Darkling180Come on in if you favour a piece of elegantly cloaked heartbreak, a spooked-out waltz, a deal of silence and maybe some looping fatalism. The Darkling Air provide all this on their debut album, ‘Untamed & Beloved’. There are strings and sense of scale. The vocals are measured and sorely present. The stories often take place offstage, but that won’t stop you becoming absorbed. You will hang with the pauses and hold out for a decent resolution, for a chance that the light may win over.

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May 17, 1986 and I’m at the RDS Stadium in Dublin for Self Aid, Ireland’s response to Live Aid. Many of the big acts are present, including U2, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and The Pogues. There is talk about the endemic of unemployment and the evening will end in a woozy farewell to Phil Lynott who had died in January. But the moment I recall most vividly is when Christy Moore performed ‘Back Home In Derry’.

It seemed like everyone was singing that chorus and Christy had the presence to encourage the thousands of voices as they lifted into the spring evening. It was yet another song about Irish rebels being deported to Australia. The tune was borrowed from Gordon Lightfoot but the inescapable truth was that the lyric had been written by Bobby Sands, IRA hunger striker.

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gerardEven when Gerard Dillon is absent from his own paintings, there is still a blue moon, a lonesome Pierrot, misty essence of the man. That’s the Belfast painter in the sky, illuminating the Connemara Lovers who recline under the expanse of indigo, unaware of that looming feature with the lost smile. In the later paintings like Brothers, the carnival is emphatically over and the fraternal bones hold no comfort for the survivor with his head on the soil.

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John Dee312Dr. John Dee brought drama, anxiety, knowledge and thrills to the Tudor court. He was a seeming authority on the planets, geometry, the navigation of major land masses, cryptology, language and alchemy. He advised the royals with his horoscopes and he proffered Queen Elizabeth a channel into the otherworld.

He was across science and magic before the terms were divorced. He massed up a huge library at his home in Mortlake, much of it esoteric. He is a likely model for Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and was later mocked by Ben Johnson in The Alchemist when his reputation was in decline.

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doherty1Shallogan, May 1964 and the American songwriter and archivist Pete Seeger is in a caravan during a rainstorm. Fortunately, he is in the company of John Doherty, an iterant fiddle player from south west Donegal. The latter was born in nearby Ardara in 1900 and while he has rarely travelled far from the Bluestack Mountains, his reputation has gone further.

Seeger is joined by his wife Toshi, who films the encounter. Dr. Malachy McCloskey, a patron and supporter, is helping to manage the conversation and the musical flow. Peter Kennedy, the English collector is recording the audio and pushing for content.

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Layout 2It’s at the chill end of 2006 and I’m at Macfin near Ballymoney with Henry McCullough. It’s not exactly a country spread, but there’s a tidy porch out front and space behind for a few hens. Henry and his partner Josie look content as they fetch out tea for the guests and set more wood in the pot belly stove. It might be a rural scene from any number of places in County Antrim but we’re also in the company of a guitarist with an outstanding reputation, a master of tone and emotion, internationally travelled and feted.

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Ryan Vail
For Every Silence (Hidden Arch)

“They’ve done experiments with Egyptian pottery made on a wheel thousands of years ago – they play the plates backwards and receive a recording, a very primitive recording of what took place in the room. Your ghosts. So, I’ll buy that.” – Tom Waits

ryan-vail-for-every-silence-tnAnd I’ll buy this also. Ryan Vail and an inherited piano. Reverberations, real and imagined. A room that that is animated by wood and wire, tusk and iron. Humans giving love and a piece of machinery that is complicit in the act. ‘For Every Silence’ catches the words, the histories and the soul of an instrument that came into his wife’s family in 1927 and is sweetly operational again.

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Jealous Of The Birds
Parma Violets
(Big Space Records)

JOTB 1 Landscape2‘Parma Violets’ is all colour, heart-swirl and confusion. Naomi Hamilton makes use of that folksy lilt, but the stories are twisted and the ache resonates. We meet a doomed, pill-eating boy, a girl drawing blood with a punch, menacing gazes and high anxiety. She spits out Plath and Pantones and on this, her first proper record, the writing is tremendous.

Every sense is called in, overloading the lines, confounding the feels. On ‘Powder Junkie’ her companion looks unassailable with the blackjack eyes and tambourine hips – like an escapee from ‘Blonde On Blonde’. There’s certainly a beat jive in the method and also a deal of synesthesia that infuses ‘Goji Berry Sunset’ – poetry, bluebells, fizz and bliss.

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Julian Cope is dead to me. He died at Christmas 2013 when he pulled out of a concert at the Black Box in Belfast, citing “the current security situation there and the logistics involved”. What this amounted to was a couple of dissident republican issues around town. A few squibs by Belfast standards. We had been at a gig in the Cathedral Quarter on December 13 when a suspect device was found at the side of St Anne’s. SOAK had continued with her performance two hundred yards away and we stayed at the venue with the young fans until their parents could collect them. No fuss, nobody got hurt and songs with meaning were shared. But this was enough for Cope to nix his January 16 booking at the Out To Lunch Festival.

1b9e9601132555183d41a946c35b5d16It was especially depressing because Julian had presented himself to the world as a libertarian, unfettered by convention, lashed on drugs and the proponent of foolhardy japes like “sock”, when he would crawl over the roof of a moving vehicle with a sock over his head. He had witnessed the Poll Tax Riots of 1990 and had written keenly about it for the NME. Now here he was, backing out of a local gig on a minor pretext.

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I had some laughs with Neil Stuke, back in the day. He worked in Robot on the King’s Road, near World’s End. Bit of a rockabilly, which was the thing then. Robot sold the best shoes and suits – cobalt peg slacks and creepers a speciality, well ahead of the first Rayban revival. The Clash and The Stray Cats were clients and Brian Setzer would ride his Harley along the drag, posing with intent as he roared past Vivienne Westwood’s and American Classics.

GedCcNi5Mark Powell was the established geezer at Robot, mannered after a young George Cole. He worked the floor alongside my old pal Johnny Davis and later Chris Murray​. The two Daves ran the business and kept a bit of order. There were Saturday sessions at Henry J Bean’s and a load of party invites from the Sloane set. Neil Stuke had the wit and the moves. He would do impersonations and take the rise out of difficult clients. Sometimes the boredom on a slow day would cause him to do wild, eccentric dances and everyone howled. Continue Reading…