Martin Stephenson & the Daintees at The Black Box (Belfast, Ireland – Jan. 9, 2015)
I was a late-comer to Martin Stephenson and the Daintees. I tuned in during the early ‘90s to classics that had been written in the previous decade. They were a very specific mix of political and spiritual, literary and realist. They were a mix of folk, and pop, and punk, and country, and more.
Support came in the form of Stephen Scullion, AKA Malojian; who has a pedigree history of musical achievement with previous bands, and a beautiful debut album The Deer’s Cry, which was launched last year. He was accompanied on drums and guitar by long-time collaborator Michael Mormecha. The set was a mix of known material and tracks from the soon to be released new album.
They played Scullion’s gorgeous “Bathtub Blues”, which offered up impressive duo-whistling with a lovely heavy brush beat from Mormecha and his ‘broomsticks’. It may seem strange but that beat became a signature of the set for me. It buoyed up those sweet harmonies and the funky choruses. It softened any loudness and punctuated Scullion’s sincere honey tones. The sold out gig had filled the room as they finished their set to warm applause from a home crowd.
“I’m Martin, I’m an alcoholic, what the f*** do I know?” We laughed, he laughed, and they slid into “Little Red Bottle” from the 1986 début album Boat to Bolivia. The song started slowly, allowing jokes to continue between lines. We didn’t know whether to laugh or sing along. So we ended up doing both. Until he sang/shouted “Little Red bottle”, and the room shouted right back at him, and then the party started. John Steel was stand-out on the guitar already. Stephenson stepped back which allowed Steel to move slightly forward and impress us all.
“Wholly Humble Heart” was written in response to Clause 28 of a local government act that stated local authorities shall not intentionally promote homosexuality. This was written in 1988. Interestingly, here I was listening to “Wholly Humble Heart” live at a gig in Belfast 27 years later. A gig in which all fellow gay citizens in the room are banned from giving blood, and have on the horizon a proposed Freedom of Conscience Bill aimed specifically at LGBQ people.
“In the Greenhouse (My grandfather And Me)” brought on spontaneous clapping, followed briskly by spontaneous sing-a-longing. Someone spilt beer on me and by the time I turned my head back to the stage, Stephenson had something stuck to his forehead like a bindi. Turns out it was his plectrum, which he brought back into full employment a short time later.
“Barry do you smoke cannabis at work – do you fancy giving us some dub?” Barry the sound engineer (who still remains at large) dutifully obliged and “Boat to Bolivia” bounced off stage. The opening bars of “Slaughterman” from the album Gladsome Humour & Blue transported me back a few decades. It was funky, and the rhythm from Kate Stephenson on drums was evident. Martin walked over to stand beside her and knocked over the microphone at the bass drum, and fixed it giggling, and then apologised to Barry, with a dopey great grin on his face.
Then we started bouncing because that riff in “Look Down” left us no choice. We were dancing with strangers, and making eye contact with people we don’t know; a phenomenon that is specific to particularly good live gigs. On completion, the lady to my left gave me a big happy hug. I reciprocated. It’s not like me. It was the music what done it.
What’s the difference between spirituality and religion? According to Martin Stephenson you need to “imagine a lovely white dove, and it is out there, and nobody is going to shoot it”. That is spirituality. “Now, imagine the cage. That’s religion.”
The band left him on stage with us for a while. He quietened the room and sang “Rain”. He asked us to join him in the chorus. “As the rain pours down in the yard. Rain, that most haunting sound” We sounded OK, and he was pleased, so we did better the next time. It was really quite beautiful. The man behind me said something about feeling emotional; I knew exactly what he meant.
The song “Home” he told us was “for all of you who have lost somebody. Two years ago or twelve years ago, doesn’t matter.” He played this trick throughout the night. He brought us from elated and loud, to thoughtful and soulful, in a matter of moments. Not lecturing or party-pooping. Just bringing us with him. It was beautiful, as was “The Old Church Is Still Standing”, as was “Lilac Tree”.
They ended on ”Running Water”. I have no notes. I’d given up. There was dancing to be done. The floor went bananas. Singing, arms flaying, finger pointing, lifting ladies up to sing, arms-round-each-other leg kicks. Glorious. Then they left the stage and we hung about for a while in hope they’d be back. But they were done. And to be honest so was I, but I didn’t realise that till I got home.
Photos credit: Gerry McNally.
This review was originally published on Creative Voices NI