Ards International Guitar Festival 2018 | The 4 Of Us – Lifetime Achievement Award

Live Review: GIGGING NI

Two years ago, The 4 Of Us performed on a tiny stage at the back of the Ivy Bar as part of the Ards Guitar Festival and it was, to say the least, a lively affair. Tonight they are on the Queens Hall stage, the main venue for the festival and are playing to a packed house.

First up are Orlaith and Mollie, two local teenage Youtube sensations who bring a lot of hair, smiles, and crushed velvet flares to proceedings. They play with guitar, bass (swapping instruments more than once) and drum machine and they give a performance that is full of an incredible amount of youthful energy. Maybe a little bit nervous at the beginning, they play mainly covers of classic rock songs (Walk This Way, Paranoid, Whole Lotta Love) and more middle-of-the road fare (Rhiannon and Teenage Kicks).

They also perform a number of tracks from their current EP Chains, and it is on these tracks that they shine; their own songs seem to fit their style so much better than covers. “Twisted” is a nice slice of power pop and “Wilderness” is full of big power chords and driving bass. One to watch I think, particularly if they start filling up their set with more original material.

Brendan and Declan Murphy take the stage and Brendan very quickly starts his trademark banter with the audience, noting that the band rarely risk mid-week gigs at this stage in their career.

They open with three songs from last year’s Sugar Island, an autobiographical album centred on family life and growing up in and around Newry in the 70’s and 80’s. Sugar Island is one of their best albums to date and “Bird’s Eye View” and “Home Town on the Border” are great openers, giving Declan plenty of opportunity to warm up his percussive and energetic guitar style.

Brendan introduces the title track from the album with stories of the nightmare that was (and maybe still is) single sex catholic schools in Newry. The track “Sugar Island” for my money is one of the best pop songs written in Ireland in the last 10 years, referencing teenage relationships and break-ups, and the title, as Brendan points out, has a little more poetry to it that Newry’s other teen hook-up spot, Friar Tuck’s Chippie.

Brendan’s vocals are sweet and soulful and Declan hits perfect harmonics on guitar.

Next up was the tale of how the band broke the British charts in 1993 via almost appearing on Top of the Pops, and travelled to London to promote their music. This leads into “She Hits Me” from the 1992 album Man Alive. Another great pop song that really deserved to do better at the time, but as Brendan pointed out – it has lasted longer than Simon Bates’s radio 1 career.

A bit more joking from Brendan about Declan’s tendency to get funky leads into “Sensual Thing” and Brendan stands clear to let Declan get on with a fine spot of 70’s funk. Declan throws everything into this – one foot working the wah-wah and the other thumping out a bass on his home-made stomp box.

“Maybe It’s You” and “Good Bad News” are in there too before Brendan takes a break to explain that the next tune is played in Drop D tuning, noting “this is a guitar festival after all.” Easier said than done, as it takes some time for the two guitars to get tuned, but really this is just an excuse for Brendan to slip in a few more jokes before we finally get to hear “Going South”.

 

This song has real resonance for anyone who travelled across the border when that involved queuing up to pass through the security check-point just outside Newry. In Brendan and Declan’s case (and mine too) it was for the purposes of holidays in “Ireland’s own Disneyland” at Butlins Mosney. I can attest that Brendan is totally accurate when he described Mosney as having the coldest outdoor swimming pool in Ireland, if not the world.

Declan gets a turn on vocals with “Working in a Coal Mine” after a lengthy, elaborate, and more than likely untrue account by Brendan, of the psychological trauma suffered by Declan at one point which explains why he doesn’t sing more. Somewhere in here he slips into “Lime in the Coconut“. Declan gets to play some more funky 80’s-style guitar on “Drag My Bad Name Down” and then we get “Mary”, much to the delight of the audience.

There’s not much more you can say about “Mary” when the lads play it live, and it’s a sure fire excuse to get the crowd up on their feet and singing along.

Before the encore, Anthony Toner steps back on stage to thank Brendan and Declan and surprise them with the Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of their work with the guitar.

The award itself is an Andrew Cooke original featuring twin guitars, one left-handed, one right handed and is presented by festival director Emily Crawford. As Brendan is quick to point out, awards like this either mean you’re dead or have only a few years left in your career.

The lyrical, poetic and 60’s folk influenced “Washington Down” is their first encore and it’s hard to believe that this was written back in 1989, appearing on their first studio album Songs for the Tempted. We need a big number to end the evening and we get it in a rollicking cover of James Taylor’s “Traffic Jam”.

