Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival

Trevor Hodgett attends three gigs at the Empire and Holiday Inn as Cara Dillon, Foy Vance, Ken Haddock and others share stages with America's finest

‘When I need to get home, you’re my guiding light,’ sings Foy Vance tenderly on his warm-hearted song ‘Guiding Light’ at the Empire Music Hall on the main night of the 2015 Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, seeming to savour the line ever more as he repeats it again and again and again.

Fellow performers, Nashville songwriting stalwart Jim Lauderdale, Irish traditional music great Cara Dillon and up-and-coming Strabane singer-songwriter Paul Tully, one by one materialise on stage and begin adding exquisite harmonies to the line as the audience too – many of whom are visibly moved – join in. 

Then the performers discreetly drift away, while the audience, facing an empty stage, continue to sing Vance’s simple but moving words. For minutes the audience/choir, hundreds strong, sing on, an emotional communal experience that will surely live long in the memory of all present, before, finally, a beaming Vance returns and brings the song to its end.

The gallantly moustachioed, duncher-clad Vance, in two appearances at this year's festival, further impresses with songs like the anguished ‘Joy Of Nothing’, the compassionate ‘Indiscriminate Act Of Kindness’ and the reflective ‘Two Shades Of Hope’. Once or twice, maybe, he over-emotes vocally but ‘Narrow Road’ is sung with deep blues intensity, Vance at moments lifting off his stool with the fervour of his delivery.

Also at the Empire, Cara Dillon has an unassuming stage presence yet the beauty of her vulnerable-sounding voice and her exceptional ability to communicate clearly every nuance of a lyric are captivating on the love-lorn ‘Jacket So Blue’, ‘The Hill Of Thieves’ – about an exile’s love for home – and the poignant ‘The Parting Glass’. Sam Lakeman (guitar/keyboards) and Niall Murphy (fiddle) accompany expertly.

Jim Lauderdale, whose songs have been recorded by the likes of the Dixie Chicks, Solomon Burke and John Mayall, is a dynamic performer. His well-crafted songs are, variously, in country, soul and gospel styles. The effervescent, Bible-based ‘Zacchaeus’, written for bluegrass immortal Ralph Stanley, is a highlight of his set.

Paul Tully then performs engagingly, accompanying himself on guitar and keyboards, on ‘Waiting On A Sign’, a song about searching for faith, and the refreshingly vivacious ‘Go Your Way, I’ll Go Mine’. On ‘Don’t Be Afraid’, which features plangent rack harmonica, however, the advice which Tully dispenses – ‘Don’t be afraid to stand tall’ et al – is, unfortunately, of greetings card banality.

The previous night, at the Olympic Concert Room in Ormeau Avenue's Holiday Inn, Canadian Bruce Cockburn, internationally renowned since the late 1970s, played masterfully on the impressionistic ‘After The Rain’, simultaneously about driving through a city on a rainy night and the destructive power of love; ‘Rumours Of Glory’, about the extremes of human nature; and ‘Gifts’, a delicate miniature about the restorative powers of nature, accompanying himself on often elegant fingerstyle guitar. His best-known song, the righteously angry ‘If I Had A Rocket Launcher’, was performed grippingly.

On the same bill, Ken Haddock, his voice both powerful and sensitive, conveyed a Van Morrison-like romantic sensibility and sense of wonder on ‘Diamond Girl’ and others. 

‘The first time I was in Belfast was in 1967,’ announces Andy Fairweather Low at the Empire on the festival's penultimate evening, then a teen heart-throb with hit-makers Amen Corner. ‘Does anyone remember Romano’s?’ Whereupon the audience, almost all of whom are unmistakeably of a certain age, erupt in nostalgic applause.

Backed magnificently by the Low Riders, a three piece, Low’s set is satisfyingly varied, incorporating Amen Corner hits like ‘Bend Me Shape Me’, blues songs like the instrumental ‘Lightnin’s Boogie’, which is performed with raw authenticity, his 70s solo hits like ‘Wide Eyed And Legless’ and a Duane Eddy/Shadows/Freddie King medley touchingly dedicated to the late Rory Gallagher and the currently-stricken Henry McCullough.

The encore of Amen Corner’s number one track, ‘(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice’ is received ecstatically, everyone in the audience happily in touch once more with their inner teenybopper.

All in all, this year's Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival will go down as one of the finest in recent memory, featuring some of Northern Ireland's strongest exponents of the art form sharing stage with the best that American has to offer.