Review: Alana and Jarlath Henderson

Still relatively fresh off a successful tour with Hozier, the Dungannon-born cellist and singer-songwriter Alana Henderson returns to her native Northern Ireland with brother Jarlath in tow and a full house waiting for her at Belfast's Black Box.

For Jarlath, it's a nice opportunity to see and hopefully help (not hinder) a sibling. For Alana, it is the same, in addition to a pleasant reminder of her studious, thoughtful approach to performance and composition.

Lest the sister be in danger of stealing too much of the limelight, the brother is also highly renowned - his skill with pipes, whistles and vocals, along with his debut album (on sale at this gig, of course), have earned him national plaudits.

Plaudits entirely on show in a his 'n' hers' combo of traditional and original material for everyone to enjoy, beginning with a strongly harmonised vocal duet of Ae Fond Kiss just in time for Burns' Night. There are intermittently audible nerves, but maybe they're down to singing in the daytime. As Jarlath himself admits, he's more accustomed to beginning a gig with a "Good evening!".

Even if so, there are no signs of jitters in second number Sweet Lemany, which builds into expectedly compelling synchronicity. Jarlath's vocal and instrumental pitch control is exemplary in a tune that gently, patiently, embraces you, setting a fitting tone for the set list.

While Alana is dressed for the occasion in a distinctive "cello dress", bow pocket included, Jarlath's appearance is strictly casual. Aesthetics are strictly secondary to musical substance - the style is in the guitar, looper, ukelele and, naturally, cello.

The same cello which becomes front and centre in Alana's The Tower (or is it 'The Tar', as her self-mockery of her own accent would suggest?). Here, one can only marvel at her gift for rhyme amidst smoothly, sharply structured stanzas delivered with clear and ardent diction. Equally impressive, and more thoughtful still, is Museum Of Thought a lyrical exercise in what we tend to learn and remember from relationships. By now Alana is in something of a trance, belying her humble appearance with sharp professionalism shared seamlessly with her brother.

Her Song About A Song is sung and played sweetly and relatably, but with Jarlath's comforting influence she seems to boldly go where few present day up-and-coming NI artists have been before. Out of her own comfort zone, Alana is passionate pain and expressive regret personified, every inch the once smitten, later bitten but now extremely well-written woman I described her as when first hearing her music. It packs an undeniable punch, though the moodiness isn't for everyone. Thank heavens, then, for the lightness - in musical tone and instrument weight - of Alana's ukelele on the following number.

Other highlights are a quite catchy Fare Thee Well Lovely Nancy featuring at least four sonic loops on Jarlath's guitar, Alana's ever-entrancing Wax and Wane and the arresting, pensive Byzantine Blue, where Alana lyrically wrestles with the dilemma of longing to travel with an equal longing to feel at home - the exact same wanderlust she felt on tour. Who can't identify with that?

With no end of laughs and charm from both Hendersons in between songs, it all amounts to a wholly worthwhile afternoon's entertainment, a musical exhibition and personal exploration in the company of two very talented family musicians. 

Simon Fallaha

Alana and Jarlath Henderson performed at Belfast's Black Box as part of the 2017 Out To Lunch Festival. Photo taken by David Fallaha. 

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