version could be forgiven for thinking that Chris DeBurgh somehow had a hand in it. The sentiments wonderfully set out in the lyrics are a higher quality, though, so being treated to a more raw performance with just Paul was a godsend. Going from the epiphany of meeting one’s true love at the beginning (‘Every thought that you had / And every word you said / Sounded so familiar / Like a poem I’d just read’) via a winning hook in the chorus to the harsh reality of a couple drifting apart, the song shone with this more natural treatment, although I can understand why it was dressed up for the album; it could easily have been an AOR hit in middle America. But this version at the Festival Hall was the winner for me, truly arresting, and Paul managed to hold out the note upon singing, ‘…drifting away’ for seemingly hours. Bathed in violet lighting, he once again conveyed the emotions of the song like Laurence Olivier, the whole performance a true tribute to his talents. He ended the tune with a keyboard solo that saw him concentrating hard on his fingering, then hitting one slightly off note, which made him send us a sheepish grin as if to drum home that he was proving he was human, after all.

Without speaking, Paul stood and moved across to the Steinway and played the unmistakable introduction to the superlative classic, The Island. The hall filled with cheers after the first few notes and Paul’s voice was crystal as he led us through the amazingly gorgeous performance of this dreamy yet powerful song. This dynamic composition is often mistaken for the quintessential love song, when it is much more political, but rather than taking sides, it focuses on the Average Joe’s inability to control what’s going on in the world despite his distaste for its cruelty. Perhaps, again, those in the hall who couldn’t listen properly only heard a twisted view of what Paul actually sang.

The narrator of the song looks sadly around at the tragic strife not just in Northern Ireland but also in The Lebanon, Central America, and South Africa. Paul captures with exquisitely crafted lines the futility of the fighting and the desolation it invokes. For example, after singing of women and children dying in the street in Lebanon, he points to the Troubles at home where people are, ‘still trying to reach the future through the past / still trying to carve tomorrow from a tombstone.’ He sings, ‘up here, we sacrifice our children / to feed the worn-out dreams of yesterday / and teach them dying will lead us in to glory.’ Those chilling images are interspersed with reminders—to himself as much as the listener—that the song isn’t meant to be a sad one and that being in love can do wonders to lift one’s spirits in the face of such desperate adversity. The last verse might be what confused those strayed simpler souls in the audience who misread an attack on the senselessness of killing for a literal celebration of it. ‘Now I know us plain folks don’t see all the story / And I know this peace and love’s just copping out. / And I guess these young boys dying in the ditches / Is just what being free is all about. / And how this twisted wreckage down on main street / Will bring us all together in the end / And we’ll go marching down the road to freedom….’ When he sang, ‘freedom’ the first time, he held up his right hand and formed a fist of fortitude.

I will always prefer Paul’s inevitably emotional and fervid rendition of his own song to the much more famous cover version by Dolores Keane and even the recent duet by two of my favourite (also Northern Irish) performers: Brian Kennedy and Juliet Turner. The contrast of the peaceful piano with the stark imagery, conveyed with such beauty and power, was almost enough to move me towards emotion, something that rarely happens to frosty me in a concert setting.

When he finished, he remained seated at the piano as we cheered wildly, and he reached for his guitar. A woman in the audience called out, ‘Spirits Colliding!, which was an odd request, really, as the chances of him playing an entire album were probably slim. Paul said he understood what she meant: I Want You to Want Me (not the Cheap Trick song, of course). Someone else in the audience called out to him, ‘We want you already!’ That self-effacing smile took over his face again. He started playing the tune and one person, presumably the requester, began to clap, but madly off rhythm, prompting Paul to stop suddenly and say good-naturedly, ‘Hang on a second ‘til I tune in with you.’ The audience laughed. As he began plucking out the first notes again, Paul said he hadn’t played this tune in a long while, ‘so…’ he added as though it were a self-explanatory excuse for a poor performance that never came. He launched the first verse that included the album’s title, ‘A hurried connection / Spirits colliding, / Locked up in a human frame, / The gulf in between us.’ He turned what, frankly, as a recording dwelled on the plain side to a full-on fantastic, Tango-like, sensually screamed declaration of primal desire full of strong guitar solos.

