Northern Ireland native Ciaran Lavery has just released his soon to be iconic live album ‘Live at the Mac’. Recorded December of last year, the album dropped ahead of Lavery finishing a short UK tour, which saw him revisit The Mac 2 years in a row. We don’t usually cover live albums, but since Ciaran only lives up the road from myself, we at TGTF decided we’d make an exception.
Lavery sprung to success after both his debut EP ‘Kosher’ and debut album ‘Not Nearly Dark’ were released in 2014. Two tracks in particular, ‘Left For America’ off the EP and ‘Shame’ from the LP could pinpoint Lavery’s seemingly instant success after racking up an impressive 29 million listens on Spotify, as well as producing many cover versions across the globe. Since then, he hasn’t stopped, as he states himself on his Web site bio, “I have a ridiculous fear of what might happen if I stop moving. I have to keep going”.
‘Live at the Mac’ is Lavery in his purest form. He not only reprises the classic tale of a man and his guitar. But he presents himself in an honest and transparent sonic picture, through the fragile tone of his voice against the-bare boned accompaniment of his own guitar and a string trio. Somewhat reminiscent of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Live in Sin-é’, on this new album Lavery gathers together a collection of his most notable songs and presents them in the most captivating and moving setting.
The album begins with a short string intro that sways like the wind, as it implies the theme of his first track. Lavery subtly strengthens the string harmony with a light twinkle around the hinted chord progression, before bursting into ‘Awful Love’. A heavily emotional song is definitely the best way to open his set and thus begin the album. And with the added texture of Lavery’s light yet husky voice against the strong constant backbeat he creates with the heavy ghost note as he downstrokes the chords, there is an added element of urgency that gives the song momentum. Having such a stripped-back ensemble, the musical devices and harmonic expression has a lot more impact. You can tell this isn’t a problem for the group, especially within the second verse of ‘Awful Love’, which raises the level of intensity that bit further when the strings switch from the supporting role to a more forward approach with a strong staccato pulse.
Lavery moves from strength to strength, continuing the strong emotions with his highly acclaimed track ‘Left For America’. The thing about it in the live setting is that the strings seem to shed a new light on Lavery’s intentions with the song, their harmonic effects bringing new colour to the track. What seems like a song about change, with an undercurrent of travelling, now reveals the ups and downs within a family relationship. Without the drum groove from the studio version, it allows for the listener – the audience in this case – to completely immerse themselves in Lavery’s heartfelt and seemingly regretful lyrics. What helps to drive the message home, specifically in the chorus, is the juxtaposition of Lavery’s major key-based vocal melody against the delicate counter melody of the strings. Together they imply a sense of desperation similar to the bonds of a family when tested to extremes.
Among the 12 tracks on the album, 3 are covers, one of which is a Christmas song appropriate for this of year. The other two are Bruce Springsteen’s layman’s anthem ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ and Joy Division’s 1980 chart topper ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Lavery and his incredible string section beautifully represent both by portraying them in a far more desperate manner. It seems Lavery has dissected the lyrics of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, found the true message within and felt it worthy to portray it in such a way. The constant pedal drone in the higher register of the strings and the tremolo bowing technique at the end of the track act more like a sound design device than simply a musical addition to the track. The overall effect provokes a sense of unease and assists in driving the true message of the lyrics home.
Throughout the whole album, and considering the very small collection of musicians recorded on stage, the emotional highs and lows implemented are incredible. The gracious string work accompanying Lavery’s visceral vocal tone is stunning. And with the added texture of the clean acoustic guitar equipped with slack and bright-sounding strings, this ensemble is near perfect performing his amazing works.
Ciaran Lavery’s ‘Live at the Mac’ is out now on Believe Recordings. To read more about Lavery, including an interview at SXSW 2016 and coverage of his performances in Austin, go here. At the time of this writing, he is scheduled to be perform at SXSW 2017.