Colin H on Brian Houston
No Brian Houston gigs in several years and then two come along a week apart – first, a solo troubadour show to 40 people in the quaint and, frankly, bugger-to-find Brontë Heritage Centre in the wilder regions of County Down, near the Land of the Rathfris (Rathfriland) and then a packed Empire Music Hall show with full band and guests in Belfast. The cumulative verdict in one line: Brian Houston is an extraordinary performer with a mastery of musical styles and so at ease onstage that he can run a show like a gentle observational comedy when he wishes or get down on his knees and rock like it’s 1973 with such apparent naturalness that one never considers at the time whether any irony is involved.
The Brontë show was fun for all sorts of non-musical reasons: for a start, finding the place on a dark Saturday night, down backroads, up dirt tracks, and eventually there it is, an 18th Century church with attached cottage (museum) which has some connection to the Brontë sisters’ grandfather. Poor old Andy Peters – a tireless, easy-going promoter of roots music who runs an Americana club there every Saturday with local council backing – had had to contend with electricity issues and a crying-off sound engineer just before the show. For the punter, those electricity issues were only partially resolved by showtime, which meant that anyone needing the loo had to contend with 30 yards in pitch darkness outside, with strategically placed candles sputtering bravely on the ground and on window sills, before reaching a bring-your-own-candle WC attached to the museum/cottage. Truly, an authentic tribute to the 18th Century.
Amidst all this, Brian had been amused to find that the entire rider consisted of half a jug of tepid tap water and no glass. When a glass eventually arrived, someone had swiped the water. It’s tough at the bottom. But after 20 years as a pro musician, none of this stuff phases Bri. Twenty years ago, he ‘played Wembley every night’ (as explained in ludicrous detail here: https://theafterword.co.uk/brian-houston-songs-from-my-father/), but these days he’s more likely to ‘play your living room’ – not literally (although that could probably be arranged), but in terms of the intimacy he can create with a mixture of cheery bonhomie, self-deprecating road stories and songs that are actually about things, shared experiences, reference points and emotions, likely to cause knowing nods, as brilliant melodies and turns of phrase seep into your head.
Brian never has a set-list when he plays solo shows, just starting with something that comes into his head and taking requests along the way. With such a rich and extensive back catalogue, sometimes that’s a tall order. He managed about two thirds of 1996 album track ‘Yesterday’s Rain’ for someone from Singapore (which made those of us who’d trekked down from Belfast seem like amateurs – even we did, literally, have to ask a policeman for directions at one point), but everyone appreciated the effort, and the banter that can happen from this kind of intimacy and ease with an audience is tremendous fun for all concerned.
Brian told a few painfully funny tales of his recent two-year sojourn in America, including writing/recording an album of guitar/vocal songs one blisteringly hot summer, encamped in the spare bedroom of an African family whose patriarch refused to turn the air conditioning on cos he preferred the tropical heat. Another involved enjoying the hospitality of another family for a while until a long anecdote’s worth of a situation involving breakfast table diplomacy wherein, after an hour, Brian had pointedly not been offered anything to eat, which the penny drop that his welcome had reached the ‘outstayed’ point.
Along with a selection of his ‘greatest hits’, including ‘Childish Things’ and ‘Child Of The 70s’ (a Van Morrison-esque Belfast-centric Celtic Soul groove with an added frisson of wit about things we could all recall), and perennial windswept vast-canvas classic ‘Orangeville’, this gig was possibly Brian’s first opportunity to showcase some songs from the then-forthcoming ‘Songs From My Father’, his radical new-direction album of Irish pub songs reforged in a way that rescues them from the cultural oblivion of boozy singalongs in pubs you wouldn’t enter and £2.99 triple CD sets in airport gift shops with shamrocks on the cover. Brian’s reasons for this sudden shift in direction were threefold. Firstly, having yearned for America all his life, once resident there he began to see Ireland in a different light. Secondly, a woman at one of his American gigs had asked for an Irish pub song and Bri was flummoxed and a bit bothered to find that he could no longer recall any, despite growing up with them. And thirdly, following on from that, he had recently started to think of his late father – a man of many flaws, previously the subject of many songs, implicitly or otherwise – in a new way. One result of this was that Brian was now thinking fondly of times his dad had played him Irish songs and country music on a reel to reel player, over and over again, while discussing their lyrics – baffling to an eight-year-old at the time, but intriguing now.
