Brian Houston, God's Lonely Man

'One of Britain's greatest songwriters' returns home for a gig with the Belfast Community Gospel Choir

Brian Houston holds no grudges. Despite former bandmates like drummer Jonny Quinn, now of Snow Patrol, and keyboard player Peter Wilson, aka Duke Special, having gone on to find fame and fortune, the ex-Mighty Fall frontman remains philosophical. ‘There is definitely a snakes-and-ladders aspect to the music business,’ he smiles. ‘Today you’re up, tomorrow you’re down.’

Today, Houston is on the up, with not one but two new albums, and a headlining show at Belfast’s most prestigious venue. The muso will ply his unique concoction of pop, rock, Celtic soul and Americana at the Grand Opera House on February 16, with backing from the Harmony Angels and the Belfast Community Gospel Choir.

The gig is to promote Houston’s 2010 studio releases, the acoustic set The Raw Sessions and Joy to the World, a collection of Christmas carols. Amazingly, they are his 16th and 17th albums. Pushing 20 long-players – never mind the multitude of singles, DVDs and collaborations – makes Houston a more prolific recording artist than, say, the Beatles or the Who, yet he remains coy about his work rate.

‘The big difference is all their work was good,’ laughs the singer. ‘It’s OK churning out quantity, but you’ve got to keep an eye on quality.’ To this end, Houston actually scrapped a third album last year, a collection of new material that he candidly admits ‘hadn’t quite captured the spirit of the songs’. (A reworked version will surface at a later date.)

Houston, who began his musical journey in the heady, pre-internet days of the early 1990s, still does things the old way – radio, record shops, touring – and sees no reason to change his style to suit any perceived bandwagon.

In an almost Zelig-like career, the Belfast-born troubadour has jammed with the Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant at 'Whispering' Bob Harris’s birthday party (the veteran DJ regards Houston as ‘one of Britain’s great songwriters’) and opened for the likes of Van Morrison and Elvis Costello. But in 2009 Houston topped the lot, when he had breakfast with none other than US President Barack Obama – well, kind of…

‘It’s got exaggerated a wee bit,’ Houston sighs. ‘Basically, we were invited to do a gig in Washington and it centred around a thing called the International Prayer Breakfast, where people from all over the world come to sit in a large room and eat a croissant while the President is in that room, and while Tony Blair, who was the guest of honour, is in that room. It’s a three-day event of multicultural interaction and networking, and we happened to be there. It was an honour, and a buzz at the time, but that was really it.’

Another unusual incident took place in 2007, when Houston supported the then-80-year-old rock ‘n’ roll icon Chuck Berry at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. ‘A reliable source had told me that he would come offstage, and if he was asked to go on for an encore he would demand £500 cash on the spot,’ explains Houston. ‘I wanted to see that happen, so I stood at the side of the stage.’ Then, as Berry 'duck-walked' into the wings, he handed Houston his vintage Gibson ES-335 guitar.

‘I didn’t know what to do with it,’ marvels the tunesmith. ‘I didn’t know if he was actually giving me it, or if he was asking me to hold it. He didn’t say anything. I took it out into the foyer and showed it to some of the fans, and as people got a wee bit more adventurous towards it I hid it under the merchandise table. Next thing, security came and said, “Where’s the guitar? Why did you try to steal it?”’

Sidestepping accusations of thievery, Houston has established himself as one of Belfast’s most consistent live club draws. The idea behind the Grand Opera House date is to lure fans who may have missed the vocalist’s regular performances at the Empire Music Hall.

‘I thought, “What if we put on a show that’s got a wider appeal for a broader audience, younger and older?”’ says Houston. ‘Yes, it still has a bar for those who want to have a drink, yet it seems to have an image as a more refined venue, and a more adult venue.’ The concert is close to a sell-out, suggesting that Houston may yet join his erstwhile sidemen in the pop stratosphere.

The musician, a committed Christian, credits his faith in God for helping see him through. Earlier this year, BBC Radio Ulster broadcast a documentary on the influence of east Belfast’s Christian Fellowship Church – of which Houston has been a member, along with Duke Special, Paul Archer and Two Door Cinema Club – on the Northern Ireland secular music scene. Houston admits he has come up against many people who feel that religion has no place in pop or rock music, but insists they are misguided.

‘I think Northern Ireland is rightfully embarrassed at its religious history’, he offers. ‘I’m not surprised there is a sense of wanting to distance yourself from certain political strands of faith. But I think if you look at music in a wider context it’s a simple fact of life that if there hadn’t been Irish people in the hills of Tennessee playing Irish music, who mingled with black slaves on plantations, who created gospel music out of the Negro spirituals, then we wouldn’t have had rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s, or the Beatles.

‘Faith creates music, that spiritual side that rises up in people. It has infused itself into country, blues, gospel music and Irish music. You can’t unbake a cake.’

Brian Houston played at the Grand Opera House on February 16 with the Harmony Angels and the Belfast Community Gospel Choir.

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