In October 2001 Paul Brady took over one of Dublin’s most famous and prestigious music venues, Vicar Street for the entire month. Although some rest days were factored in to allow the musicians and particularly Paul’s voice to recover, they played 23 shows in all through the month. It was a block booking set to make a statement and that it did. Credit in part goes to Paul Charles, Brady’s booking agent who realised that such a run of shows could have the same impact of a hit record, while promoter Peter Aitken had the courage to back the idea. Ultimately, however, it was Paul’s performances that carried the day, selling out the venue for every show, although he did have some help from some very notable friends and also a top notch band. Every night was recorded too and the first evidence of that has now emerged as the start of a planned series of releases picking highlights from different nights as the excellent The Vicar Street Sessions Vol. 1.
It packs in some famous names, some serious playing and a song selection that dips seductively into Paul’s vast and highly accomplished canon, but generously allows several of the guests to take the lead and sing their own material. The live sound is terrific and captures the electric atmosphere, with the audience, mostly in the dark about the guest appearances showing warm approval as Paul’s various friends, collaborators and contemporaries walk out to join him. With over 17 thousand tickets sold across the series, it shows the esteem in which Paul is held and this disc will unquestionably rekindle some fond memories for those lucky enough to be there themselves, while giving the rest of us a glimpse of the magic that transpired.
You could call opening up his contacts book a shrewd move, but the liner notes for the CD reveal a man rather more humbled and surprised by the take up to his invitations. Most of those who accepted were considerably more famous than Paul, but then for Brady you also sense that fame has more of a side show and has never been the end game in a career that has always been about the music. Arguably Paul has never actively courted stardom, yet in his own songwriting abilities he seems to have a boundless store of self confidence, plus the admiration of many his contemporaries, and not just those who join him here. Bob Dylan has praised him in the same terms as Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed, while Nanci Griffith accepted her Life Time Achievement Folk Award (2010) by saying, “Mostly I just stick my head out of the window and try and catch some of the good songs and they fly past on their way to Paul Brady’s house.”
Those songs started to appear with the release of Hard Station in 1981. Paul has admitted to frustration with the traditional music scene that had given him employment since the late 60s, with spells in one of Ireland’s premiere musical exports The Johnstons and in the legendary, if chaotic, Planxty. When the wheels finally came off the latter, he first teamed with band mate Andy Irvine for a highly regarded joint album and then released with own album Welcome Here Kind Stranger, voted Folk Album Of The Year in 1978 by Melody Maker, at a time when such credits from the music press still mattered.
His move into original writing, therefore proved controversial, his own ‘Judas’ moment, but for Paul, then married with a young family, it was just a natural step. He’s admitted to becoming obsessed with Gerry Rafferty, analysing the Scottish singers workings until his own template emerged. He has since written for and with an astonishing litany of the musical A-listers. At the pop end, there’s Tina Turner, Cher, Ronan Keating, Curtis Stigers, with the latter two appearing here, but the list runs and runs. Then there are the guest appearances and cover versions, Carole King, Dave Edmunds, John Prine, Bonnie Raitt, Mark Knopfler are but five names plucked from another extraordinary list, with once again the last two appearing on this disc. While a couple of those names may be anathema to roots purists, the band and Paul Brady play consummate hosts and the surprise is how well the whole thing runs, besides the latter two and others, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, Mary Black, Eleanor McEvoy, and a genuinely surprising turn from Gavin Friday and Maurice Seltzer included really should tip the balance.
There’s a wonderful lithe and supple soulfulness to the sessions, which the occasional brass injections help to highlight. Brady himself is on fine form, his voice just seems to relax into the songs and the star turns are well met and integrated, it’s almost like an extension of the Transatlantic Sessions in a way. The band have that kind of quality too and the regulars, drummer Liam Genocky, Jennifer Maidman, who is exceptional on both bass and guitar and the keys of Steve Fletcher, are as good a band as you could want for. There are others, who play on some of the nights but not all, which gets us into a list and half, so better buy the CD and check the credits yourself.
