Celtic roots music aristocracy attract tourists from across Europe to Belfast's Waterfront Hall for a rousing evening of laments and reels
The Waterfront Hall in Belfast has a handsome main auditorium, seating over 2,200, and a good modern acoustic. What it sometimes struggles with, according to performers like Elvis Costello – who shouted plaintively at the stalls during his most recent gig there, 'I love you, you're too far away!' – is atmosphere.
The gap between the stage and seating scarcely matters tonight, however, as the Fureys, Ireland's leading traveling folk band, arrive to replicate the atmosphere of the largest Irish pub in the world. Performing a set chock full of familiar traditional Irish songs, they prove their credentials as Celtic roots music aristocracy.
Brothers and founding members Eddie and George Furey may have hung out when Ewan McColl serenaded Peggy Seeger in the early 1960s with 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', and helped discover one Bob Dylan, but they and the other members of the band haven't lost an ounce of their Dublin charm and musical authenticity.
Starting with 'It's A Long Way from Clare to Here', these veterans of the genre deliver a set list wherein tales of loss sit happily alongside songs marked by their stoical Irish humour; there are laments among the jigs and the reels. Gerry Rafferty's entertaining 'And Her Father Didn't Like Me Anyway' raises a wry smile.
There is also a fair bit of anecdotal between-song talk. The opening tune, for example, started life when the Fureys' friend, Ralph McTell, decided to pen a number about the experience of his Irish mates who had swapped close knit communities and family for cheap digs and casual work in cities like London. His equipment was down, so Ralph asked the Fureys if he could borrow their recording kit. They approved on condition he write them a song. The result has become one of their most popular tracks.
As Eddie and George dig deep into their sizeable back catalogue, there is a reunion feeling among the many fans in the audience. When we get to the requests, it is clear that fans have travelled from Holland and much further afield – proof if proof were needed that traditional Irish arts continue to attract tourists to Northern Ireland, even in these supposedly austere times.
'Steal Away', one of the boys' best known lyrics of the emigration experience, Is beautifully delivered. And there are other laments to tug on the heart strings. One of the most affecting songs of the evening is 'This One's For You', a tribute written with Davie Arthur to lost friends and family, including a lovely verse to the Fureys' mammy. Just this side of sentimental – or maybe simply sentimental in the best way – the song lists the people remembered, including brother Paul, for their unique qualities and talents.
'Leezy Lindsay' is a beautiful folk number featuring lyrics by Scots poet Robbie Burns. Covers are, of course, a Fureys speciality and you could argue that their interpretative work is as important as their original work. The new Fureys album, The Times They Are A Changing, is a series of sublime numbers written by artists who the boys knew in the 1960s and 1970s.
So it is a mild disappointment, when it comes time to perform Dylan's 'Hey, Mr Tambourine Man', that the Fureys seem to lose their mojo.
There is the familiar hippy lyric about jingle jangle days, and the equally familiar added in Byrds' riff on banjo, but Dylan's classic song turns out to be a damp squib. Eddie admits that the tune is a bit of a tongue twister, although the harmonies came across just fine, but it isn't their song in the way that it belonged to Judy Collins, who sang it in Belfast a few years ago as if it had been written for her.
Despite this, tonight's gig is a special one, a rousing live musical experience featuring lots of foot tapping and hollering from audience and act alike. The finale is memorable, an almost soulful account of that Fureys' favourite, 'The Green Fields of France', the antiwar sentiments of which are as relevant now as they always were.