In many respects it’s tempting to look upon tonight as an excuse to put on a gig somewhere slightly off the beaten track. After all, how many times can one sit in the same dingy bars, watching the same faces go through the same motions? The top floor of the Oh Yeah Building is virgin territory for live performances, and it’s somehow fitting that the first to perform here should be the acoustic folk singer Robyn G Shiels.
With a growing songbook and an increasingly devoted fanbase, it's the perfect setting to showcase the Belfast man’s abilities. This intimate candlelit corner of the room is his church, and we have all come to hear his melodic sermon.
Building Pictures have the unenviable task of getting the audience warmed up on this chilly November night. With his beautiful voice and cleverly constructed songs, Building Pictures (otherwise known as John Gribben) is easily able to draw us into his world, chronicling the minutiae that makes up the most vital part of our lives.
Gribben’s songs come directly from the heart, plain spoken and direct, and charm their way into the affections of the listener. As with everything about the man, it’s a quietly understated performance, but he can’t help but win people over. It’s all a bit 'circle of life' at times, but he inspires nonetheless.
In a way, Gribben’s polite charm is the polar opposite of Shiels’ belligerent genius, but the two are well matched. Whilst Gribben beguiles his audience, leading them discreetly into his songcraft, there’s a part of Shiels that knows he is good: all this time he's been standing around waiting for the rest of us to catch up. And yet, if there was such a thing as ‘bruised confidence’ Shiels would embody it, his assured songwriting in contrast to the fragile emotions lurking within.
After hearing songs like 'An offering of Sorts' and 'I'd Go to Funerals' - mesmeric and uplifting -, it's obvious that Shiels is that fabled discovery one hears talked about in hushed tones: The Real Deal. He handles this burden with quiet dignity, however, offering up a selection of songs derived his two albums and his new EP, The Great Depression.
Haunting, romantic, and bittersweet, Shiels’ songs speak of a lifetime of disappointment, that sensation of waiting for the true purpose of life to reveal itself, and hanging on in hope that it’s not all been in vain. Ably accompanied by Ben McAuley on drums, Ellen Turley on additional vocals, and Claire Hutchinson on piano and accordion, Shiels and band deliver a masterclass in hushed dynamics, songs that whisper rather than scream, but drive their point home like a nail through the hand.
Shiels' talent is undeniable, and with this expertly chosen set it feels like we’ve just witnessed a retrospective showcase of what he can do, a subtle 'goodbye' before he embarks upon something new. Maybe this latest EP will elevate him to the Big League, to which he certainly belongs. Maybe not. Either way, you can tell Shiels is reaching a peak, ready to move on to bigger and better things. On the strength of this evening’s performance, his congregation are ready to move with him.