Alana Henderson

Cellist and singer-songwriter exudes musicality at the Black Box

Dungannon-born singer-songwriter and cellist Alana Henderson hasn’t rested on her laurels since the release of her debut EP, Wax and Wane, in 2013. A busy concert schedule at home and on the continent – and an appearance on the David Letterman Show with Bray singer Hozier in New York – have combined to raise the profile of this talented performer.

A packed Black Box is testament to Henderson’s growing reputation as a strikingly original artist. The healthy turnout is reward too for the imaginative programming of the Open House Festival team. A sunny afternoon gig, and one vying with the World Cup, could have been less than successful. Happily, the tables are full and the bar is doing decent business.

As a warm-up, singer-songwriter Myles McCormack plays an engaging four-song set. Employing his acoustic guitar mostly rhythmically, McCormack’s strength lies in his melodically well-defined songs and soulful vocals. Lyrically, he commands the attention too. The standout track is 'The Number Song', which he introduces as being 'somewhere between a nursery rhyme and a protest song'.

Perhaps McCormack has invented a new genre for politically precocious children: 'We can add, subtract and multiply, but it’s dividing we seem to do the best, imaginary line dividing one by one, leaving one big jigsaw puzzle mess.' McCormack closes with the impressionistic 'Driftwood', the folksiest song of a quietly impressive set.

Despite big-time TV slots in the States and a gig at this year’s Glastonbury, this is Henderson’s first headlining gig in Belfast. There are, however, no signs of nerves as she slides into the delightful 'Museum of Thought', built around pizzicato cello and drummer Connor Burnside’s soft groove on brushes. Backing vocals from guitarist Jarlath Henderson and violinist Laura Wilkie add waves of harmonic depth but the song’s beauty lies in its simplicity.

Henderson weaves pop, folk and classical elements in catchy tunes that seduce from the get go. The themes revolve around love and relationships in various states of evolution; an old wellspring perhaps, but there is something utterly fresh and vital in Henderson’s delivery and in the original angles from which she launches her tales.

Lilting melodies and the gentle cadences of Henderson’s voice illuminate the poetry of her lyrics. On 'Two Turtle Doves' she sings: 'Oh do you see the turtle dove who flies from vine to vine? She’s looking for her own true love as I have looked for mine.' Henderson weighs the worth of each word, like stitches in a beautiful sonic tapestry. Her artful delivery evokes the great English singer June Tabor, though Henderson’s colors are of a brighter hue.

Four-part vocal harmonies – with keyboardist Laura Henderson swelling the backing chorus – buoy Henderson on 'Less Said', a little gem of a tune. The sparser, cello-only arrangement of 'Old Clothes' serves to highlight Henderson’s clever lyrics.

Two tunes from Windfall, Henderson’s album of traditional Northern Irish tunes released early in 2014, show the natural ease with which she inhabits the folkloric realm. On 'The Orphan Girl', a ballad from County Tyrone written in the 1950s, Henderson switches to ukulele and is joined by Laura Henderson in a lovely vocal duet.

The haunting love song 'Is fada Ó bhaile' is sung in Irish. Cello and violin merge as one, with Laura Henderson drawing ethereal sounds from glockenspiel by running a bow up and down the edges of the keys.

Cellists-cum-singer-songwriters aren’t exactly two a penny and Henderson pays tribute to one of the progenitors by singing Arthur Russell’s infectiously poppish 'A Little Lost'. The only other cover is a lively take on Nanci Griffith’s ‘folkabilly’ tune 'One Blade Shy of a Sharp Edge', which features singing bluegrass violin from Wilkie.

It’s Henderson’s own compositions, however, that really stand out. Stellar love songs like 'Anyone Who’s Not You', the jaunty alt-folk of 'The Tower', and the infectious, lyric guile of 'Wax and Wane', sound like nobody else. Henderson is an original voice who exudes musicality. She’s still paying her dues but her craft, based on this not to be forgotten performance, is well and truly honed.

Visit the Black Box website for information on forthcoming events.