Belfast's streets used to be war zones. Its population suffered through curfews, car bombs and religious murders. It ushered the word terrorist into the spoken lexicon. But the city has gone fairly quiet these last 10 years. It's beautiful in fact, thriving economically and drawing more tourists than ever. Even so, an aftershock lingers: three decades of havoc inflict deep wounds on a people's spirit, even when the death counts drop and the machine-gun murals are painted over. This story is about a son of Belfast who sings the city's hope tucked inside lament.
I met Charlie on a sunny June night in Belfast. I’d been roaming around, passing the long-light hours before a small, unlisted show by a local-done-good songwriter named Foy Vance, about whom I knew almost nothing. I hadn’t even confirmed the location of his oddly hush-hush concert. I knew he’d performed with The Ulster Orchestra in Belfast a month prior, jamming with the 70-piece company on the river. I knew locals pronounced his name “Five Ants,” but I’d only heard a couple songs. I had a hunch, though, that the guy mattered here. His voice had Solomon Burke’s expressiveness, and his melodies unfolded methodically. I figured this city and that sound could be like the blues.
Plus, I enjoyed the wandering. Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter—blocks of renewed citylife, boutiques and tapas bars and quaint alleys with red flowers in window boxes—felt serene and happy. I strolled along with the contentment of a man whose pockets sagged heavy with quarters. The city invited a long stroll—especially down to the River Lagan, where bygone tallships moored up
for a festival; where sat Belfast’s newly iconic landmark, a school-bus-sized blue fish begging for a tourist’s photo; and where the waterfront amphitheater hosted the orchestra and large events. Belfast seemed a small Seattle.
Around nine, I stopped into a snug pub called The Spaniard. The sun was still stubbornly hanging on, dropping its dullest cloudy light over the city. Charlie sat with three friends—Jim, Mary and Peter—by the windows up front, and within ten minutes the sixtysomethings pulled me up a chair to join them and bought me another pint. The pub hardly looked Irish: Record covers and vinyl EPs and LPs were stapled to the ceiling and walls. A lone goldfish swam in a bowl on the bar. Wax spilled out of empty wine bottles. And odd things hung from the ceiling, like a bright-blue satin leg. Hello Dali.
Charlie looked like a seafarer, though his friend Jim told me he was a former BBC reporter and editor with 20 years on the crime beat. His hair—wily, white and boyishly unkempt—sprang from his scalp. His clothes looked faded and worn, the bachelor-on-a-budget sort. And his face had wrinkle, blotch and rosiness in a handsome way. Most of his writing days behind him, Charlie ran a nonprofit now, restoring old ships and boatyards, things having to do with the city’s era of vast ship-building and the Titanic. Jim was involved, too. A skilled painter and watercolorist, Jim’s thematic base was the old shipyards and the men who worked for Harland and Wolff.
“You should come see his prints,” Charlie said repeatedly. “Come down to the Lagan. He’s really captured the way it was.” Charlie’s pride in Jim was apparent.
“I can’t even draw a horse,” I said.
“Horses are very difficult,” Jim said, sitting up, wine-stained lips and teeth flashing as he spoke. Then he took out a pen and grabbed two napkins and began to draw. Charlie watched closely.
“One of his paintings shows the Titanic about to leave with a man smoking a cigarette in the foreground,” Charlie said. “They’re just beautiful.”
I studied Charlie’s words, the way they came out, so crisp, almost metallic, founded and solid. Everything that he said seemed crucial. He had the trademark melodic lilt, but his words also held a sound both bitter and energetic. Charlie made you listen. And he was not short on things to say about his home.
“This is a bent country,” he told me as Jim finished the sketch. “There’s a walking wounded here.”
“Ah, there you go,” Jim said, handing me the drawn horse, mid-stride and fluid. He looked up, very pleased to give the small token.
“Now, you remember that,” Charlie said to me, “That’s very, very special.”
Foy Vance is one of the whitest people I’ve ever seen. Even on an island full of white people, he’s really white. Jack White white, except shiny bald. And he digs hats—driving hats, newsboy hats, felt snap-brims. But when you hear him sing, especially in-person, you swear this white-boy Irishman belongs on some heart-pine front porch in the Delta. There’s a blues sound lingering around the edge of most of his songs, and a folky spirituality runs through him.
“The first music I remember was American Gospel,” Vance tells me the next morning over tea in an empty café ten miles outside of Belfast. He speaks softly in a voice that has yet to fully awake. Though he grew up in Bangor, Northern Ireland, a sea town just east of Belfast in County Down, Vance spent chunks of his childhood in the American South. Up ’til the age of seven, he journeyed with his preacher father throughout Oklahoma, Louisiana and Alabama. “When we would go on trips, Dad would teach at the black churches—this when some towns had signs saying, ‘No blacks after dark.’ I remember their music was just infectious, so sensory. A line-and-response thing, the whole congregation of Amens.”
Vance’s spirituality swoops in and out of his 2007 release, Hope—15 songs recorded in a Mourne Mountain cottage. Just he and piano player Jules Maxwell. The album springs from and back to the songwriter’s sense of humanity and faith, a lightness of being found in Vance’s story-driven lyrics. In “Gabriel and the Vagabond” and “Indiscriminate Act of Kindness,” the down-and-out meet angelic benefactors who offer provision and wisdom in whispers.
“My father was a man of huge generosity,” Vance says. “Someone on the street might say they liked his tie, and he’d take it off and give it to them.” His father, who left the Church when Foy was still a kid, seems to have existed outside the strictures of Ireland’s Catholic-Protestant divide. He loved the pub and loved the people, Vance remembers. “He was more real than his religion allowed him to be. There’s something of him in everything I do. He was an eternally hopeful character. It wasn’t until the day he died that I really started writing songs.”
