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Gregory Porter At The Ulster Hall, Belfast

Ian Patterson By

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Gregory Porter
Ulster Hall
Belfast, N. Ireland
March 31, 2016

Though Gregory Porter has played Ireland several times, it's unlikely that any of the previous venues to welcome the Californian singer-songwriter have quite the history—or indeed the character—of Belfast's Ulster Hall. In its one hundred-and-fifty-year history this handsome Victorian music hall has hosted novelist Charles Dickens, composer Edgar Elgar, entertainer and activist Paul Robeson and, in 1971, Led Zeppelin, who premiered "Stairway to Heaven" here. From classical and punk to folk music, from boxing and comedy to political gatherings, this atmospheric venue has welcomed all-comers.

So too, does the Grammy-winning Porter, whose appeal, despite the jazz media's wishful portrayal of the Grammy winner as the next big thing in jazz, goes far beyond those confines, as the million-seller Liquid Spirit (Blue Note, 2013) demonstrated. Porter's blend of soul, R&B, funk and jazz seduces a surprisingly diverse audience, as was evident on his first visit to Belfast.

This was the first of fifteen dates, moving on through England, Scotland and Wales, to promote Porter's latest release, Take me To The Alley (Decca Records, 2016), though if there were any first-night nerves they weren't showing in the band's tight, energetic performance. With the towering 19th-century pipe organ bathed in red light serving as backdrop to the stage, the mise-en-scène was perhaps more Black Sabbath than soul-jazz, though oddly effective all the same.

It was with "Holding On," the first single release from the new album, that Porter greeted the Ulster Hall crowd. Co-written with British dance/electronic duo Disclosure, the song was a dance hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 2015, though here, a spare arrangement and Porter's soulful baritone foregrounded the song's message of love. The band shifted up a couple of gears on "On My Way to Harlem," with saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, trumpeter/flugelhornist Chris Storr and pianist Chip Crawford all taking punchy solos. The lyrics' references to Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye and Langston Hughes were signposts to some of the shoulders upon whom Porter stands.

"Take Me to the Alley," a haunting slower tune about the homeless or marginalized on the streets, who, Porter gently urged, "need to be lifted up," was a reminder of the deaths of four homeless people in Belfast in recent weeks. Emotive and poetic, this affecting song could almost have come from the pen of vintage-era Van Morrison. Horns riffed, roared and sang on the driving soul-funk of "Don't Lose Your Steam" before Porter slowed things down with the romantic "Hey Laura"—a crowd pleaser that sparked a mass sing-along.

The Undisputed Truth's psychedelic soul tune "Papa Was a Rolling Stone"—a hit for The Temptations—moved seamlessly into "Musical Genocide," with Crawford teasing a slow ska groove from the keys—a prelude to a wildly percussive flight. "I will not commit, nor will I submit to musical genocide," Porter intoned in one breath, extolling the purity of emotion in soul and blues music in another. When it seems as though much of the pop music on the airways has reached a nadir, what indeed—as Mr. Porter asked—would James Brown, Van Morrison, John Coltrane, Nat "King" Cole and Stevie Wonder say?

Porter's gospel vein shone through on the stirring climax to "No Love Dying"—another song of vivid imagery and striking positivity. An intimate duet between Crawford and Porter on "Water Under Bridges" took the mood right down before the band returned with a questing, Coltrane-like incantation that led to Emanuel Harrold's extended drum solo and a rousing version of Oscar Brown Jr's "Work Song." No doubt to the surprise of some, Porter revealed that his great grandmother had been Irish and his charm offensive went into overdrive when he sang of "your pretty Irish eyes" on a tender rendition of "I Fall in Love Too Easily."

The politically charged "1960 What?" ended the concert on a fiery note, with Harrold's snares rattling like gunfire and Storr spitting fire over Jahmal Nichol's driving ostinato. Porter left the stage to great applause whilst his band kept feeding the fire. The foot-stomping on Ulster Hall's oak floorboards summoned Porter back, who obliged with the funky "Free." Unison horns, dancing piano and pulsing electric bass underpinned an impassioned vocal from Porter that perhaps owed as much to Gil Scott-Heron as it did to Big Joe Turner.

One by one the band exited stage left, with Nichol and Harrold still grooving hard. Harrold was last man standing, weaving together rattling tattoos and tumbling patterns to the whoops and cheers of the crowd.

Even with Porter's more socio-political songs the underlying message was one of love and compassion. It's the motor driving his music and the sincerity and passion in the delivery was hard to resist.
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