Pound Music Club

The spirit of the Belfast institution lives on in the lungs of Kenny McDowell, whose voice still enraptures a faithful following after 50 years

Veterans of the Pound Music Club, Belfast’s hippest club of the '70s, share a strange but unmistakeable bond. Perhaps that’s because their friendships were forged in frightening and blood-soaked times when it felt like an act of courage, or perhaps recklessness, to visit a dingy city centre club with no security and, indeed, if memory serves, no emergency exit. Or perhaps it’s simply because of the extraordinary quality of the music by the club’s resident bands, bands which never achieved more widespread success but which were idolised by the Pound faithful.

The Pound name has now been revived for gigs in Belfast’s American Bar and the monthly Saturday afternoon gigs by Kenny McDowell, who was the singer in many of the old club’s greatest bands, like Spike, Bronco and Sk’boo, have been sensationally successful.

McDowell, now in his mid-70s and backed by acoustic guitarists Aaron Mayne and Chris McDowell on a repertoire of blues, Americana and country songs, remains an extraordinary performer whose voice combines mighty power with sensitivity and whose ability to communicate a lyric is exceptional.

During today’s gig, on Chris Stapleton’s ‘Fool Me Again’, for example, a slow blues, his singing is positively virtuosic as he employs a formidable range of vocal effects to communicate the emotion of the lyrics. Often one hears musicians applauded for solos. Here we have the rarer experience of a singer, several times during the song, being cheered raucously by virtually the entire audience for his delivery of a particular phrase. Meanwhile his two accompanists, Aaron Mayne and Chris McDowell, provide expert support with the latter contributing several delicate solos.

Pound Music Club Then and Now

Then and now... Kenny McDowell performing in the 1970s and on Saturday

Elsewhere McDowell relishes the comic lustfulness of Delbert McClinton’s ‘Baggage Claim’, the cheerful blasphemy of Hayes Carll’s ‘She Left Me For Jesus’ and the mischievously non-PC sentiments of Gary Nicholson’s ‘Upside Of Loneliness’, on which the singer detects advantages in having been left by his wife: 'I ain’t cut the grass since the middle of June,' he notes with satisfaction, 'I smoke a big cigar in my living room…'.

Another Chris Stapleton song, ‘If It Hadn’t Been For Love’, a dark, oblique narrative, is performed rivetingly while McDowell carries off with aplomb the tongue-twisting wordplay of Rodney Crowell’s ‘Fate’s Right Hand’, the song ultimately a critique of the madness and corruption of modern life.

The paradox of McDowell’s career is that he is little known to the wider world while being absolutely revered by those who have heard him. But witnessing at this gig his command over an audience, witnessing a crammed Belfast boozer hushed, with the audience hanging on his every word, one really does feel that one is in the presence of greatness.

The trio, as the Kenny McDowell Project, next play the venue on March 25 (2-6pm). For further information check The Pound Club – Belfast on Facebook.