As always, The 4 Of Us never disappoint live and I suspect that they could engage even the toughest audience and leave them feeling that they have had a great night. It was fitting to see them receive the Lifetime Achieve Award and I’m hoping that they have more than a few years left in them, mainly due to the fact that Sugar Island is one of the best albums yet, in a long and illustrious career.

More than an hour before stage time, Warrenpoint’s Skylite Room was already packed to the rafters. The 10ft tall poster outside heralded the coming of Newry’s finest, The 4 Of Us.  An excited buzz skittered around the capacity crowd and when they took to the stage just after 10pm, for once the band’s name actually made sense as Brendan and Declan Murphy, John McCandless and Peter McKinney made an all too rare appearance in the full band line-up.

The kick off, Sunlight, was a welcome diversion from the dreary, sleety night outside.  Peter McKinney left us in no doubt as to why he is the “go to” drummer for so many Northern Irish musicians. He’s spectacular. Bass player John McCandless too is exciting to watch, he just oozes cool.

Their UK top 30 hit She Hits Me was next and it sounds astonishingly good with the full band. This was a high octane show and it was clear there’d be no interval tonight – the audience would never have let them leave the stage.  Fresh from a show in London the night before, Brendan’s performance was not short on energy and the buoyant Just A Drop was really entertaining.

Songs from the most recent album Sugar Island were interspersed with old favourites such as Gospel Choir and Maybe It’s You.  Being as we were just down the road from their home town, this was an audience full of friends and fellow Newryites and so the Sugar Island songs which were inspired by growing up in the town were received particularly well – none more so than the title track. Fans will know the story of the “bridge of sorrows” in the town’s centre and its reputation as a break-up spot for young lovers. Tonight though the tale had particular significance given that the young couple who’d inspired it were in the audience. Hilariously dedicating the song to Louise and Martin, Brendan told us that they were each there with their respective spouses.

The joyous Boomtown was a treat for fans. This little trinket from the Man Alive album rarely gets an airing since it’s not on the setlist when Brendan and Declan perform as a two piece.  Then came the funkiest version of Sensual Thing showcasing Declan’s extraordinary guitar skill and with both Murphy brothers demonstrating their best moves.  This song is always a winner but tonight it was especially clear just how much the band enjoy performing it.  Sustaining the funky vibe, they followed up with Little Things.

During the live shows, You Make Me Feel gives Brendan an opportunity to wander off into spontaneous improvised lyrics about the venue and the audience.  Tonight’s epilogue was strewn with local references, name-checking local venues they’d frequented in their youth and lamenting the difficulty of getting a taxi to take them home to Newry after a Saturday night out in “the Point”.  The nostalgia continued when they revisited their debut album Songs for the Tempted, playing Jolene and One Strong Hammer.

Then came that point in the evening many fans look forward to – Declan’s turn to sing! A slick mash-up of Working in the Coalmine and Coconut gave the audience what they wanted.  It’d be nice to hear Lightning Paul one of these days, but as usual Declan’s performance went down a storm.

The perennial Drag My Bad Name Down threatened to lift the roof right off the Skylite Room. Everyone in the room was on their feet for this one, which sounds as exhilarant today as it did in the early ’90s when it used to bang out of speakers every Saturday night in every nightclub across Northern Ireland.   Of course they ended with Mary, before the encore comprised of two gems, Washington Down and James Taylor’s Traffic Jam.

Having seen The 4 of Us in Whelan’s a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t have expected that a gig in a fledgling venue like the Skylite Room could have matched that show in one of Ireland’s premier music spots. In fact, it surpassed it. The appreciative audience, the fun the boys themselves were clearly having, the electric atmosphere all made for one of the best nights of live music I can remember.

 

THE 4 OF US love the independence they have carved out amid widespread changes in the music industry. Not bad for a couple of brothers from Newry celebrating 30 years in the business, writes Lauren Murphy

Many times over the last thirty years Brendan Murphy has thought about changing the name of his band. “But then I think it’d be disingenuous,” says The 4 Of Us frontman after picking me up at Dundalk train station. “It never made sense on any number of levels. We play with other people sometimes but, really, The 4 Of Us have always been me and Declan. But luckily for us,” he says, fiddling with the sat nav and raising his impressive eyebrows, “music is full of band names that don’t make any sense. Sure, it’s all part of the charm.”

