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Juliet Turner - Lock 17 (formerly Dingwalls), Camden - 23 September 2003

Sometimes, an opening act is an ideal chance to discover something wonderful. Other times, the opening act completes a double bill that makes the night a celebration of marvellous music in which you revel, where you feel lucky to pay so little for a ticket that rewards you with so much, as though you’ve finally got one over on the promoters and ticket agencies.

This night, 23 September 2003, at Lock 17 on Camden Lock was definitely one of the latter. No one with any sense would ever turn down the opportunity to hear the chirpy, amusing and hugely talented Dar Williams live whenever she comes to England. On this occasion, we were also to benefit from the talents of the as yet too good a secret Juliet Turner from Northern Ireland, a similarly delightful live performer who uses her enviable sense of humour to interact wonderfully with any audience. Although some of her songs focus on serious subjects, she never takes herself too seriously and hearing her is always a joy.

When Juliet took to the tiny stage in the former Dingwalls, much of her 150-strong audience was seated on the floor, as we had been waiting for over an hour and had half hoped that the main act would be taking the stage by now. Those who were not in the mosh-less mosh pit were seated in chairs around the outskirts of the cosy room, and others were chatting at the bar in the back. This challenge of apathy and lack of attention did not seem to faze Juliet at all as she stood a few feet in front of us with her guitar and her guitarist Brian Grace. She had joined us silently, without introduction, so it was lucky a few people right beside her noticed and began cheering to alert the rest of the weary wait-ers.

Gracefully tall Juliet was wearing a sleeveless ruffle-trimmed multi-coloured pinkish jumper, which had a yellow ribbon pinned to it—not a simple bow in an evident support of some charity or cause, but more of a fancy decoration that the Queen might pin on you at the palace in gratitude for your support of said charity. It could have been a hefty nod towards AIDS sufferers, an anti-suicide sign, a symbol that she still wants her beau, or perhaps it’s a new peace symbol against the recent (rather ongoing really) conflict in Iraq or in support of the Northern Ireland peace process. I can only guess as she made no specific mention of it.

Wearing her hair longer than I had seen before, with long, dangling diamante earrings to match as though she were hitting a state banquet after this gig, she plucked out the first notes of her brilliant song Burn the Black Suit, a hugely catchy number that finally turned up on her second album of the same name. I must confess to preferring the acoustic live version a hundred times to the busy, popified version on the album that is layered with la-la backing vocals, saxes and samples. No doubt that is because I got to know this song through her brilliant performances with nothing but her guitar and pure voice, and I believe it is better raw. She sang naturally about the way to win a man’s heart (‘I found out how to keep you keen, I read it in a magazine…Seems large amounts of alcohol is all it takes to make you fall / If I stroke your ego through the night, it’ll be all right’) and then finding, once she has been successful, that she doesn’t want him much any way. The refrain, ‘If this is desire, expect nothing new. But if this is love, burn your black suit’ seizes your brain and gets you humming it for hours.

Afterwards, we got to hear plenty of her lovely accent, borne of rural living in a town near Omagh, where she first caught the attention of so many by performing a terribly moving rendition of Julie Miller’s Broken Things at the memorial service one week after the tragic massacre in 1998. Speaking frankly as always, Juliet introduced the next song, Sorry to Say, as having been written when two things happened that significantly affected her life: the Northern Ireland peace process and her father’s stroke. Explaining the analogy, she spoke of the ‘gene as body politic’, how she saw in her father’s illness parts of his body effectively turning against other parts working in his favour, and she excused herself for not being biologically minded so she could explain it no more clearly. Similarly, she said, we are all supposed to work together, and when we turn on each other, the country descends into chaos. She explained that the song dwelt on that and how, when reaching for things outside yourself, you don’t always get what you want.

The song captured the mood of its time perfectly (‘Quiet fears in these darker years so we ask for quiet miracles’), with the haunting chorus referring to the terrible tragedy in Omagh: ‘You can’t tear the system down and you couldn’t save the school children on a Saturday in a small market town.’ The poignant part relating more to her father speaks of someone lost in their memories, to whom ‘I must speak fast before you’re lost to the past and you are lost to me. / I’d say there are monsters beneath your bed but there’s an angel with a hand on your head.’ She sang ‘But you can’t find a music lover’ to a room full of people enthralled by her fine lilting voice and gorgeous acoustic guitar. Despite the quiet murmur of chatting voices encircling the room, Juliet won over a significant number of people who gave her the enormous cheers she deserved at the end of the song.

