The Lost Brothers at The Errigle Inn (Belfast, Ireland - 26 Nov, 2014)
Irish duo The Lost Brothers write old-time songs. They take their musical influences from home, then bluegrass-and-folk them up. They "Americana" them, then they add harmonies as sweet as local honey with a drop of dark chocolate, and serve them to us with a cold beer. Tonight they were playing The Real Music Club in Belfast for the second time this year. In early summer, they supported Willy Vlautin’s band The Delines. This time they were the headline act and support came in the form of Ciaran Lavery.
“If I Have To Go” by Tom Waits has always slayed me. It’s his voice, and the simple piano, and the nothing-else that accompanies it. So, when Lavery opened his support set with a single-handed version of the song I was tied to my chair. I think all there was in the room for the first part was the absolutely unaccompanied voice from the stage, and ice clinking at the bar. Harmonica and guitar joined later. Cregan, the sound engineer, was out stalking, checking that all was perfect.
“Left For America” from the Kosher EP started with gentle guitar, and then Lavery’s sandy off-road voice gave it texture. "When I’m ready I’ll give you the sign, you can gather me up like a quilt". It faded off in parts then became padded. The last line, “I never knew my place anyway”, had no guitar closure. The “anyway” fell into a mossy hollow. Applause pulled it out.
The Lost Brothers opened with “Gold And Silver” from their recent album New Songs Of Dawn and Dust'. Simple gentle guitar from Mark McCausland hushed the room and stopped us rustling. Then the two voices started walking lightly over the top of the strings. They summoned pictures of forests and pines and they left shadows of “fallen ones” in the frame. The guitar paused for a line so we could hear our breath. Then it picked up the stitch at the end of the row. Our night had begun.
The whole of the next day for me was spent mouthing the train-track rhythmic guitar running through “Who Could Love You More”. It reminded me of something and it was killing me slowly trying to remember. It turns out it was Patterson Hood’s “Fifteen Days”. The songs, of course, are worlds apart. The Lost Brothers' folked-out harmonies were gentle and easy and the guitar bolstered them. The story was the journey of a broken love steadily making its way home. No drama, no shouting, nothing to see here.
“This song, we wrote in an airport in Los Angeles. It’s a love song” Oisin Leech told us. But he knew it was more than that. “I was a soldier in that old war. They never told me what I killed for”. McCausland’s harmonies were sad echoes of Leech’s words. "Soldier's Song" was that of quiet protest; of the heartbreak and loss of war, of the utter desolation of it. It was breath-taking.
I couldn’t help thinking that the woman in “Pale Moon” (from the So Long John Fante album) got a pretty raw deal. The upbeat strings disguised how sad the story actually was, and it would have been easy to swing happily in your chair to this if you weren’t listening well to the story of doomed lovers and sad departures. Then “Stones Throw” gave us a warm Fleet Foxes vibe with a dusty croak in Leech’s voice. “I hope at the ending of the day, that I’m only a stone’s throw away”. With this song the hurt had hope, even if it may be false.
They asked if there was anything we want to hear, and when all corners of the room responded Leech laughed “that’s about a thousand songs there”. They settled on “Moon River”, with the sweet spot centring on the line ‘my huckleberry friend” which was made for their harmonies. Made for the softness and the whimsy of their voices. Then final song of the night was a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”. This time artfully arranged so that in the quiet room the harmonica highlighted the tenderness of the harmonies that had preceded it.
It was a perfect end to the night. It was an appreciation of one of the masters. In the same way that Woody Guthrie and Levon Helm had been included, Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson had been acknowledged. The Lost Brothers boast the best of influences, but their music is their own, their voices and harmonies are distinct. Beautiful, haunting and distinct. That is what we were wrapped up in tonight.
The Lost Brothers - Gold and Silver
Photo and video credit: Gerry McNally. This review was originally published in Creative Voices NI