Declan, Murphy’s younger brother, has been up late working in the studio, _ head to a nearby hotel without him. We’re not far from Brendan’s home in Carlingford or from Newry, where the brothers grew up and which heavily informed their most recent album, Sugar Island. The stripped back, largely acoustic 2016 collection won some of the best reviews of their career. The album touched on growing up in the Troubles, but was not defined by it.

“The great thing about making that record was that it allowed me and Declan to revisit our past and tell a story I hadn’t really heard: of people trying to live normal lives. And writing through the eyes of a kid lets you off the hook – which suited me,” he laughs. “I remember listening to a lot of songs written about the north while I was growing up and being really defensive, saying, ‘That’s not my experience of it,’ because we had a happy childhood.”

Music was an escape for Murphy, who was careful not to sidestep reality when writing the album. Several tracks, such as Going South, detail the family’s annual escape from Newry during the week of, the Twelfth of July, while Hometown on the Border mentions “soldiers walking the fields, tapping their heels right up to your door.”

“You’re walking a bit of a knife edge, because there was so much tragedy you don’t want to brush over,” he says. “It’s a bit of a minefield, that whole period. But the more specific you are, the more chance of actually saying something that might resonate with someone. It was a bit of a wake-up call for me, because I thought the more personally I’m writing, the more rewarding the experience is.”

Speaking on the phone layer, Declan reveals that making the record served another purpose. “I got closer to Brendan through that album,” he says. “I knew it was powerful because it was bringing up strong emotions for both of us. When you work closely with your brother, it’s strange after 30 years to get such a connection that feels completely fresh – but that’s what it’s done. It’s sort of filled the tank, in a funny way.”

It’s exactly 30 years since the brothers formed The 4 Of Us, winning praise for their 1989 debut, Songs for the Tempted and its 1992 follow-up, Man Alive. With hits such as Mary and She Hits Me, it seemed the band were on the brink of something big, until their momentum sputtered and they parted ways with their label, CBS Records. Their third album, Amplifier, remained unreleased until 2011.

Declan claims it was the right time for them to become independent artists. Every album since 1999’s Classified Personal has been released on their own Future Inc label. “In retrospect it’s the best thing that ever happened to us. Even at the time I thought it was great, because we’re sort of control freaks,” he says. “If we veered into the ditch along the way, that was to be expected – but ultimately we held the wheel. We couldn’t get where we wanted to get without being in control.”

The duo still play songs from that era live, of course, including Mary. Brendan smiles when I ask how his feelings towards their trademark song have changed over the years. “Is it the best melody we’ve ever written? Yeah probably,” he muses. “Do I think it’s the catchiest lyric I’ve ever written? Yeah probably. Do I think it’s the best lyric I’ve ever written? No. But I’m proud of the fact it’s a story song, talks about domestic violence and has grit, even if it doesn’t sound like it.

I still like the video – the hairstyle and outfit weren’t too bad – so when I see it coming on, I don’t go, ‘Oh Jesus'” he says, laughing. “So I don’t have a problem with the song. Would I like another (hit)? Absolutely. But I know I’m not 25, and my audience aren’t in their teens, so it’s harder. I’m not making music for those people any more. And, you know what? I don’t have to, because I have enough of an audience that we can do what we want.

“I’m not flying on a private jet to each show, but the freedom to follow your own muse and do it your own way can’t be underestimated. Everything that’s happened with technology empowers people like me.”

It is surprising to hear a stalwart extol the technological overhaul that the industry has experienced. Murphy insists the changes have played to The 4 Of Us’s strengths, from being able to shoot music videos to getting their music directly to their audience. “For us it has removed the gatekeepers. I remember what it was like trying to get physical albums into shops as an independent band. It was tough, because you were competing against the leverage of a major record company. But now? Do something remarkable. Write a song, shoot a video and make it bloody good enough that people will pay attention. And if they don’t? Well maybe it isn’t good enough.

“The price of everything has dropped. I think the power is back in the hands of the creator, so for us it’s great. It gives someone like us a shot.”

With work on the follow-up to Sugar Island tentatively under way, it sounds as though another 30 years in the game would be a breeze. “Oh yeah,” he agrees with a chuckle. “I mean, failing some sort of tragic accident – in which case our sales will skyrocket, as long as it’s an exciting enough tragedy.”

For a moment he becomes more serious. “We don’t expect plain sailing and that’s part of what we love about it. To some people it’s an uncertain lifestyle, but my attitude is, ‘Well what’s the problem with that?’ When it all boils down to it, all I want to do is sit in a room, write songs, record songs and then get up and perform them in front of people. To me that is just a gift. Part of me still can’t believe that Declan and I have been able to pull off not having to do anything else. It hasn’t been easy all the time, but I think we’ve made maybe our best record, and I think we’re getting better.