As we applauded, he began the intro to another tune before stopping himself with, ‘Oh, no—that’s for later!’, as though he were chiding the song for prematurely playing itself. Instead, he invited on stage a guest: Ciaran Tourish from Donegal. Altán’s exceptional fiddle player came on to warm applause, dressed just like Paul as though in uniform and holding his fiddle. Paul picked up a mandolin (not a ukulele after all, thank goodness) and said that they were going to play songs that they had played years ago that young people wouldn’t play now as the songs were thought to be too old-fashioned. They both paused to tune their instruments, with Paul quipping, ‘Normally, we’d have people to do this for us, you know’ before starting them off with, ‘Okay, here we go!’

The fiddle sprung to life as percussion was supplied by the audience clapping in time to the beat, with both the men on stage stomping their feet. Paul’s mandolin joined in and the two created the most astounding, enchanting commotion, with Paul leaning towards Ciaran, grinning and then marching about a bit on the stage. How two instruments that could sometimes sound subtle and classical could build up such an intense momentum that I could almost see steam seeping from them is a mystery. The clapping hands in the audience seemed to tire out during this wonderful traditional instrumental so stomping feet took over instead. Paul whooped a few times and both men were so full of life, I wished the anti-camera mafia weren’t so near (alas, the price of good seats is you can’t get away with stealing the odd photo as those behind us were doing…until your courage takes over near the end, that is.) The audience were thrilled and we roared as they finished and Ciaran Tourish left the stage.

‘That’s the kind of caper we get up to, you see,’ Paul explained. He began strumming the guitar as the audience called out abbreviated requests such as ‘Donegal!’ Instead, Paul carried on with the set list in his head. ‘Shutters on the windows, chains upon the door,’ he began to cheers, starting the song he wrote as his own Caledonian connection, his own version of the links between the Northern Irish and Scottish songs that he heard as a child in Donegal listening to his parents singing in pubs alongside the Scottish tourists. He admits to Follow On being another example of his dark side—although I find moments of hope in it following the sombre first verse that mentions ‘dreams of heaven falling, panic in the town / Lonely men with fingers on the future.’ Paul delivered that dark side to us tonight with such ferocity, such genius that I actually felt chills at the nape of my neck, and that wasn’t down to the air conditioning. The song, which was covered by a then successful Paul Young on one of his early albums, dips into the subject of love again, with the snappy refrain ‘When all is said and done, you are the only one’, but acknowledges that the couple might not be together for eternity. The outpouring of adoring applause when he finished the enormously melodic and irresistibly beautiful song suggested that I wasn’t alone in being moved by the song’s power.

Paul moved to the Roland keyboard and chuckled along with the rhythm that he picked out. He concentrated on what he was doing, clearly not the expert here that he was on the guitar, and began singing, ‘I know they say if you love somebody, you should set them free.’ People who recognised The Long Goodbye began to applaud just as Paul’s incredible vocals took flight, evoking emotions, painting a sad pop tune vastly better than anything by chart record breakers such as Bryan Adams or Wet Wet Wet could have created, although Paul outclasses them in any tournament. I suppose I mention those two ‘artists’ as it is eternally baffling that incredibly talented songwriters with amazing voices and stage presence, extraordinary instrumental talent and originality such as Paul Brady, Boo Hewerdine, Luka Bloom and even John Hiatt—are not household names, and yet stylised packages like Hepburn, Cher and Ronan Keating (who has performed this song) can cover those artists’ perfect songs and make them hits. Are we buying ‘brand names’ in buying covers by chart artists? Must we have a shiny young picturebook face on the cover of the album for it to hold any appeal? I suppose my interest in clothes and music are similar in that I prefer my clothes to be attractive classic, tailored pieces, long-lasting quality garments rather than trendy, empty, silly, young, flashy and frivolous fly-by-night fashions….

