Urban Hymns

Duke Special, Foy Vance and a host of others bring tears to the eyes at May Street Church

As a light drizzle shows no sign of abating, it is perhaps some indicator of the expectation for this gig that the audience are cueing up around the corner of the May Street Church, a full 40 minutes before the doors open. 

Last minute rehearsals are in full swing, with performers displaying a curious mixture of excitement and apprehension. Clearly, everyone knows that the pressure is on to make this a night to remember.

Bringing together some of the most respected names in local music, Urban Hymns is the brainchild of Stuart Bailie and the Oh Yeah group. Each artist is invited to perform one of their own songs, and a cover with special significance to them. Alongside the artists, the Inishowen Gospel Choir combine with the unique setting of this Georgian church to transport the damp audience far away from the realms of an ‘ordinary’ gig. 

Indeed, as one enters the church, the atmosphere is charged, no-one sure what to expect. This is where the real magic happens, as each artist takes to the pulpit, ready to soar to the heavens, or come crashing down to earth.

After the Inishowen Gospel Choir establish the mood, local bluesman Ken Haddock gamely gets the evening started. Utilising this opportunity to show a different side to him other than that displayed during his regular blues extravaganza in the Empire Music Hall, Haddock turns in a soulful and affecting performance, his husky voice easily filling out the church. 

However, as he begins strumming the chords to ‘The Air that I Breathe’ by the Hollies, something incredible begins to happen. The choir pick up the song, their voices merging seamlessly with his own. As the song comes to an emotional climax, the applause builds to a crescendo, everyone aware that they have just been part of something special. And this is only the beginning.

Gabriel Makamanzi’s take on Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ is heartfelt, no doubt partially inspired by the birth of his son earlier that day. 

Burning Codes’ magisterial performance of ‘I’m Set Free’ by the Velvet Underground pushes us ever higher, whilst their own song, ‘Go’ finds the vocal lines of the choir intertwined with that of Paul Archer, whilst one guitar chord builds and builds in intensity.

The first half of the performance is rounded off by the unassuming figure of Rea Curran, resplendent in pinstripe suit, t-shirt, and afro. Cracking jokes, the crowd are immediately won over by his good-natured charm, but the real delights come as he unleashes the velvety tones of his voice, at times resembling a young Tom Waits. 

After one if his own compositions, the familiar opening chords of ‘Into My Arms’ by Nick Cave reverberate around the church. Soulful and warm, Curran wraps the song around himself, and drags us all along for the ride. Then unbelievably, unexpectedly, the song explodes into a gospel salutation, and Curran takes this most holy of songs in directions never previously explored. 

The effect is mesmerising, with an almost indescribable feeling of joy spreading through the church. Indeed, one man is even moved to tears.

Joe Echo, aka Ciaran Gribben, brings his vocal loops and classic song writing to the proceedings, his multitracked vocals forming an incredible mesh of sound with the choir. However, good as Gribben is, a familiar dreadlocked figure elicits one of the greatest cheers of the evening. 

Joining the line-up at the last minute, Duke Special bounds up to the pulpit, and immediately brings his sense of vaudeville theatrics to the mix, with the choir swept along by his emotive voice and stagecraft. 

Caught up in the atmosphere created by the Duke, the choir rise to the occasion, and pick up their imaginary shovels as the Duke belts out ‘Diggin’ an Early Grave’. Self-effacing to the end, he humbly introduces himself, before embarking on the emotional rollercoaster of ‘Why Does Anybody Love?’, the sweeping melancholy of the song revealing a master-craftsman at the peak of his powers. And then, without warning, he is gone, dashing off stage, with the sound of broken hearts lingering in the air.

After such an emotive performance, one could be forgiven for thinking that Bronagh Gallagher faces an uphill struggle. However, any doubts are quickly erased, her natural aptitude for this kind of material evident from the off. 

Gallagher's take on Jackie Wilson’s soul classic, ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’, is simply one of the finest performances this writer has ever witnessed. The sell-out crowd in the May Street Church rise to their feet, clapping along in time with the music, beginning to dance. Some people even stand up on the pews. This is spiritual music, of the best kind, with soul and passion coming together in perfect harmony. Tears in my eyes, I am swept away.

Hunched over the microphone, his tortured but soulful vocal dynamics being stretched to the very limit of their powers, Foy Vance walks a fine line between emotional intensity and over-the-top melodrama. However, once again, the atmosphere feeds into the performance, his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ easily matching Jeff Buckley’s definitive rendition. Then we are treated to an unforgettable display of vocal fireworks from the Inishowen Gospel Choir, and it’s all over.

As the crowd slowly filters out of the church, reluctant to leave, one can reflect upon the risks taken this evening, with every performer pushing themselves out of their comfort zone, but still managing to deliver the goods. 

Tonight was unquestionably a spiritual evening, with the transcendent power of music very much in evidence. Stuart Bailie, a smile wider than the Lagan plastered across his face, hints at the possibility of a sequel. Given the incredible quality of the performances this evening, one would imagine he’ll have his work cut out.

Steven Rainey