Holding Back the River

Iain Archer does not disappoint and the 200-people packed into Fitzroy Church for the opening night of the festival, were treated to an intimate night of wonder. As Archer sang himself later in the show – “I want to make you feel beautiful,” and by the end of the night we all did. The evening began with conversation as Steve Stockman walked through thoughts on song writing, a sense of place and the inspiration behind some of his catalogue. We learned about growing up in Bangor, the wonder of Holywood Seapark and how an 8-year-old child was afraid of the Black Mountain quarry on the other side of the lough. “When it kicks in,” is a song on Archer’s Magnetic North album and he described how the first part is a memory of being caught up in a bomb explosion in the early 90’s while playing at a record store in Belfast city centre. Fast forward to 2005, now living in London and Northern Ireland had beaten England and he was walking around feeling such pride in the homeland which was suddenly shattered as news came through of some of the worst sectarian violence and rioting in years on the streets of Belfast. The yearning to move beyond that runs through the song culminating in …”when it kicks in, you’ll know it/ a truth drug is gonna open your weeping eyes.”

The concert itself was a mixture of nostalgia and some new songs. For a brief moment, I was taken back to my post student day 20 years ago when Archer’s first album with the eponymous single “Wishing” was a regular on the soundtrack of my life. Unusually he started with a track from that album – “Drink your Fill,” written when he moved to Glasgow and wrestles with what it’s like to be “a new stranger in this part of town.” At a time when immigrants, refugees and anyone who plays the role of the other are under attack from governments on both sides of the Atlantic it felt like a timely tune. Archer described how his children are at the stage of asking questions about everything which he now answers metaphorically, because that’s easier. That was the context to his new track “The Square Root of Love,” which again felt apt for a festival of reconciliation. And there was even time for a few requests including crowd favourite, “Crazy Bird.”

The energy was upped as electric replaced acoustic guitars reaching the high point when Nathan Connolly from Snow Patrol joined him onstage and literally rocked the old church. Bringing it back down again there was some acoustic numbers from Tired Pony – a band made up of members of Snow Patrol, REM and Archer – he grinned describing himself as the luckiest band member in the world. After the obligatory encore the venue suddenly became a church as he led the audience into that grey are between performance and worship, walking off stage to 200 people singing softly in the sanctuary. It would have been the perfect ending but the crowd wanted more and so Steve Stockman dragged him back for one more number. Mirrorball Moon from the album was the last song – a whimsical song about a disco glitterball clinging to a cold black ceiling in a lonely old dance hall. He urges the Mirrorball to find a better place “on the other side of town/ where they help each other out.” A fitting end to the opening night of 4 Corners as we head out across the city and help each other out.