Actually, this song has topped the charts—the country charts in America, again as a cover. Award-winning country duo Brooks & Dunn had a hit with the song, which somehow does seem to combine elements of Celtic with country, and they said the pivotal tune was a departure from their usual material as its lyrics—about the reality of a relationship decaying with neither part wishing to admit it—were more painful than what they would usually perform. Paul seems to have a monopoly on such things. And, yes, I know that Paul is one of Ireland’s most successful singer/songwriters, but he still has never achieved the widespread fame that his talents deserve.

I remember that this song caused some consternation when he first introduced it as new at the Celtic Flame concert in 2000 as he told us he co-wrote it with Ronan Keating. I was horrified and I actually know of a shallow fan who abandoned Paul as a result of that scare, but after Paul performed it that night, I had to admit that it was a wonderful song. I have since come across other examples of Keating co-writes that have not made my ears drop off. During this performance at the South Bank, Paul rocked from side to side during the instrumental parts on the keyboard. When he finished the song, he leaned back on the bench and waved his arms, perhaps to demonstrate what good-bye might look like, and that had the effect of swelling the feeling in the hall, which filled with resounding applause.

Paul stood and moved to the guitar that was on a stand in the centre of the stage, telling us that, at the end of 2002, he had lots of fun in Ireland as RTE Television did a programme on the music that he’d created over the past 30 years, which gave him the opportunity to play with all sorts of artists he adored. I was always sorry that the series hadn’t been broadcast over here, but I was thrilled with the excerpts released on CD as The Paul Brady Songbook and kept meaning to order the DVD from his website.

For Paul, clearly the thrill had been working with other musicians, and he was going to relive that element now by inviting on stage one of the artists who appeared on the series and album: Curtis Stigers. Whilst dutifully applauding a welcome, I braced myself for that dull, round-faced Michael Bolton type of AOR pop singer from the ‘90s whose hair was too long (albeit not as dire as Bolton’s) and whose hit song was too dull. The person who came on stage instead was an extremely slim, sharply dressed (suit jacket with pocket square, albeit over jeans), clean cut young man who wore a new credibility and had many of the women in the audience, including my sensible companion, nearly swooning at the sight of him. Even I had to admit that the Atkins Diet look and, most of all, long overdue appointment with the hairdresser had produced quite a looker, someone who I never would have imagined was hiding under the person we used to see on the video for I Wonder Why. He was beaming and fit in nicely with the happiness that Paul exuded all night. I really would never have believed this was the same man, and here he was clutching a saxophone. My mind flew back to the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2001 when Brian Kennedy performed some songs that he said he’d co-written with Curtis Stigers, which made many of us cringe until we heard the gems in question. Now everything made more sense.

Stigers has actually become quite a respected jazz musician since his dabble with pop stardom. In fact, The Times named his acclaimed album You Inspire Me the Best Jazz Album of 2003. The album cover itself doesn’t venture far enough from his pop idol days, sporting a GQ-type close-up of Stigers gazing out with a smouldering expression, when the in-the-flesh reality is a vastly more attractive, natural, smiley (related to Paul then, perhaps?) more human musician. He is no pop star playing at jazz because it’s trendy; the pop career was a diversion from his jazz training. Stigers is the genuine article with an organic approach to the music he plays, which he demonstrated at the South Bank with a few burly blasts on the tenor saxophone as soon as he took to the stage, which Paul followed with vocals interspersed amongst further sax interludes over the gentle foundation of some acoustic guitar strumming. They performed the track on which they collaborated on Songbook, Blue World, with Stigers’ sax abilities surely sufficient to wow the likes of Van Morrison. Curtis also added relaxed backing vocals during the chorus before taking over somewhat gravelly lead vocals during the second verse and later snatching alternating lines, sounding nothing like the soppy pop star I had remembered and disliked so long ago. The two men banded together wonderfully during the chorus, which fittingly ended ‘I can’t be the one you’re needing / I can just be who I am.’ Whilst I had enjoyed this song on the album, I never imagined it could come to life so vigorously as this aural pageant before us. As Paul and Curtis drew the number to a close, the audience roared with pleasure.