Brian had learnt (for him) a whole new way of playing guitar in order to tackle these songs ‘from his father’ in a way which avoided three chord strum-a-longs: finger-picking, in the grand tradition of Ralph McTell, et al. No mean feat for someone who has been playing very effective plectrum style for 20 years. A couple of his instrumental solos using this technique were extremely tricky, yet effortless sounding, which is all that the majority of the (non-guitar-bore) audience will care about. From memory, the songs he played from the new album were ‘Roddy McCorley’, ‘The Battles O’er’, ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ and ‘The Irish Rover’. And a great night was had by all. Happily, someone has posted 50 seconds from ‘Roddy McCorley’ on YouTube, candles included.
The following Saturday, with Mrs H off on a book club snooze-over in Newcastle, it was off to the Empire, Belfast – scene of many of Brian’s triumphs in the 90s – for a 10.30pm show as part of the ‘Belfast/Nashville Songwriters Festival’ (Belfast is twinned with Nashville: who knew?). It was the launch of ‘Songs From My Father’, and Team Brian – namely Mrs Houston, ‘Merchandising Associate’ Carole, and a huge banner stand of Brian’s face – was ready for action.
It was a show of several parts, and revealed, if anyone in the loyal audience (one friend there, Oilman Dave, has now seen Brian in concert 60 times) did not already know it, that Brian encompasses several artists in one: the Dylan-esque pithy troubadour with the harmonica harness; the Celtic Soul brother; the country music balladeer; the power trio rock star; and now the Irish folk-singer.
The second half of the show was indeed an electric power trio set, with his occasional sidemen (full band shows are only periodic these days in NI and, alas, almost non-existent in other territories because of the obvious expense) Mr Tallfellow (bass; not his real name, but I don’t know it and he’s very tall) and Peter ‘Built For’ Comfort (drums). With Bri on electric guitar, vocals and endless variations on Chuck Berry’s duck-walking, all three wear tight black suits and skinny ties. The musical sound world is somewhere akin to gloriously overdriven valve-amped Neil Young or that bloke from the Icicle Works, but the songs are tighter than Neil’s rambling jams and the image and taut energy more like Nine Below Zero circa 1979. The songs, again, meld Celtic Soul (‘Wear My Ring’) with country rock (‘Falling Out Of Love’), quirky Squeeze-like power-pop (‘End Of The Beginning’) and an uncharacteristically full-on, manic-speed Led Zep blues-rocker (‘What Goes Up’).
The band set ends with the fabulously euphoric ‘Oranges’, another Houston-original power-pop classic (written back in the mid-90s when someone, it may even have been me, showed him the DADGAD tuning, though it’s now adapted to standard) which mines untold gold in the hitherto neglected earth between The Cult’s ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ and ‘St Dominic’s Preview’. Noted Irish folk singer Brigid O’Neill joined Brian and the boys for the now anthemic, smouldering ‘Sugar Queen’ – a kind of bluesy, New Orleans call-and-response number, the title track of a celebrated early 2000s album that Brian will re-release later this year on vinyl. The epic ‘Orangeville’, preluded by a long and amusing conversation with a man on the balcony who may or may not have gone to school with Brian (I’m not sure we ever got to the bottom of it, but it was a masterclass in unscripted banter), was the unfollowable encore. Along the way, in the grand tradition of Celtic Soul, snatches of other people’s songs had appeared spontaneously in the middle of originals ¬– Joni’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, Carly’s ‘You’re So Vain’, Tommy Edwards’ ‘All In The Game’ (one of those wonderful songs that somehow we all know yet even a pop-culture buff like me has to look up who sang it).