“And to me, the music business is still really simple. It’s three things. How good is the song? How good is the show? And how good are you at getting the word out?It’s costing less and less money to get your stuff out there – and yes, there’s more competition, but that’s just tough. So just get better, or get out of the game.”

The juggernaut that is the ‘Out To Lunch’ festival 2018 rolled into the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast for the 13th time and the opening weekend gave us a wealth of talent including this interestingly timed gig with Newry stalwarts “The 4 of Us”.

It was in fact “The 2 of Us” today as brothers Brendan and Declan Murphy took the stage at around 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, noted early in the proceedings by Brendan, to deliver an acoustic masterclass which brought 30 years of music to a full house at the Black Box.

Opening the show with songs from their latest release Sugar Islandthe album told stories of the brothers lives growing up in Newry during the 70’s. “Birds Eye View” gave us an overview of the town, long before it became a city, a story of brotherly love and ultimately how they choose to believe that music saved them. Or as Brendan said “maybe it didn’t”.

“Hometown on the Border” is closely followed by “Sugar Island”, a song about the perils of finding love as a teenager in Newry and whether you could dump your girlfriend in time to catch the last bus home from the beauty spot known as Sugar Island, slap bang in the middle of the town.

Declan has a bent over intense style while Brendan comes across a little more relaxed. They seem very different in character but the two piece version of the band works perfectly with meticulous guitar playing and a backbeat provided by Declan stomping his left foot on what appears to be just a towel but obviously there is a little bit more to this illusion.

“She Hits Me” takes us back to 1993 and making the UK Top 30, albeit temporarily, and the story ends with a simple question. “Where is Simon Bates in 2018?”. The sound is tight and oozes feeling, with the stripped down version having the same depth of feeling as the original but with a little added Wah Wah on the acoustic guitar from Declan. “Sensual Thing” gives the younger brother Declan a chance to funk it up and he funks up the song to within an inch of its life. These guys love playing together.  It is an intense listening crowd and this fact shows the respect the The 4 Of Us have gained as one of the top Irish bands over the last 30 years. They appreciate the music and it is not difficult to know why.

“Maybe It’s You” talks about the a bigger city bringing a greater loneliness. Brendan talks about writing three and a half minute songs, which wrap up all your feelings and emotions, that people will listen to. Try and talk to them about the same thing and they will switch off after about ten seconds. This is a band that appreciate the essence of engagement with their audience and are genuinely down to earth.

It’s an afternoon of music but also tales of their youth, Brexit, Butlins Mossney and travelling across the border in July. Not for the faint hearted. Half Time comes and goes and the band returns with a song called “Just A Drop”, a song they wrote to sound like Johnny Cash for their father who was a big Johnny Cash fan. “Sounds nothing like Johnny Cash” was their fathers retort! Declan then takes centre stage, an infrequent occurrence and delivers a mash up of Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coalmine” and Harry Neilson’s “Coconut”. Declan looks like he enjoyed it and laughter fills the room as Brendan quips “The 1 of Us”.

The audience get their chance to participate in the show through “Drag my Bad Name Down”, accompanied by Declan’s seriously heavy stomping backbeat and quickly followed by what could be easily described as their greatest ever song “Mary”. You wonder sometimes do they ever get tired of playing the song but judging by the level of involvement from the sell out crowd no one has got tired of hearing it.

That would appear a fitting finale for a perfect Saturday afternoon out but no, they come back for more.

They play a fantastically intense arrangement of “Washington Down” taken from their debut album Songs For The Tempted, and its hard to know if the band realise or appreciate the fact this would not look remotely out of place on a Counting Crows album. But still the tunes keep on coming. A request for “Blackbird” by The Beatles, and the final song, “Traffic Jam” gives us only Declan on guitar, with that left leg working overtime on the backbeat and Brendan taking his tambourine on a lap of the room to finish what was an amazing acoustic “The 2 of Us” show.

THE 4 OF US | Sugar Island

Brothers Brendan and Declan Murphy have been fronting this band since the 80s. This latest sees the band pared back to just the brothers and their acoustic guitars – the original ‘four of us’. The simple, stark arrangements (“We decided no electric guitars and no cymbals,” said Brendan) give a haunting background to tales of growing up in Newry, Co. Down, a town on the border and on edge during The Troubles. Bird’s Eye View, Hometown On The Border and Going South perfectly capture the dark times.

Dave Esson