The venue for this evening’s long-awaited return to Belfast by Pat McManus – it has been almost exactly a year since ‘The Professor’ last graced a stage here – is the basement of a pub situated in Belfast’s oldest known building, McHugh’s Bar. Built back in the 17th century it, like most of the structures around, located on what was once the banks of the River Farset, from which the city takes its name, and therefore it is rare for it to have an underground level.
Just as this time last year, McManus is headlining the Belfast City Blues Festival – albeit in a much a smaller venue: this is no reflection on his own personal popularity – far from, as people are queued halfway up the stairs within moments of the gate opening – but the man’s continued desire and love of playing up close and intimate to his fans, most of whom, especially this evening, he regards as personal friends. Having kicked things off in typically cheeky style with ‘Let’s Put The S Before The X, Pat gets things off to an almost laconic start, with the sprawling, almost funky ‘Shame’ and the retrospective ‘Lazy Days Crazy Nights, before acknowledging the environment for this evening’s with a rarely aired and beautiful ‘Belfast City Blues’ – a song as poignant as when it was first released some three decades ago.
Up until a few years ago, Pat was reluctant to play all but the occasional Mama’s Boys song, but his “hometown” gigs are always something a bit special, and his back catalogue now features prominently in his set, with the feisty ‘Gentlemen Rogues’ raising the intensity level by slightly more than the bar raises its prices as the night progresses, and the typically rowdy ‘Straight Forward’. There is a slight glitch when the sound mix fails for the fiddle solo on ‘Runaway Dreams’, forcing The Professor to improvise a guitar solo and cut the song short. However, his Norn Iron humour is never far from the surface he recalls, during the intro to ‘Return Of The G Man’, how, during the recording of his first album he asked his late father if he could sing: the response of “no, you can’t” was all the encouragement McManus jnr needed to get on with the job in hand!
Following a haunting, beautiful instrumental interlude of the sort that brings even the most hardened of hacks close to tears, McManus unveils two new songs, ‘Smoke And Whiskey’, a typically Celtic-infused rocker with a cheeky edge, and the laconically easy ‘Stepping Stone, before bringing the main body of the set to a close with two more tunes which are always highlights of this or any other Pat McManus gig – the enormous jig of ‘Belfast Boy’, filled with affectionate references to the late, great Gary Moore, and the utterly timeless ‘Needle In The Groove’.
Of course, he doesn’t get off that easy, with the sweat-soaked crowd threatening to raise the building above with their cries for more – and they are more than rewarded as, having paid his own tribute to legend that is Rory Gallagher earlier in the set, McManus returns for a rendition of ‘Messin’ With The Kid’ before finally bringing the curtain down with extended workouts of ‘Crossroads’ and ‘La Grange’, closing yet another masterclass in how to wring every ounce of passion from as simple a thing as a few bits of wood and a couple of circuits with nothing more than pair of human hands and a plethora of passion.
Photographs by The Dark Queen / (c) PlanetMosh 2015.