The folk hero treats Belfast to Planxty classics, solo tunes and stories in between
When English folk hero Andy Irvine steps on stage at the Black Box, he is initially greeted by a respectful round of applause from a genuinely mixed crowd that includes students, folkies, teenagers and married couples.
As his set gathers momentum, it’s enjoyable to see the polite claps turn to wolf whistles and rapturous encouragement. It is also interesting to hear audience members attempt to stamp their feet to uneven time signatures, which Irvine's songs are full of. Many get it right, but many don't.
Irvine is a modest and humble performer, and this comes across in his music and in his choice of subject matter. Throughout the set, songs like 'Baneasa’s Green Glade' are set in beautiful rural landscapes, while 'Empty Handed' tells the story of bankers greed and the struggle to make ends meet.
'The Close Shave', meanwhile, which is about men dressing up as women in order to intoxicate and steal from gold miners, also shows the playful, humorous side to Irvine’s music.
Every arrangement of every song displays a contrapuntal relationship between voice and instrument, be it guitar or mandola. Irvine's counter melodies and off-beat accompaniments leave the listener entranced – concentrating on just how he does it is entertainment in itself. As Irvine once admitted, he 'doesn’t do chords'.
The majority of this set is made up of songs from Irvine's latest album, Abocurragh, but when he breaks into selections from Planxty’s back catalogue – especially old favourite 'Arthur McBride' and the thumping 'Blacksmith' (listen below) – those songs are met with enthusiasm from an initially weary sounding Sunday night crowd.
Irvine is one of those musicians with a fantastic back catalogue from which to choose, and Planxty’s music does form a large part of that. However, songs like the feet thumping 'Plains of Kildare' and the flowing and melodic 'Bonny Woodhall', both from his 1976 collaboration, receive just as much applause.
Even when tuning his instruments, the crowd wait in patient, appreciative silence. Simply listening to Irvine tell a story or introduce a song feels like a privilege, such is his way with words.
When you consider the stadiums and large venues that some folk musicians like Bob Dylan, Neil Young or even Christy Moore play, it is great to be reminded of the true essence of the genre and its origins: people coming together in intimate and friendly surroundings to listen to songs and stories about life, land and humanity.
As expected, Irvine plays for around two and a half hours, and as finishes he points out gleefully, 'if you’ve enjoyed tonight half as much as I have…' It doesn’t always work for musicians of Irvine's stature to play this kind of a solo gig, but it is only those musicians of Irvine's rare talent who can make it work.