And thus, the hordes went to the merchandising emporium and produced their wallets. Curiously, though, Brian told me after the show – after both his producer Tre Shepherd and I suggested that he MUST get that power trio side to his artistry down on record – that for some reason, while people enjoy the rock thing at live shows, they don’t want it on record. ‘Shelter’, his rockiest album to date (one from the mid-2000s of which I was not previously aware, I concede), is his poorest-selling release. Even via iTunes people seem only to want four of its songs rather than the whole album. Weird. But Tre and I will keep pushing, nonetheless…
So much for the reliable old King of Rock. What of the untested new King of Trad? For that, let us rewind to the first half. After a couple of solo songs with harmonica we had a guest appearance from Brian’s brother for some songs about their father (including the tragi-comic ‘The Time We Lost The Car, And It Was Christmas Eve’), with harmonies that can only come from siblings – and a terrific cover of the Everly Brothers’ ‘Let It Be Me’, a favourite song of their mother’s, as if to prove it. At that point, with Brian still on amplified acoustic, Tallfellow and Comfort came on, along with guest artiste John McSherry on uilleann pipes and low whistle. Although an international touring artist himself since the 90s, John hadn’t performed at the Empire since around 1999, as a member of Dónal Lunny’s Coolfin, and before that a few times as a member of his family band Tamalin.
Actually, to go off on a tangent, I was amazed to find that John’s sister Tíona, sitting with me and with Mark Case, a widely celebrated and multi-award-winning designer, who lends his cutting-edge services to the likes of Brian’s new album cover and my last three book covers (and yes, the forthcoming Quintessence anthology I’ve mentioned a few times around here), hadn’t actually set foot in the place since the last Tamalin gig there, around 1997. Then again, I suppose I’ve only seen gigs there four or five times since the 90s myself and yet I would have been there almost weekly back in the 90s. Funny how things like that have phases in your life, isn’t it?
Anyway… John’s presence, just before the show, assured me that the rider this time was rather better than the Brontë experience. Certainly, several cans of Carlsberg appeared to have been consumed by this one individual, and he was buzzing about how good the sound check (i.e. rehearsal) had been. The real thing lived up to the expectations. The one-off quartet performed three songs from the album, with bass and drums pounding away (not present on the album, hence delivering full-on Celtic rock as opposed to the album’s serene, spectral campfire/chamber music vibe). ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ led into ‘Ode To Jenny’, the near-spontaneous studio co-write between Brian and John, and the 20-minute set-within-a-set concluded with ‘The Black Velvet Band’. These songs may seem hackneyed on paper, but the totally spontaneous joining-in of a vast number of people in the crowd when the chorus came along was a lesson in the power of these songs. They are latently known by millions, which is, in a way, gold dust for any artist who can harness their iron-clad magic while also keeping at bay cliché and a career path that that could wobble towards Irish-American cabaret lounges. The sound engineer was a dolt for not mic-ing John’s pipes properly with two microphones, and perhaps Brian and the rhythm section were going through a learning curve in real time in how to play at amplified volume with such a rarefied instrument as the uilleann pipes, but once Bri brought the sonic onslaught down for the second half of ‘Ode To Jenny’, the piping soared. The low whistling on the other numbers was mixed perfectly, and added real freshness and zest to the arrangements, with John capable of improvising in the moment as well as Brian can.
One can only hope that this is a collaboration that, onstage as well as on record, will continue. For Brian, the show was yet further proof of his outrageous talent. One is left wondering why he isn’t filling arenas. But this isn’t a hard-luck story: he’s had a professional career in music for 20+ years and he’s still there. Most people end up bitter and twisted by this stage, but Brian has kind of had that aspect of a career in reverse – he’s relaxed and mellow now, he was a man with chip vans on his shoulder back in the day. He can fill middle-sized venues in NI more or less whenever he wants; he has a hard core of followers who buy anything he puts out, and others who buy when his latest thing if it tickles their fancy; he can play solo shows in Britain and America pretty regularly and make the finances work. He is a natural onstage. He is, in short, a career success. His new album, ‘Songs From My Father’, shows that he remains an artistic success too. A contender for the best album of your career 20 years in is not to be sneezed at. Unless you have a cold.
(PS. Happily, the aforementioned maestro of design and portable technology filmed the Houston/McSherry setb on his telephone. I’ll upload the vids to YouTube, and post them here, within the next day or two.)