REVIEW: Mary Coughlan

Unlike Elvis, Mary Coughlan hasn't left the building when the time comes for her Millennium Forum show at Derry-Londonderry's annual jazz and big band festival. Instead, she’s causing havoc upstairs! Or so we're told.

One can only imagine what her reaction will be when she pops downstairs to see the "small but beautifully formed" (her words!) audience that have gathered in the auditorium.

Perhaps enough word didn't get out about tickets? Maybe, being a Saturday night, more people wanted to disco dance instead? Or (sadly) are some simply saving themselves for Van Morrison the following night?

Whatever. She, and support act Karrie O'Sullivan are going to put on a good show for us all. And the latter, a former horse trainer turned singer-songwriter from County Kerry, is the prototypical confidence builder. Obviously, but pleasingly, influenced by Erma Franklin and Joni Mitchell, O'Sullivan gently curries favour through mild manners and sweetly intoxicating vocals while Jimmy Smith, soon to accompany Coughlan along with three other musicians, attempts to grab the spotlight with his admittedly impressive guitar skills. Cue banter of the blunt but amusing kind.

It's a soothing and steady performance, overall, though it is lacking is fluctuation and variance. Never mind. There will be more of that when Coughlan, taking the stage on her 62nd birthday – alas, there's no cake, but the strains of "Happy Birthday" will be heard further down the line! – is joined by Smith, pianist Scott Flanigan, double bassist Dominic O’Brien and drummer Dominic Mullan for a thirteen-song set.

Throughout opening number "Meet Me Where They Play The Blues" you are kind of taken aback by how relaxed and explicit she can be, considering the nature of the lyrics ("If you're gloomy, come around and do me") but it is tough not to be drawn in by the Derry-loving Galway girl’s raspy yet prominent vocals and easy-going nonchalance.

Her spoken interludes, laden with intriguing storytelling and sarcastic yet friendly remarks – more an older Saoirse-Monica Jackson than an older Saoirse Ronan – are as much a highlight as the songs themselves. Introducing "Double Cross" as a song she wouldn't perform for years because her first husband, who penned it, gets paid for it every time she sings it, sends the small but enraptured crowd into fits of giggles.

Which, I suppose, is a contradiction of sorts, as Coughlan admits herself that "most of (her) songs are miserable", hinting at the difficult, drug and drink laden past she emerged from to become a singing star who now rightfully earns comparisons with Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf. But from being a mass of contradictions can emerge the most fascinating and watchable entertainment – and Coughlan's set is never anything less than watchable.

The highlights are too numerous. Personal favourites include "The Beach", a rhythmic, easily-clappable tune inspired by the tale of a bishop, two-piece swimming costumes and dancing in a bar (don't ask!) and the gorgeous "I Can’t Make You Love Me", which features the guitar solo of the night from an on-top-of-his-game Smith.

Classics like "Love Will Tear Us Apart", "Lighter Shade Of Pale", "I'd Rather Go Blind" and encore "These Boots Are Made For Walking" are all received well, Coughlan adapting a wistful melancholia and soulful groove that makes each song unique in performance and uniquely enjoyable for the crowd to sing and the band to play.

It is a triumphant night for Coughlan, a strong showing with all the wry cynicism one can expect from someone who has been worn down by what, at one stage or another, appear to be unsurmountable obstacles, but equally knowing of the fact that she has been able to conquer every single one of them and move on with a smile.

Simon Fallaha

Mary Coughlan performed at this year's City Of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival.

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