A Sunday afternoon gig may seem alien to many people but for me it brought back memories as a young man when such events were weekly occurrences for a number of years with numerous choices of venues in Bray and South County Dublin.
John Blek dropped by to play a late afternoon set in Greystones on his way back to his native Cork having performed the previous evening in The Workman’s Club on Dublin’s Wellington Quay. Joking that the sparse attendance at the wonderful venue brought him back to his early career days as a busker, he proceeded to deliver the perfect afternoon’s entertainment with selections from his back catalogue, his recent album Catharsis Vol.1; a few well selected covers and a couple of new additions intended for his next project. His current album was conceived in an unorthodox manner while he spent over two months earlier in the year hospitalised, having been struck down by a virus. The two positives to emerge from this episode were, first and foremost, his return to the best of health but also the inspiration to create a body of work which over nine tracks visits mortality, freedom, materialism and survival.
The material on the album is stripped to the bone, often featuring only vocal and acoustic guitar, perfectly suited for the live setting. He begins with the calming Lace, the opening track from the album and follows with The Night and The Liquor from his 2016 release Cut The Light. Salt In The Water, a highlight from his recent album, was inspired by a late night session with a casual Dutch visitor to Cork, who invited Blek back to his boat for a few nightcaps following a gig in Cork. Its delivery is captivating, making as much impact performed live as it does on the studio version. Also featured is Needle and Thread, whose lyrics visit adoration from an individual who lacks the financial means to materially express it. The studio recording includes only vocal and mellotron but with restrictions on the amount of equipment he can physically accommodate on tour, Blek substitutes the mellotron with a more elementary and compact wind instrument named a Shruti box, which achieves the desired effect, despite being christened by his disapproving trad-music girlfriend - in unprintable terms.
Compass and No Surrender also from Catharsis Vol.1 are performed with Blek explaining that he unwittingly included the latter in his set at a venue in the North of Ireland to the expected response. His stage banter is relaxed with references to suffering from mid-life crisis when he reached thirty last year (fifteen years too early for that John!) and to the number of musicians that have played in his band; testament to how difficult he must be to work with.
Little Sparrow and the Andy M. Stewart song, Where Are You Tonight? from his 2016 album Cut The Light, also get an airing together with The Barman, The Barfly and Me from his work with his band The Rats; resulting in an observation from the floor about the recurring alcohol theme in many of the songs!
Two new songs Hannah and Blackwater are auditioned to gauge approval for inclusion on his next album, with both very much getting the thumbs up from the floor. They Killed Joe Henry, written by Justin Townes Earle, is up next before he winds up the afternoon with the timeless Townes Van Zandt classic, Pancho and Lefty, Hand On My Heart from his Rats repertoire, (requested from the floor), and on a more upbeat note, Tim Hardin’s classic love song If I Were A Carpenter.
Driving home I reflected on the quality of music recorded by Irish artists in recent months. The Remedy Club, Malojian, Dovecote, Seamus Fogarty and Ritchie Healy all spring to mind but the standout album of the year, for me, by our wealth of local talent is definitely Catharsis Vol.1 by John Blek. Get yourself a copy and more to the point take any opportunity you get to see these acts live, you won’t be disappointed.
Review and photography by Declan Culliton