John McGurgan

A fine lyricist and performer, Omagh's answer to John Martyn is best with a band

Stevie Scullion’s Malojian take to the stage in Belfast's Black Box in matching boiler suits. There’s something deeply counterintuitive about a man in a boiler suit and pony-tail playing upright bass. It feels like the Guantanamo Bay house-band. It doesn’t really matter though, because when Malojian strike the first chord, you know exactly who they are.

Scullion seems to have some sort of Laurel Canyon filter on his voice. Every note struck is a golden glimpse of some Californian bucolic age, seen through the prism of Elliot Smith. One song features the line 'fell for you, lady', which suggests a total immersion into a 1970s sensibility.

The music is beyond pretty. It is sensitive, tasteful and beautifully judged. These are tight, compact little jewels of songs, crystallised and hermetically sealed. If anything they might be a bit too self contained, too perfect to really connect in a live setting. Perhaps unclenching a little might allow one of Northern Ireland's most promising acts to really open up.

Looseness is not a problem for Omagh's John McGurgan. Tonight he releases his third album, the horribly titled Can’t Sentence a String Together. He swans onto the stage like Jim Cavaziel’s Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, carrying an acoustic guitar rather than a cross-beam.

Staring messianically into the arc-lights, McGurgan begins a quiet, reflective piece about his washing machine having a mind of its own. His voice is hushed, broken. Sibilance skitters over the sound of the Black Box cash till and the ice tray being scraped at the bar. It is a quiet, spooked sound.

Once his backing musicians troop on to the stage for the second song, however, a sea-change occurs. McGurgan is clearly far more confident performing with a band (both this opener and the acoustic only encore of 'Moonriver' seem like missteps). The band elevate him, giving his parched baritone some heft.

The band, too, seem changed. Essentially the same players who backed Malojian, albeit augmented by a bonsai brass section and denuded of their jump-suits, they seem more relaxed and open playing McGurgan's songs.

It’s not exactly Starsailor, but there is a pleasing jazz/folk vibe here, and some serious musical chops are in evidence. The band lend gravitas to songs that could wander perilously close to the world of comedy if left to themselves.

McGurgan is a wordsmith. Lines stick like burrs, from the pedantic realism of 'If you want to sing like Billie Holliday you have to approach it honestly' to the rhetorical 'If a man speaks his mind and there’s no woman to hear it, is he still wrong?'. Deadpan with a vibrato like an outboard motor is hard to pull off!

'Fine Wine' takes us into a world of Scotty Moore musical dynamics with a tale of drinking the finest wines you can (because you will never be able to afford a mortgage), while 'Valentine’s Day' is a semi-serious soul ballad with vicious drum rolls and a cocktail-hour John Martyn impersonation.

'Happy As', meanwhile, sees McGurgan essaying a jaded Baloo the Bear with a couple too many prickly pears in the system and a long, dark night of the soul ahead. 'If you see Jesus would you beat him to death again?' he sings on 'Empty Mind'. Well, y’know, if I squint I sort of do see Jesus, but I won't be casting the first beer bottle.

Can't Sentence a String Together can be bought from Public Sector Records.

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