Chip Crawford on piano, Jahmal Nichols on double bass, Gregory Porter, centre, Emanuel Harrold, drums and Tivon Pennicott, tenor saxophone, at the Ulster Hall, Belfast on the first night of Gregory Porter’s Take Me To the Alley tour
A lot of music history has been made in the Ulster Hall. You lap it up the minute you walk in off Bedford Street. There, straight at you: a plaque on the wall saluting the great blues rock guitarist Rory Gallagher. Featured wonderfully in the recent punk feature film Good Vibrations the hall was in the limelight too, and scroll back to the worst days of the troubles and remarkably Led Zeppelin played ‘Stairway to Heaven’ live for the first time, in a hall more used to symphony concerts. Roll over Beethoven.
“Give us a wee kiss, Gregory,” the lady near the front called out. Porter had a good crowd in mostly standing and he later told us that yes he was the most Irish person in the band! The charm was natural. The New York-based Californian was beginning his Britain and Ireland tour ahead of the release of Blue Note album Take Me To the Alley, his follow-up to the big selling Grammy-winning Liquid Spirit and so this was when Belfast got to hear him first before anyone else on this tour. Van Morrison was sat in the audience up on a balcony watching and got a name check later in Porter’s ‘Musical Genocide,’ a roll of honour that also features James Brown and Marvin Gaye.
Most of the songs were from earlier albums, the sunny ‘Hey Laura’ got a lot of recognition from the crowd early on, people singing along and knowing the words, but new songs from the still unreleased Take Me To the Alley snuck in including the mellow title track and a song dedicated to Gregory’s young son, ‘Don’t Lose Your Steam.’
The band is a little different to when Marlbank last heard Porter which was outdoors at Blenheim Palace last year during Nocturne. The Japanese alto sax player and flautist Yosuke Sato has left the band and instead there’s the Marcus Strickland-like tenor player Tivon Pennicott in his place, the lower instrument suiting Porter’s deep tones, and also on this occasion the addition of trumpeter/flugelhornist Chris Storr (who you might remember was in the fictional Louis Lester band on Stephen Poliakoff’s TV drama Dancing on the Edge) making a two-man horn section riffing and wailing at will to suit the songs. The rhythm section is the same as Blenheim, with veteran Porter pianist Chip Crawford, excellent double bassist Jahmal Nichols (later strapping on a bass guitar) and drummer Emanuel Harrold, in the pocket at all times.
Porter sporting a waistcoat, wearing his trademark hat of course, stood tall centre stage and sang brilliantly, the best I’ve ever heard him. He has rewritten the jazz singer rule book in recent years and continues with new chapters added even on familiar songs. I was wiping away tears of joy by the end. The duet with Crawford in the poignant mixed-metaphor song ‘Water Under Bridges’ was perfect and Porter was highly engaged in the more uptempo material, a storming ‘Work Song’ easy for the tenor player, taking one hand off the sax even as he hit it grandly home.
A satori is a Japanese Buddhist term for awakening, or understanding. If you are a reader of Jack Kerouac you’ll be familiar with the term.
It might be pushing it a little but I couldn’t think of a better term for what I felt afterwards about this wedding band. I’ve long been fascinated with wedding or function bands not necessarily when they are playing weddings and not so much musically but how they function in a social setting. The last one I saw was at a wedding last year in Carrick-on-Shannon, a beautifully tranquil town in County Leitrim. The band that night were an excellent ceilidh band mostly playing a mix of traditional Irish, and what is usually known in these parts as country and Irish, the most genuinely popular musical style (but equally most widely mocked) in Ireland today mainly because it is both maudlin and sentimental but also has the uncanny knack of burrowing deep into the Irish imagination in its ability to both live in the long gone distant past and the here and now at exactly the same time. I was struck by the band’s people skills as well as their musical prowess and also the way that they could get people up and dancing however reluctant the wedding guests proved to be.
The wedding band I saw on this occasion was at a gig not in a wedding but had a wedding-band type name, they were “the Engagements,” appropriately enough, and in their banner behind the drummer even proclaimed the fact that they were a wedding band, something not every band that plays at weddings on the side generally makes plain when actually out in the wild at a general gig and not in front of the just-hitched and their closest friends and family.
Perhaps there is a wedding band stigma among professional musicians. One blues musician I know unlike everybody in his band refuses to take bookings. Or completely by contrast from the wedding band’s point of view an inverted money-based superiority as wedding band fees are usually higher than the average pub gig a jobbing band can hope to collect.
The Engagements were nothing if not eclectic, highly professional and organised. Not only the lead singer, a big bearded guy who reminded me of Meatloaf when he started to really get going, but the drummer and lead guitarist doubled as more than passable singers, and they also had a promising lead female singer who didn’t play an instrument but didn’t quite have the confidence to really assert herself. Only the boyish highly serious left-handed bass guitarist didn’t sing, his reliable beat underpinning everything, the groove never more than a gurgle away from widespread enchantment.
My satori revolves around the fact that this was a gig that was solely about entertaining a crowd out on a Saturday night. They weren’t necessarily music fans although most people present like most people everywhere like music however involved or not they were in listening rather than talking to their friends or glancing at the TVs naturally with the sound turned down hoisted on stands all around the bar. The crowd mouthed the words and knew most of the songs (a mix of Journey, Steve Earle, Lisa McHugh and Mark Ronson numbers in the first hour) and they danced just for the hell of it. A small group of friends brought a young mate of theirs with them in her wheelchair and got her a good spot up near the front as they danced around the chair. Another girl threaded her way through the band to the back of the stage to pass the drummer a request which he took with good grace.
The Engagements were slick and turned up the volume, your ears pounded with the sheer sound (no wonder some of them wore earplugs) and the bearded singer waded into the audience with a wireless microphone to belt out a ‘come on in you’re welcome’ kind of message, his eyes widening with delight. They provided a communal experience you can’t get in so many ways now in the age of the selfie, and that was one of the reasons why they keep getting booked back to the pub that they found themselves playing in and yes kept us all engaged in a variety of ways. Final thought: covers bands can provide insights you’d never knew existed in a song, to return to Kerouac and Satori in Paris as a secular amen: “You are the equal of the idol who has given you your inspiration.”
The Engagements, top, with, left to right, singer Sinéad McGovern and guitarist/singer Dwayne ‘Krum’ Maguire who also plays in the metal band Darkest Era, and above, live at Blakes of the Hollow