Brady’s generosity extends to allowing Mark Knopfler, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, Curtis Stigers and Eleanor McEvoy to sing their own songs and there’s also room for Dylan’s Forever Young. Of those, Morrison’s Irish Heartbeat is an obvious crowd pleaser and also an obvious highlight, while Knopfler’s, Baloney Again is actually a moving expose of racial prejudice on the gospel circuit, quoting from a story apparently found on the back of an LP and features some great guitar playing. Don’t Go Far is a co-write by Stigers and Beth Nielsen Chapman, who herself is something of a songwriting legend and Curtis’ vocal is actually a good fit with the rest of the record, upping the blue-eyed soul quotient. More unusual musically, however, is the Sinead O’Connor song In This Heart, which is taken as an a cappella duet with Paul and the especially the tragic Last Seen October 9th, about the disappearance of a girl, with Paul accompanying Eleanor on the piano to pin drop audience quiet throughout the highly charged song.
As for Brady’s own songs Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer perform on Nobody Knows and Bonnie Raitt, appears twice singing and playing guitar on Not The Only One and the funky boogie of The World Is What You Make It. If you want to find Paul’s original recordings then you’ll need a copy of Best Of CD that derives its title from the first of those, which makes an early claim to be outstanding track on this CD. Friday smoky drawl, half spoken brings an almost Lou Reed type intensity to lines like, “Nobody knows why Elvis threw it all away.” Mind you Bonnie Raitt doesn’t disappoint either and even adds some trademark slide, to the last of those. Of course there also The Long Goodbye co-written with Ronan Keating and featuring a duet with Paul and in this context Keating is a powerful and emotive performer. There’s a great descending piano hook and the chorus swells to epic proportions.
You could argue that the three songs that Paul leads are easily the equal of the star turns, however, and the opener sets the tone and also introduces the audience to the, “general plan,” of Paul playing pretty much his entire catalogue over the series of shows. I Want You To Want Me, with a line giving his Spirits Colliding album its title, also sets the musical tone for the album, with Brady’s impassioned vocals giving a sense of urgency to lines like, “I want you to want me as much as I want you.” The Soul Commotion from his Primitive Dancer album is an absolute cracker and one of the tracks given a boost with trumpet, sax and trombone, it’s slinky enough to sound like Boz Scaggs. Believe In Me occupies similar soulful territory and was actually co-written by Carole King and is an excuse for Jennifer Maiden some tasty guitar licks. The song also features some of the most interesting lyrical content, with a hint of the lingering demons of self doubt in, “Gonna break away from the weight that holds me down, (Gonna float up on high), Gonna treat each day like a jewel I just found, When I learn to believe in me.”
The Dylan cover, Forever Young, is also a bit of a throwback, this time to the Planet Waves album, but here Paul shares the vocals with a trio of Mary Black, Moya Brennan and Maura O’Connell. It’s also an unusual Dylan song being very specifically and obviously about his children, with an impossible wish list albeit one that almost every parent will understand.
There are great hopes for The Vicar Street Sessions as a series and they get the lift of they deserve, with a few of Paul’s friends and contemporaries willingly playing their part. The surprise is perhaps how varied the set is, given the stated aim of playing almost everything he’s ever done, how willingly Paul Brady shares the spotlight. Of course it probably helps to have some names to launch the project and it just feels right, like a genuine celebration. Of course much of that is down to the ambience, the crowd response in particular, which all adds to the heartfelt acclaim for an exceptional talent, so believe in Paul Brady, because there will be plenty more jewels to come.
Review by: Simon Holland
Not The Only One (feat: Bonnie Raitt)
The Vicar St. Sessions Vol. 1 (Album Sampler)
The Vicar St. Sessions Vol. 1 is released via Proper Records April 27, 2015
Order it via ProperMusic