You don’t have to be long haired, bearded, denim clad and gravel voiced to make the cut as a genuine outlaw troubadour but it certainly helps. Hayes Carll qualifies with distinction on all fronts but more importantly has the songs and stories to match. Sixteen years into a career that has yielded five albums to date and the Texan remains the most authentic apostle of the late Townes Van Zandt.
Fortunately Carll does not possess the same self-destruct tendencies as his master and even if his vocals do suggest a partiality for good whiskey and tobacco, his reputation for delivering stellar live shows goes before him as evidenced by tonight’s performance before a large crowd at the OH Yeah Centre in Belfast. There was not a weak moment from his opener the confessional ballad Good While It Lasted , through his rousing Drunken Poets Dream (a co-write with Ray Wylie Hubbard he informs us) and his closer the priceless She Left Me For Jesus ("She says I should find him and I'll know peace at last -If I ever find Jesus, I'm kickin' his ass!").
He entertains the pin drop quiet crowd with tales and songs across his complete back catalogue, while also managing to include a few new song titles including Times Like These, performed on stage for the first time. Confessing that ‘you can get pulled over by the cops an awful lot when you look a certain way’, he introduces the hilarious Bible On The Dash, advertising the advantages on strategically placing the holy book on your dashboard when crossing certain States in America. It’s a practice used by Carll and the co-writer of that song Corb Lund when they are on what Carll calls their "Outlaws on A Budget" tours.
Introducing Beaumont he describes it as your average South East Texas town, adding that he won a gun in a raffle playing in a bar in the town some years previously. The Magic Kid, he explains, is a co-write with Darrell Scott inspired by a simple card trick performed by his son. It’s a simple yet beautiful song written from the heart. Wild As A Turkey, I’ve Got A Gig, Bad Liver and A Broken Heart all get an airing but the highlight of the evening is a rattling delivery of KMAG YOYO ("Here I am standin' in the desert with a gun, thought of going AWOL but I'm too afraid to run"), not an easy song to perform solo given the speed at which the lyrics are delivered but absolutely nailed on the evening. Jesus and Elvis (written with his partner Allison Moorer) also features, it is a song that was subsequently recorded by Kenny Chesney.
Notwithstanding the ease at which he recounts his tales and delivers his songs, the standard of his guitar playing is wonderful as is his harmonica playing, particularly on the gorgeous Love Is Easy.
Carll’s career will continue to be underpinned by more main stream artists picking up on his songs (Kenny Chesney, Lee Ann Womack, Jim Lauderdale) and deservedly so as he remains to be one of the most intelligent, creative, descriptive writers bar none. Few songwriters nowadays have the ability to successfully mix their art with humour, Carll has the talent to combine both effortlessly.
Eight years since his last visit to Belfast, it’s a pleasure to see him once more in such stellar form and in a super venue among similar music loving folk. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another eight years for his return.
Thumbs up also to Ciara O’Neill who opened the show in style with a collection of songs from her debut album The Ebony Trail and newer material to be included in her next recording.
Review and photograph by Declan Culliton