While Paul tuned his guitar for the next number, he shook his head and muttered, ‘Curtis Stigers—I should be so lucky!’ He then began playing the familiar introduction to Crazy Dreams, leading to big cheers that led to a big smile on Paul’s face. This song with a hook to make you salivate is another that attracted warranted attention from other artists, having been covered by Lucy Kaplansky and Maura O’Connell, who has the great taste to have covered several of Paul’s songs as well as many of Patty Griffin and Ron Sexsmith. Tonight, Curtis added such a welcome sax part to Paul’s warbling, it was hard to imagine having heard it without one before. This colossally chirpy song nodding towards Paul’s parents’ Argentinean influence (not that they were Latin, but that they loved to tango and sing Spanish songs) that led the listener from New York to Ireland was glorious with this American joining him on stage in London. How thoroughly cosmopolitan. Most of us were bobbing in our seats to its enormously uplifting tango-like rhythm, Curtis beaming in between crisp sax blows, Paul smiling when not busy providing sensational vocals. During his guitar solos, Paul would back away from the mike as though he were falling backwards, then wander off to be near Curtis during his accomplished sax solos. They knew they were giving us the time of our lives, and it was hard to adjust to the silence when they brought it to an end. Paul thanked us and said it had been great being in London. He then, oddly, returned the guitar he was just using to its stand and picked up a different one to take with him as he left the stage, over two hours after first taking it, with Curtis following with his sax. We roared with appreciation both at the treats we’d enjoyed and obviously in an attempt to get them back as quickly as possible.

Paul kindly returned within five minutes, and the chap who had requested Moments Away, Miles Apart gratefully placed a beer on stage at Paul’s feet. Paul thanked him but focused instead on tuning the guitar he’d taken with him. He launched into the introduction of the next tune but shortly stopped himself after hitting a less welcome note and joked, with his trademark grin, ‘I think I’ll tune first—that’d be good,’ adding, ‘I just like to show I’m human, you know!’ He said that it was all in tune but there was one defiant string. Having sorted out the string with attitude, Paul began again, now more brightly, the beginning of a new song called Living for the Corporation. He sang an Elvis Costello allusion with, ‘it’s welcome to the working week, living for the corporation’ and sang of the Catch-22 option many of us face where one can ‘lose my job or lose my mind’. The perceptive song was particularly moving and had tremendous strength. Initially I thought I heard him sing about being stuck in the carpet like gum, but he actually sang ‘stuck in the corporate gear.’ We rewarded his new tune with empathetic applause, as many of us surely recognised ourselves and our dilemmas in its lyrics.

Ciaran Tourish and Curtis Stigers then returned to the stage to a grand welcome. They brought with them their fiddle and sax, respectively, whilst Paul remained on acoustic guitar. ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ Paul said to our huge cheers, feigning fatigue of the glory, then was hit with a fit of unbridled enthusiasm bursting to progress, and he checked if the others had finished tuning as he was clearly keen to get on. Paul bent over his guitar and, when he leaned back again, he was holding a tin whistle that he seemed to have magically whipped out of thin air, even to Ciaran’s apparent surprise. The trick, or perhaps the promise of what was to come, prompted most of the audience to utter, ‘Ooooo!’. Paul smiled and quipped that there was no end to his talents. The immense sound produced by the combined forces of Tourish’s fiddle and Paul’s tin whistle was so substantially atmospheric that I almost though they were piping in a recorded track Milly Vanilli style.

The audience cheered in recognition of one of Paul’s (many) all-time classics, The Homes of Donegal. He did not write the song, of course, but his arrangement is surely one of the best known and most enduring. Clearly the many villages mentioned in the track meant a lot to him and his memories of growing up in Donegal. Amazingly, the phenomenal Loudon Wainwright III is one of the backing vocalists on Paul’s original recording of the song. Having Wainwright stroll onto the stage now to join in the jamboree would be the only way to improve the whole magical evening. That didn’t happen, but with Stigers adding his breathtaking blasts of sax and Ciaran’s staggering fiddle talents, the song could hardly have been more moving. After Paul put down the tin whistle and picked up the guitar, the other two stretched out the note he had begun playing on the whistle until Paul sang the first line of, ‘I’ve just dropped in to see you all’, which earned a great deal of applause from the audience still thrilled that he’d dropped in on us tonight, and eager to enjoy the rest of his visit. Paul had a wonderful way of turning his voice towards whatever style was required; you would never imagine the rhythm ’n’ blues/rock singer would be able to sing with the warbling of traditional folk, but he can with ease.

