Live : Nick Ellis13 April 2019, St Bride's Church [Liverpool]
In his first speech on arriving back in Dublin after nearly a decade in America, a transatlantic sojourn that ended in Sing Sing prison and deportation, Liverpool Irish Trade Unionist and political activist James Larkin told the huge crowd his return drew that, 'unity, solidarity and charity' were the three things necessary to win enduring liberty and freedom. These attributes were subtly present in the room at the start of the Speakers' Corner tour last October, and intensified for this, its sold-out finale.
The album Ellis has been promoting, a third release in two years, is 'an engrossing, crafted work of contemporary urban folk'. His music majestically fuses folk, blues, Liverpool's pop heritage, the spirit of 60s kitchen sink drama and a healthy dose of Liverpudlian skepticism into streetwise, Gothic hymns.
St Bride's, a slightly scuffed but vibrant church, offered an apt and atmospheric setting for this gig. Through the heavy doors in its impressive facade, three stalls lined the church's foyer: We Shall Overcome (stacked with leaflets and posters from a thriving world of local community and activist groups), the Mersey Socialist Club and Ellis' label, Mellowtone Records. In a corner there were a good number of neatly stacked bags, brought in response to the request for foodbank items. The building is a neoclassical joy; it didn't need much added to frame the performances - the nave and altar were decorated with a string of fairy lights, the points of bright illumination underlining a beautiful, full height Renaissance-style stained glass window behind the makeshift stage.
This was a well thought out event, with four hours of support sets. Marvin Powell, Katie Mac, poet Curtis Watt, community activist Joe Farrag and Roy's spoken word all held the audience effortlessly; time was lost in a blur. The latter's gritty, detailed stories - each fiction with the texture and heft of autobiography - were threaded with dark humour, the magnetic tales of a Scouse Irvine Welsh.
With the cold outside pressing into the building, there was just enough time left for Nick Ellis to play a commanding set.
For an hour Ellis' guitar was metronomic and mesmeric; his clear, plaintive vocals cutting through the rolling turbulence of instrumental sound. The songs have evolved in emphasis since Speakers' Corner was released - Blue Summer seems even more elegiac, Impractical Ideas has been distilled to a hypnotic essence. Older classics were not immune to change - Heartbreak City in particular was fast strummed and re-energised. The set finished with a lamenting A Girl Called Desire and then the blistering harmonica of Lawrence Road Breakdown. A raucous ovation followed, as it should.
Nick Ellis is the real deal - a singer-songwriter ready for the world to take notice, but this was also a celebration of a city's grassroots creativity and politics. James Larkin would have approved of the mood of the evening; the people of Liverpool are stronger together, especially when brought into a room by sublime music, poetry and stories.
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