Robyn G Shiels
The prolific singer-songwriter peforms from his eagerly-awaited fourth album at the Black Box
'Here's a song that will be on my new album. It's out in March or April,' says Robyn G Shiels by way of introducing 'The First To Know'. 'What year?' shouts some wag at the back of the room. Shiels takes it in the good humour in which it was intended, but it's not such a ridiculous question.
After all, The Blood Of The Innocents has become Shiels's very own Chinese Democracy – over five years since it was recorded, we're still waiting for it to be released. But tonight's bumper turnout is proof that the record, Shiels' second, should have the sizeable audience it deserves.
Shiels's headline shows are nearly as rare as his albums. For this one at the Black Box in Belfast, he's joined by a full band, plus an excellent support act in the form of Joshua Burnside, who also deals in angst-ridden folk and alt.country songs, though while Shiels's are frequently born of hard drinking and hard-won perspective, Burnside is the younger, less damaged model.
Still in his early 20s, he has released several self-produced EPs, but standing alone with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, the quality of his songwriting shines through. Bright Eyes is clearly his biggest influence, and Burnside has a real ear for a piquant lyric and a strong, emotionally rich voice.
The lyrical detail also recalls The Decemberists' Colin Meloy – particularly on the excellent 'George Price', about a suicidal scientist – while the percussive rough and tumble of former single 'Black Dog Sin' owes much to Tom Waits. Towards the end of his set, Burnside switches to electric guitar, and his fluid fingerpicking is a joy. His wistful melodies and vocal, all the more so.
Shiels begins by keeping things spare, appearing on stage with just a banjo player for company, and the post-Christmas buzz is immediately silenced by his unmistakeable croak on 'Hello Death'. Indeed, the early part of the set amounts to a series of haunting, almost gothic ballads.
There's twinkling piano accompaniment on 'The First To Know' and banjo on 'Hello Death' and 'Black Moons', but on each song Shiels's character-rich voice and dark lyrics are the focus. The latter song is perhaps emblematic of Shiels's entire oeuvre – as the lyrics go, it's 'another sad song to drink and f*ck and fight to'.
Best of all, however, is 'This Deathly Charm', a devastatingly powerful track from the new album, performed with just guitar and voice. No more embellishment is needed. The show's transfixing gloom dissipates a little from here on in. This is largely due to the less introspective full-band format, but also because many of the between-song changeovers take longer than maybe they should. Get that man some roadies!
Plus, you can always rely on bit of good-natured banter between Shiels – never the most introverted performer, despite the nature of his songwriting – and the audience. But adding musicians gives him a relatively rare opportunity to, as he ironically puts it, 'rock out' for the remainder of the show. That term is relative, of course. The first full-band song is 'A Man To Your Wife', delicate and sensitive with Ellen Turley's musical saw a welcome feature.
As the set continues, so the volume level increases. 'Upon Such Things' features a guitar solo, beautifully played by Ben McAuley, but it's just as notable for its lilting, Beatles-ish melody (echoes of 'Don't Let Me Down' to these ears) and the way Turley harmonises with Shiels.
There is no place for the new album's most rocking song, 'When Love It Starts Leavin'', but there is time for its opening track, 'If Now Is An Echo'. It's the strongest example of Shiels and band in full flow, with his sorrowful vocal and Clare Hutchinson's keening accordion offset against some big, booming drums.
'Underneath The Night Of Stars' closes proceedings in lilting fashion – there is no encore – and while it would have been nice to have heard more from the new album, it's not as if Shiels has any shortage of good songs. With any luck, this gig is just his way of providing a tantalising appetiser for the album, and a memorable 2014.
Visit the Black Box website for information on forthcoming events.