At one point, Paul wandered over towards Stigers, wailing off-mike in a traditional folk manner, adding more atmosphere to the already monumental performance. He moved to a mike to mutter with a smile a few ad libs such as ‘cup of tea’ after the line about the kettle on the hearth (or perhaps he was reverting to something like the original lyrics (which I doubt) as the next line would be ‘and soon that teapot’s fillin’ up, my cup, it’s far from small’. Meanwhile, Stigers gave an astonishing demonstration of how to make a modern instrument like the tenor sax sound like a traditional Celtic folk instrument. Paul continued wandering before returning to the mike to sing the sadly appropriate first line of the last verse, ‘The time has come for me to go and bid you all adieu.’ He flashed us another sensational smile and returned to singing, ‘Donegal, pride of all…’, holding out the last note so long that the audience, who was largely now joining in, had no hope of keeping up. Paul then began rhythmically listing numerous towns in Donegal, and Ciaran seemed to stretch his neck to hear if his hometown was included, and I’m pretty sure Paul mentioned Buncranna. He eventually stretched the town name-check into such a long list, people began to laugh, particularly when he slipped in some towns of dubious Irish origin such as Bombay, even tacking on a few belted growls and a rhythmic stammer as he reached a town I didn’t catch beginning with F, which later progressed to a mention of fish and chips.

The three brought the song—a perfect example of Paul’s superhuman talent for smoothly fusing together blues, rock, and folk—to a conclusion with a huge finish. Paul continued until the last second to toy with names at the three beat out the final epic notes. Surely he should get some sort of prize for reciting the atlas so smoothly. Curtis stood beaming at Paul like an adoring but confident younger brother proud of the teamwork on their joint creation.

Paul addressed us again, saying, ‘If you wanna hear any more, you’re gonna have to come back next time—the bar is closed!’ After scaring us a bit with that implication that he had finished for the night, he immediately redeemed himself by going straight into the immediately familiar guitar introduction for The World is What You Make It, a hook-laden song that never fails to get feet tapping and was infectiously used as the theme song for the 1995 sitcom, Faith in the Future, the follow-up to Second Thoughts. The audience kicked in with a rapid handclap beat, Curtis danced around a bit sporting an Elvis sneer, and Ciaran could barely restrain himself until it was time for him to join in on the fiddle. Curtis’ sax remained parallel to the floor, unplayed as he focused on adding backing vocals to the furiously paced song. All three musicians were clearly having tremendous fun with this number, joining in to sing together at the wonderful party they had created. Eventually the sax penetrated the smooth rhythm of the song, adding to its buoyant joy, and Paul basked in that champion feeling, watching Curtis before walking over to be near him and feel the enthusiasm of his sax more closely. The highest notes were covered by the fiddle, Curtis contributed loads of backing vocals, and Paul couldn’t help but smile wildly. The venue doesn’t really lend itself to dancing—either in terms of space or tolerance—but we were all bopping in our seats. The three seemed to join up for a final burst of power before tapering off, ending the show at last. ‘That’s all!’ Paul pronounce into the mike as we stood and applauded over our roars.

Curtis, Ciaran and Paul gave each other a big mass hug, then waved to us with huge smiles adorning their lovely faces, and walked slowly off the stage as though they were reluctant to leave. It was just past 10pm. I could hardly complain that I didn’t get to hear my favourite song, I Will Be There, because Paul so formidably had been there for us, and the concert had been such a treat. What a glorious evening, full of energy, high spirits, happiness and joy. Brady and friends played for an almost unparalleled length of time and ended the extraordinary show seven minutes before my train left Waterloo station seven minutes away. Is there no end to the man’s thoughtfulness? What an entertainer. May he rapidly return to London town!

Copyright © 2005 by TC. All rights reserved.

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