Bronagh Gallagher – Black Box, Belfast

January 20, 2019

First published on Giggingni.com

It’s rare you see the phrase “Northern Irish singer and actress”, well, anywhere that isn’t Northern Ireland. Hearing it in Hollywood is almost unheard of. Bronagh Gallagher broke this mould though. She first tasted success at 17, passing an audition for the film of the Roddy Doyle novel The Commitments with no prior acting experience. Roles in Pulp Fiction and Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace followed, along with appearances on the West End stage. As talented as she is in interpreting a script though, we feel she’s happiest being herself, telling her own stories and singing her own songs. A representative of Out To Lunch Festival welcomes her on stage for the second time that day – the second of two sold out shows – for three reasons: her tight band, her amazing voice and her stacks of charisma. She makes her way up the central aisle of The Black Box like a prize fighter, audience members turning round to see and to greet her. This audience are definitely ready for some soul.

Beginning with the plaintive ‘Stranger’ from the Gather Your Greatness album, the band move through the first few songs in quick succession, ‘Make It Easier’ being an early highlight. Gallagher tells us there’ll be no real focus on any particular album, they’ll be playing a mixture of old and new songs. With a Bronagh Gallagher gig though, it’s only half about the music. And after a start that would seem confident for anyone else but is almost troublingly low-key for her, the floodgates open. It’s maybe thanks to a new song ‘What It Feels Like’ which is as close to punk as we’re going to get this evening. Gallagher tells us it’s about us, where we come from and maybe she’s just put the idea in our heads but we think we hear our Troubled past. It’s melodic punk of course, some Elton John flourishes on the keys and a triumphant turn from Gallagher who clearly relishes the chance to let loose without the background sadness that underpins some soul. She’s ferocious; she has the attitude for this.

After this, it’s all go. Stories out of context add warmth to the evening. Tales of long-ago teeth-rotting poitín, a DNA swab revealing Mexican heritage (“That’s why I’m the spit of Salma Hayek. You’re not meant to laugh at that…”) and a person who is revealed to be 100% Banbridge. We move into ‘Lonely Girls’ and Gallagher makes full use of the thigh-high split in her ankle-length sequinned skirt, leaning into the split as she rocks back and forth to the divine proggy guitar solo in the middle of this Irish country-tinged song. ‘Every Place’ is a rollicking, Springsteen-esque number. ‘Shortcut’ is dedicated to Orla and Stan who provided overnight accommodation for her first ever Dublin audition and thereby started her career. Orla wipes away a tear during the impassioned story and is one of the first on their feet when Gallagher starts to encourage the audience to get up on their feet and dance.

Songs slide by like butter. Maybe no single song is that memorable but they’re easy listening and we don’t mean that as an insult. They’re so easy to bob a head to and hum along it would be simple to say we’re really here for the stories and the music is just a filler. But the stronger songs are being saved for the second half, the sultry ‘Crimes’ and the hooting, growling funk of ‘Radio’ signal audience dancing en masse as the party takes hold and the stories between songs get shorter and heightened by the atmosphere. Gallagher talks of a youth listening to Aretha Franklin live albums and wondering why she couldn’t go to Franklin’s church, with the gospel and the audience roars of approval. Well, we’re in Gallagher’s church right now with a raucous Belfast audience who are full-throated in their shouting of “I believe!” Can you quieten down such a crowd? It seems you can, effortlessly, with a mention of Seamus Heaney. Specifically, seeing her father weep on seeing Heaney on TV with the Taoiseach and the Queen. She calls Heaney a true King of Ulster and dedicates ‘A Sailor Like You’ to him. Her speech has set us up perfectly for this shivers-down-the-spine moment as her voice soars and the cymbals subtly “shhhh” us. We do shush.

We’re on the last two songs at this point and a wit calls for ‘Mustang Sally’ from The Commitments. “We write our own songs”, Gallagher reminds us. “This is our second gig today and these guys have to drive back to Dublin tomorrow. We’ve worked damn hard on these songs,” and by heck, they are going to play them. For the most part we don’t even notice the band and she knows this, because if something is like a second skin, you don’t feel it. So just before they finally do end on ‘Johnny Eagle’ she introduces them and compares them to the Cash, Nelson, Kristofferson and Jennings supergroup The Highwaymen and calls them “The best there is”. After one last arm-in-arm bow, the five-piece leave the stage. The mostly middle-aged audience filter out and maybe she’s right: maybe they will all be at the osteopath tomorrow after their dancing efforts, but I think they’ll agree it was worth it.

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