Rachel Ries

Sweet-voiced American songstress is ably supported by gravel-voiced Ciaran Lavery at No Alibis Bookstore

Intimate gigs in cosy book shops might not sound especially rock and roll, but, in the age of austerity, all businesses have had to diversify.

No Alibis on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue is no different. A quasi-university book store in the bustling student quarter, the shop is something of a cultural marker in the south of the city and, in recent years, it has taken to staging small events, building a solid reputation as a cult venue in the process.

Yet, as owner David Torrans points out prior to the music kicking off, the book business has ticked upwards, meaning less opportunity for performance nights like this. That is a pity, in some respects, because Torrans knows how to lay on a cracking evening in his little landmark.

Tonight's bill features Ciaran Lavery of Aghagallon, County Antrim lending support to Rachel Ries, of Freeman, South Dakota, who first performed at No Alibis in 2012. Playing to a crowd of eager punters amongst No Alibis’s stacked inventory, the pair’s music is smart, accomplished and comfortably original.

Sporting a brilliantly full auburn beard, Lavery’s slow-burning, gravelly voice offers a nice counter-balance to Ries’s later sweet delivery. His emotive lyrics carry him along, melding one ballad into three. Appearing, initially, to be somewhat shy, he is in fact highly amusing.

Recalling one conversation centering on an unknown third party’s marital infidelity, he warns his audience not to whisper too loudly if they want to ignore him, as he can often hear what they are saying. ‘I’ve learned to enjoy making it awkward for people,’ he remarks, drily.

A self-described ‘alt-folk troubadour’, his impressive facial hair, he says, poses its own unique challenges – it has taken to getting caught in his harmonica, thus explaining a penchant for vigorous head movements.

Musically, Lavery is very gifted. His work is neat and tightly arranged, his distinctive voice at odds with a soft-spoken style. He plays only a few tracks – his forthcoming EP, Kosher, launches at the Black Box on June 19 – but the standouts are ‘A Ragtime Song’, with its melodic refrain, and the melancholy ‘Left For America’.

Ries, too, exudes confidence but in the nicely-tailored, unobtrusive manner that sets Midwesterners apart from many of their compatriots. Born in South Dakota, raised for a time in Zaire and now splitting time between Vermont and New York, Ries brings with her a lilting, beautifully clear voice and themes born of the emotive vast expanses that constitute her native patch.

She has also brought her own homemade jam apparently, subject of a TV piece on RTE earlier in the day. Orders may be placed at the end.

The daughter of Mennonite missionaries, Ries says that she recognised her musical vocation as a small child. Her honed talents certainly show as she effortlessly launches into a rich guitar ditty. Childhood influences are immediately obvious in her breezy story-telling style, while the purity of her vocals reminds less familiar observers of Canadian folk artists like Joni Mitchell or The Wailin’ Jennys.

Ries jokingly admits that all she really wants to do is ‘churn butter and have nine kids’, and an associated suite of family-tinged numbers reflect that sentiment. 'Willow’, in particular, mixes bluesy chords and familial loss to a mildly haunting degree.

Currently promoting her album, Ghost of a Gardener, her first after a three-year hiatus, Ries explains that it was born of what she describes as performance burnout. ‘Words’ serves as a delicate nod to that time away, her skilful keyboard playing and knowing lyrical flourishes – a final ‘la la la’ is in there on purpose – are a clever combination.

Equally, ‘Chicago’ is a vividly descriptive ode to the metropolis she once called home. ‘Oh Chicago,’ she pleads, ‘come and hold us, come and find us, come and be with us.’

In finishing up, Ries opts for love songs of the heartland. ‘Standing Still’, a refined air, opens with: ‘I’ll wait for you in Iowa, in the house upon the hill, yesterday tornadoes came, but here I’m standing still.' ’October’ goes on to recall some distant, unrequited yearning in the most American of landscapes. ‘When I’m on the prairie I see my hope, I see my fear,’ she sings, ‘and you, you are always there.'

Before departing, Ries professes admiration for both No Alibis and Lavery’s wit. ‘I’d definitely buy an album of Ciaran just speaking,’ she muses, answering Lavery’s initial suggestion that he should do just that, given his loquaciousness on stage. Beyond this, she sweetens the deal with an always popular declaration of love: ‘Belfast, you’re my favourite city.’ Be sure to catch her next time around.

Ciaran Lavery launches Kosher at the Black Box, Belfast on June 19. Rachel Ries’s current album, Ghost of a Gardner, is available now. Visit the No Alibis website for information on forthcoming events.

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