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Brian Kennedy (& Juliet Turner) - Expo Ireland, Olympia, London - 12 September 1999

After the difficult and rather unpleasant day at Expo Ireland in Olympia on 
Saturday, waiting endlessly in the dreary exhibition and stifling heat 
for Van Morrison to take the stage (and take the whole venue by storm), 
I could only face turning up on Sunday in time to see Brian Kennedy's 
1:45pm performance, and had plans to leave immediately afterwards.

With ease, I secured a choice spot against the fence in front of the stage, with no one crowding me from behind, and without having to ‘accidentally’ elbow and stomp on anyone to get there (as if I would!). The crowd at Expo generally was probably half that of the previous day, and most people were wandering around the dull exhibition stands or queuing at the restaurant; few were near the stage. The people who were seated a few yards away looked as if they had plopped down there in exhaustion and in ignorance of the forthcoming musical event. It was as if Brian Kennedy was doing a secret gig and the six or so of us Van and Brian fans were the only ones aware of it.

Brian was given a lengthy introduction, read obviously by a comatose announcer, which clearly was designed to give those who had not heard of him a reason to be quiet and listen. It mentioned that he sings (wrongly said in the present tense) with Van Morrison and that his new single is a duet with Ronan Keating. When Brian came on stage to join his two acoustic guitars that were already silently settled in their stands, there were probably fewer than 200 people gathered in front of the sizeable stage. He was wearing the same slate grey short-sleeved camp shirt he wore at the Balmoral concert in Belfast last month, with black trousers that seem suitable for skiing, which he wore at the Mean Fiddler, Harlesden, gig in July. (It scares me that I’m memorizing his clothing!)

Despite the unimpressive size of the crowd, Brian always maintained his admirable natural ability on stage to flirt with his audience and win over even the most serious music-haters. He was phased by neither the sparse turn-out nor the fact that there was a constant rumble of voices chatting from across the venue, as well as an unfortunate but quick burst of loud abrasive music from a nearby stand. He made a joke of the latter and launched into an amazing a cappella performance of three of the 55 verses of a folk song that may have been called ‘Once I Love.’ He taught the chorus to an audience who unfortunately was not the type to join in, and he did not hesitate to admonish us playfully by adding lyrics to the song about how useless we were. Still, he rarely stopped beaming that crinkled-face smile that warms hearts without fail.

Brian then progressed flawlessly through the popular ‘A Better Man’ and his gorgeous rendition of the Neil Young song ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart.’ By this time, people were gathering around the gallery balcony overlooking the stage, and pressing closer to the stage at ground level, obviously drawn by the sound of stunning vocals with an incredible range. Brian decided to take requests, considering each one carefully and only politely refusing a few of them after giving solid reasons for doing so (for Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You,’ he’d need a bazouki, which he hadn’t brought as it was too delicate. He could not remember the chords for Lennon’s ‘Intuition’ as he hadn’t played it for years, but would willingly perform it if someone could shout out the chords, but there were no takers.) When someone requested Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,’ Brian did not sing it but explained that it was on the new album, which is due out in Ireland on 1 October and should be released in the U.K. by the end of the year.

He noted that most of the titles people were shouting out were soft, serene songs, and said he was glad the audience was in a similar mood to him. He then proved his versatility and talent to any doubters by accepting a request to sing the song ‘Eist a Stor,’ a song entirely in Gaelic meaning ‘Listen My Love,’ which he had performed with its writer Maire Bhreatnach on the compilation album released earlier this year entitled ‘Eist (songs in their native language),’ which also includes a number by Van Morrison and the Chieftains.

At one stage, Brian stuck his tongue out at a member of the audience and called out playfully, ‘I should have known that you’d be here!’ We all turned to see Irish actor/writer Adrian Dunbar (whose most recent part was in the new Star Wars film--I believe his part was cut though), who tended to close his eyes, tighten his face, throw his head back and sway slightly whilst listening to Brian create what Adrian—and we all—clearly felt was heavenly music.

Someone requested ‘Captured,’ and although that is arguably Brian’s most famous song, he welcomed the suggestion as if it had not occurred to him to sing it, and he launched into a sublime rendition which ventured easily into the traditional folk song ‘Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?’ (sometimes called ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’).

This beautiful number was followed by Van’s ‘Crazy Love’, then the lovely ‘Town’, which had been requested in a note sent to Brian back stage, the wonderful ‘Playing with My Heart,’ and the upbeat ‘Put the Message in the Box.’ He even sang a few bars of ‘Blue Christmas’ (‘I’ll have a blue Christmas without you’) whilst tuning his guitar.

He then decided to play the Carole King/Gerry Goffin song ‘Goin’ Back,’ which was a hit for the Byrds, but Brian carefully explained that this was the Dusty Springfield version. Before he started, he spotted the fabulous Northern Irish singer/songwriter Juliet Turner in the audience and pressed her to join him on stage for that number, but she coyly wriggled out of the invitation.  [She and Adrian Dunbar can both be seen in the crowd in the picture to the right.]

Juliet Turner was nominated last week for Best Irish Female Vocalist in the Irish magazine Hot Press’s Rock Awards, with Sinead O’Connor and the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan being two of the other contenders. She is most widely known for her touching performance of Julie Miller’s song ‘Broken Things’ at the Omagh Memorial Service after the 1998 tragedy. The song is featured on the compilation album ‘Across the Bridge of Hope’ in aid of the Omagh Fund, and the album also includes Van and Brian performing an alternative acoustic version of ‘The Healing Game.’ She is opening for Brian at his Vicar Street gigs in Dublin next week, and was apparently at Expo to perform on the minuscule, sadly almost unnoticeable Mean Fiddler platform not far from the main stage.

Fortunately, Juliet was coaxed onto the stage at last and joined Brian in Tom Waits’ ‘I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You,’ playing Brian’s guitar (after he failed to grasp the chords despite some quick tuition from her) while they took turns with the verses and harmonised on the chorus. Juliet laughed throughout most of the song, particularly when Brian tried to sing the same verse twice. Although she was barefoot, the lithe Juliet seemed to tower above Brian, and he is not particularly small.

As Juliet left the stage to enthusiastic applause, Brian’s mike fell limp on its stand, and as he readjusted it, he explained that it had fainted, presumably from the magnificent music it had just encountered. Before singing other songs, he spent some time singing Juliet’s praises, insisting that he wasn’t her manager, just that he thought she deserved much more recognition than she had received to date.

By then, his allotted hour had drawn to a close, so he finished with a typically exquisite rendition of the traditional ‘Carrickfergus.’ As he casually strolled backstage, it was quite clear that his usual quick wit, astonishing talent, genuinely kind nature, hip-swivelling and child-like grinning had won over a great many people who had simply come to stroll around the Expo exhibition. The only shame is that his name wasn’t clearly stated at the end of his set, either by him or the announcer, so that all of these could-be new fans of all ages could spread the word about this ‘new’ singer they’d discovered and rush out and buy some of his albums. Then maybe he could at last get some of the recognition he deserves in the U.K. Perhaps when they hear his new album, they’ll do the right thing! Copyright © 1999 by TC. All rights reserved.



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