Review: Martin Stephenson and the Daintees

Another visit to the Black Box at the Out To Lunch Festival, another sell out, and another one of those evenings packed to the brim with nostalgia in the form of Sunderland-born Martin Stephenson and his (hopefully dainty) Daintees.

The crowd in attendance feels rather heavily populated by the band's fan base - something that will play a massive part in creating the Saturday night live party atmospherics that the room is looking for.

But it's apparent that support act Junior Johnson isn't in a party mood. At least not yet.

Rather, there is a quietly moving inflection in his voice. He merges cynical lyrics with a laid back demeanour and a Johnny Cash-esque dip in octave. His stage persona amounts to that of a decent man so worn down by his experiences that he doesn't worry so much about what can be done for him anymore.

Instead, he imparts his verbal wisdom to us - and the low-key, surprisingly comforting nature of his short, guy-and-his-guitar based set speaks for itself.

The comforting becomes a carnival, of sorts, when Martin Stephenson and the rest of his five-piece band arrive on stage. They are marking the 30th anniversary of their album "Boat To Bolivia" by playing their most famous recording in its entirely, and the set is more eclectic and more unusual than even the album suggests. The record is notable for not being of its time, the band's use of guitars, drums, harmonica and double bass harking back to a more retro period still. As I noted earlier: nostalgia. But not of the typical 1980s kind.

A powerful musical marker is laid down during the irresistibly smooth opener "Crocodile Cryer", before everyone around is enlivened with the comedic, slyly sung "Colleen". The tunes differ so starkly in tone that even as one sways and hums along, it’s hard not to wonder what kind of band we're watching. Are they a jazz band, a lounge act, or is Stephenson simply clowning around with music and lyrics? Perhaps a little of all three is taking place.

"Little Red Bottle", crazily, has the sort of drum intro you'd expect to hear on "Riding Along In My Automobile" or “Nellie The Elephant", Stephenson even tells us so himself. We don’t get to laugh here – too much – but we do see a carnival atmosphere building through dance. That's carried forward nicely into "Running Water", a tribute to the late Reverend Gary Davis and much, much more, riffs worthy of Ali Campbell and Black Sabbath somehow surfacing amongst country and western themed melodies, Chas and Dave guitars and a few bars of the Shake 'n' Vac jingle. (I'm not joking.)

But the gig's not really about bringing the musical freshness back, rather, the familiar. The title track of "Boat To Bolivia" is the undisputed standout – frothy, unfettered and undemanding fun, with a little bit of reggae tossed in. If it doesn't exactly enthrall, it is very easy to like, and the set list gains a little unexpected depth with a pair of poignant numbers in the middle, namely a solo performance of "Rain" by Stephenson himself that echoes the best of REM's Automatic For The People and encourages a singalong.

If there were ever a motto one could attach to Martin Stephenson and the Daintees, it'd be "don’t think, just sway... and dance", something that the booming crowd are more than happy to do during the course of this enjoyable event.

Simon Fallaha

Martin Stephenson and The Daintees performed at Belfast's Black Box as part of the 2017 Out To Lunch Festival.

Photo by David Fallaha

Recent Gig Reviews