Powerful. That’s the only way to describe Declan O’Rourke’s performance in Sandwick’s Carnegie Hall last night.
It was powerful stuff musically, lyrically and politically from the Irish singer-songwriter who is clearly at the top of his game.
Even technical problems with the sound system failed to knock O’Rourke off his stride as he took the audience on a musical journey through Irish history among other topics.
He walked on stage and promised: “We’re going to have a great night here tonight.” And he delivered.
Opener Indian Meal is one of his collection of songs about the great Irish famine – a “happy start to the evening”. Difficult material it may be, but O’Rourke’s gravelly, soulful vocals and intelligent lyricism make light work of it.
And sure enough, as O’Rourke said, “it didn’t sound as dark as it was”.
There’s not many songwriters with the ability to tackle such big issues with such insight, while creating something so markedly beautiful.
What was particularly striking was the range of subject matter that inspires O’Rourke’s songs. Verging from love affairs, to a “protest song on behalf of a cave”, or the Irish rebellion of 1916, the simple rising of the moon, and the famous Galileo, his eclectic set was peppered with brilliance.
I can’t think of anyone else who’d sing the comical Let’s Make Big Love, followed by the haunting, anti-conflict, Three Brothers at War. All the while interspersing the music with great storytelling and no shortage of humour.
Three Brothers at War was one of the highlights of the night, inspired by the horrors of involvement in the First World War, the 1916 rebellion and the Irish civil war. It’s desperately sad and powerful in equal measure.
Another standout was Real Love, penned in tribute to O’Rourke’s late uncle and the enduring romantic feelings he still had for his wife while on his deathbed.
“It was you who opened my eyes to real love,” O’Rourke sings in the poignant tribute. It was something special to see him get the crowd on its feet singing along.
There was still time for more before O’Rourke ditched amplification (was that due to the technical issues?) for his final number.
That was a special way to end a concert that began with four songs from Keirynn Topp. Recently returned to Shetland, he set things up nicely with two of his own songs sandwiched between two covers, including a “cover of a cover” of Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean which was particularly clever stuff.
He explained that he was feeling disadvantaged because of a cut finger – “the one I really need as well”. If that was the case he managed to ignore it well as he moved up and down the fretboard.
And if the evidence of Friday night is anything to go by Topp is another good addition to the local singer-songwriter fraternity.
Another man recently back in the isles is Adam Guest who has introduced some new material to his set since last treading the boards in the isles. And for this performance at least he had added Louise Thomason to accompany him.
That seems a good move as the harmonies offered by Thomason, complement Guest’s own delivery, add give more opportunity for exploring his tunes.
Evidently enjoying being ensconced in the local music scene again, Guest offered a “new, new, new” song called A Gift as well as a cover of Richard Hawley’s Just Like the Rain. Both hit the spot.
Lyrically Guest possesses the ability to see the poetic in his surroundings and by working with Thomason appears to have added an extra dimension to his music. It will be interesting to see how the partnership develops.
It is a privilege for the isles’ developing musicians to appear on the same bill as someone as accomplished as O’Rourke and hopefully nights like Friday’s will provide fresh inspiration for them.
All told this was another memorable night of entertainment in the great little venue that is Sandwick’s Carnegie Hall. Well done to everyone involved.