Tom McShane, Farriers, Isobel Anderson
On a night when it's difficult to see ten feet in front of you because of the black fog outside, it's also difficult to see more than one foot in front of you in The Black Box cafe as the place is so packed. Glasses steam up from the close proximity of too many people at the imprintthisonyourmind podcast's first live showcase.
Isobel Anderson begins, and right from the start it's tough to pin a genre on her. She plays Spanish guitar and sings whilst a violin plays atonal, yet somehow fitting chords over the top, bringing in an Eastern influence. Paddy McQueen joins in on the cajon on certain songs, tapping out almost hip-hop beats that power the music along. This is not Western music, yet Isobel doesn't seem to realise, singing melancholy pop hooks that are at odds with the rhythm, but made convincing by her wonderfully unruffled delivery. The art of not trying too hard gives the songs a jaded air and you don't doubt the truth of her stories.
Three members of Farriers play next and build slowly, creating a growing harmonic sound that at first is difficult to distinguish from the babble of the crowd. Instantly we're on familiar territory: the twang of a male country-tinged voice and the rising female harmony. It's all very comforting, like falling into an easy chair, the warmth of the duelling voices fitting together like whipped cream on hot chocolate. By the end of their set though, Farriers fall foul of the rising tide of chatter all around them. Conversations and laughter begin and the normal Saturday night mood takes off around them, leaving the band floundering. A shame, it has to be said.
Tom McShane is the man everyone is there to see and he takes a rather different approach to the acoustic setting than expected, playing electric guitar and being joined by a drummer. It's such a change of pace that it takes a while to become accustomed to and notice the subtleties; you can hear the tradition of the great American songwriters here, but with more modesty and none of the bluster of Springsteen or his cohorts.
McShane has a quiet dignity that lies in his softly spoken manner, saying things plainly and simply. Ciara O'Neill joins him for vocals and glockenspiel on certain songs and again, at first, it's hard to see where this is going. The glockenspiel seems too soft to reconcile with the rest of the set, perhaps simply because it cannot put up much of a fight against the mighty drumkit. These songs, however, have a charmingly improvised feel as O'Neill's voice takes unexpected twists and turns as if the tunes are developing organically in front of our waiting eyes and ears.
It's an unusual type of gig for a Saturday night in Belfast, but a pleasant reminder that quiet bands can command attention, that - audience permitting - bands do not have to scream to be heard.