It’s after 10 o’clock at night. An eerily pale light still hangs outside. The grounds behind the Kings Hall auditorium throb with Irish teens, hundreds of them, all angsty and caffeinated. Camping tents dot a nearby field. The kids scurry around what seems like a carnival, a large open shelter with hacky-sackers and a dance-off, and two other tented spaces. Pretty quickly, I realize the mass gathering is of some Christian sort. “Summer Madness,” according to the kids’ T-shirts. There’s a prayer room, kids going in and out with intense looks on their faces.
I eventually find a line wrapping around a building called “The Cavern” and some kid tells me everyone’s waiting to see Foy. I decide to stick around out of curiosity. Upon entering the room, I grab floor space against the wall. Kids are humming, they’re packed in. This show is a really big deal to them.
Vance walks on stage wearing a tweed golfer’s hat and a black shirt that reads “CONSPIRATOR.” There’s no stage chit-chat to warm up the crowd. He launches into the first song, “Shed a Little Light,” bending guitar licks and groaning the intro. His lyrics personify Love as a guide: “Love walked right up to my face / She said you can only love what you’d die for babe / Shed a little light so I can find you / Don’t let darkness hide you from my face.”
Here is a 33-year-old man who knows the lament. His uncle was murdered; his brother beaten to a desperate state after walking down the wrong road. The glass from a Main Street bomb rained down on his back when he was the same age as tonight’s mostly teenage audience. Vance straddles a blurry line of psyche demarcation in Northern Ireland—on one side, those, like Charlie, who lived through the horror of the Troubles and still have a sluggish look in their eyes; the other, the younger kids who grew up during the aftermath, in the new Belfast, the blue-fish Belfast. Vance’s place in it all seems to allow some perspective, and his songs deliver a message different than swallowed hostility and unspoken history. He’s singing about how to find real peace.
“There is something about his music,” Jules Maxwell, Vance’s close friend and the pianist who played on Hope, informs me via email from London months later. “Something mysterious and passionate, dripping with a religion I don’t understand. Sometimes you don’t need to understand to feel.”
Even for a room of gathered religious folk, Vance’s singing emerges tonight differently than you might expect. His sound comes out big. It has faith wound up inside it, but in a more potent, less predictable way. You can sense a deep well of spirituality, but it stubbornly resists bottling, specificity or sappy, heart-tugging manipulation. It is, in a real sense, spiritual, like Bruce Springsteen’s “My City of Ruins.” And it immediately stills the crowd’s restlessness, quieting 400 teenagers, even knocking on my own fickle theology.
Vance tightens his mouth at times, singing out the right side. His neck flexes like it might burst, and his torso bends forward when stretching out a line, the headstock of his Lowden acoustic punching the dark. In this particular room, his music comes across like an old-time prophecy, very allegorical—at least to a foreigner uninvolved with the history of the city—and laced with subtle calls to forgiveness, healing, brotherhood, sorrow, homesickness, and a mystic’s belief in a heightened order of things. More simply, hope.
I leave the two-hour show to find a deserted Lisburn Road and a two-mile walk to the Europa Hotel. It’s pleasantly cold and about to rain.
Vance sings, “I was always taught if you see someone defiled / You should look them in the eye and smile / And take their hand, or, better still / Take them home,” in “Indiscriminate Act of Kindness.” And it was during a performamce of this song at a massive, free-to-the-public Ulster Orchestra collaboration last year at Waterfront Hall that he says his life as a songwriter hit a new crescendo.
“Do you surf?” Vance asks me, when we speak nearly a year after the King’s Hall evening. He’s calling from his flat in London, where he moved in 2006 to create more opportunities for his music. “Where you live, do you ever surf?” he asks again. I say yes, I have a few times. “It was frightening, playing for 2,500 people with a 70-piece orchestra,” he continues. “You know when you go beyond a break and you sense the danger in being out there? And you aren’t sure how to get back to shore? Playing with the orchestra was like that. It felt oceanic.”
A clip on YouTube [http://tinyurl.com/27qwvp] brought me closer to understanding the night and its reverberations across the city. Foy is inside. He’s standing in a fine concert hall, at the center of a polished wood stage, holding a guitar, wearing the same tweed hat. Joanne, his wife, stands to his right singing backup. Foy turns and makes eye contact with the conductor. The company of classical players waits—men and women of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion—all sitting very still.
“She came in from the cold wet,” he sings. The crowd erupts in cheers. “Dropped her luggage bags, looked the concierge in the eye.” It’s a simple, tender song about a girl—broke, prodigal and ruined—meeting a kind hotel manager who offers her shelter.
Vance’s songs all bear in them something of both the hurt and the healed. Ten years ago, the young songwriter gigged around Belfast, refining his craft, making little headway but getting to know more and more about the walking wounded in his hometown. He learned how to weave both sorrow and joy into his music. He found for himself the hope inherent in a city beginning to rise again. Watching and hearing this performance, even a year later on my computer screen, I sensed how huge the show really was. And I thought immediately of Charlie.
I thought of Charlie down by the River Lagan in the mid morning. Smoking his Benson & Hedges. Telling me his litany of grave stories. Face dried up, hair a mess, his eyes gazing off. Him trying to give me the shipyard paintings like Jim gave me the horse sketch. And him mashing out a cigarette under heel before climbing back down into the old boat, wishing me well.
In my mind, the rain-soaked girl Vance sings about with that orchestra could be any of a hundred-thousand citizens of old Belfast, and the man was God and he hadn’t deserted them.