At that point, Juliet proved she was no shy shrinking violet hiding in the shadows by asking for more light on the stage, which, since the stage was so small and placed her practically amongst us, also lit a fair portion of the audience, which she said she wanted to see better. A man behind me called out rather keenly that the light was better for seeing her beautiful face, which the svelte Juliet took in her stride with a bit of a beam. No doubt to the delight of that man, she began talking about her first kiss ever—the first one ‘with tongue’ when she was a young teenager. Again being brutally frank about her emotions, albeit past ones, she told us how she had floated home after that kiss thinking she now had a boyfriend and life was wonderful, only to be walloped in the face with painful disappointment the next day at school when her would-be boyfriend ignored her completely. She explained that she had learned then that disappointment could lead to self-discovery. Illustrating that thought beautifully, she sang a quick, dark, bitterly spitting song that I believe was new and I hope will be on her forthcoming album. Brian provided backing vocals on the song that was possibly called Safe from Harm (although it has been suggested to me that this song might be called False Alarm)--actually, it was neither.  It does feature on the new album, thankfully, and it is called 1987-- which began with a reference to the aforementioned kiss taking place in 1987 and ended up with the usual all-encompassing Juliet wisdom in the form of ‘it takes an ending to send us on our way.’

The enthusiastic applause at the end of the tune was no surprise, since one punter had found himself unable to hold his cheers and had let out a loud ‘Whooooo!’ during the song, but who could blame him. Juliet seemed to welcome the general response as she told us that she was normally dogged by ‘unluck’ whenever she played London. Luckily, she clearly didn’t hold that against us as she lined us up for the magnificent treat of one of the most beautiful songs kicking about today: Belfast Central. This song was the star of many shows long before it put in an official appearance on her second album. That recording has Juliet’s hero, the perfect Brian Kennedy, singing subtle backing vocals, but the song fortunately suits her solo voice and guitar, as Brian Grace was given an unexpected penalty when he had to step away to change one of his guitar strings, then returned to the stage to play a literally unplugged session as he tuned it close to his ear whilst Juliet continued wowing us with her most gorgeous song. It was unfortunate that those die-hard Dar fans who seemed unwilling to listen to anything other than her were chattering away far too loud for such a delicate number, which even caused a man near me to try furiously to shush the crowd, which ended up making almost as much distracting noise. But again, who can blame him; I felt like doing the same. The song is a majestic depiction of someone like me who is not used to letting go and trusting, but then falls in love and eventually drops her inhibitions. ‘I used to be wary of loving and I thought it would just tie me down. I’d sleep in your house with my boots on, always ready to run.’ In the song, she name-checks another band, and it comes out sounding so poetic: ‘Counting Crows and dark Welsh sunsets’. It is just as well that the couple in the song didn’t share a love of Gorki's Zygotic Mynci.

That well-received song about love led Juliet to speak in her flirtatious manner of how she was always drawn to the strong silent type of man, but that they were often a disappointment as once she scraped the surface of what had wrongly appeared to be a veil of mystery, she would learn that they were silent either because they couldn’t share any emotions or experiences or because there was nothing going on beneath that surface. She sang another new song with a sleek cat-like feel, reminiscent of Peggy Lee’s performance of Fever, which might be called Maybe This Time or Be True. (Actually, it was called The Greatest Show on Earth, the first song on her third album.) Brian Grace played along and provided backing vocals to the moody song about watching someone who turned out to be a ‘master of illusion’ for a long time before learning ‘I didn’t need to waste my time.’ The lighting director assisted with the moodiness by draping Juliet with swirling purple flowers of light. 

Next, Juliet depressed us by announcing her last song, but cheered us up by telling us she would be releasing a new single in October with a new album following in February (hurrah!). She then told us an odd tale of an experience she had when she felt she could almost visualise some music notes floating past her head and into the holes in her ears. As everyone paused, a bit worried about this thing they could not quite relate to, they then burst into relieved laughter as Juliet joined their ranks by saying that it was her first taste of what it must be like to be insane. She had us giggling again as she said that the only remedy for these thoughts of insanity and death was, as anyone Irish would agree, drinking lots and lots of tea with sugar, which she did. I think she might have said the next song was called Everything Beautiful Is Burning, and she and Brian launched into some stunning harmonies in the bright, cheerful and lovely song, which aptly combined hand-clapping fun with sophisticated grace. The lyrics mentioned ghosts and the ‘first sight of the sunlight’, but apart from that, I will have to await her third album before I can re-live the sublime experience.

Sadly, at 9.15pm after playing for just 35 minutes, the charming Juliet and her able guitarist abandoned us. I was surprised that she had not sung many of her old favourites, and particularly that she had omitted the song for which most people in the UK might know her as Terry Wogan apparently played it a fair bit on Radio 2: the mega-poppy, though somewhat uncharacteristic, Take the Money and Run, a delightfully fun song about the performer’s perspective of touring. Actually, that makes me admire her more; she is always true to herself and a fine entertainer regardless of what she plays, and this set list was perfectly fine. Frankly, any setlist that includes Belfast Central can be classified as dazzling, and any set full of the becoming charm and enchanting humour of the darling Juliet Turner is one worthy of acclaim. And to think she was only the first act of three in one night! I think I beat Ticketmaster at its own game at last.

©2003 by TC. All rights reserved.

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