For some things, at some times, it’s the same time all over the world. God knows who first said that. They were right, though.

Music can stop the clocks. I honestly believe that. And, last night up the hill at the Philharmonic Hall on Hope Street, time stood still. Not for very long. And not all night, either.

But during a few precious moments of the Irish Sea Sessions, the waves stopped and an ethereal calm ruled. Following the now-traditional opening of the show with Merseysider Ian Prowse’s ‘Does This Train Stop On Merseyside?’, a set of reels led us behind the bars of London-born Alan Burke’s ‘Derry Gaol’.

And what a place to be. The singer/songwriter took us on a journey of desperation, pathos, downright hilarity and a world of hurt and emotion. All in one song! It was a relief, then, to be soothed by the gentle sounds of Niamh Parson’s beautiful singing on ‘Blackbirds And Thrushes’, before Sense Of Sound’s Jennifer John gave her adopted hometown a sweet version of Van Morrison’s ‘Tupelo Honey’.

As with the inaugural show last year, the sessions format rides “on the seat of its pants” (Musical Director, Bernard O’Neil), as tunes spark from the dying embers of the last song and the audience has no time to reflect. It’s a concert that relies and thrives on risk – with both artist and audience taking a chance on each other. Luckily, the songs chosen leave nothing open to interpretation: they’re just great.

As are the singers. Donaghmede’s Damien Dempsey may well be the best of them all: brave, bold and beautiful, Dempsey rarely gets it wrong. Last year he treated us to ‘In Liverpool’, this time we were sat in hushed awe as he delivered a devastating dock-side dirge, ‘Go To Sea No More’.

As traditional songs go, this was one exhumed from under sixty feet of Mersey mud – but Dempsey wrought the melody and emotion behind the tune from its minor key misery and turned it into a thing of pure gold. “In the darkness/there will be hidden words that shine,” sang Bruce Springsteen many moons ago. He was talking about Dempsey last night.

The Irish Sea Sessions shines its light on more unknown performers too and Liverpool flautist Terry Clarke-Coyne stepped into the spotlight following Dempsey’s tour-de-force.

He had commissioned a set of tunes examining Liverpool’s Irish links and as the high notes and tempo changes of flutes, fiddles and bodhran rattled around that famous old hall, he should have felt proud – with ‘Liverpool Remembers’ and ‘Great Craic on Mount Pleasant’ bringing back to life long-gone nights at the Liverpool Irish Centre.

The audience doesn’t get a minute and this is one gig where an interval is certainly the right call.

Last night, however, we were treated to a highlight at the end of the first half that sent us into the second act with tears in our eyes: Amsterdam singer Prowse invited Dempsey, Burke, John and Parsons to hold him up with harmonies, as he delivered a definitive take on Pete Wylie’s ‘Heart As Big As Liverpool’.

Think that tune is overwrought and banal do you? Think again. Prowse found the heart of it last night, with a restrained and righteous version (complete with “Justice for the 96” ad lib at the end). The second half took a while to get going.

Virtuoso turns from Belfast pair, Stevie Dunne on banjo and Meabh O’Hare on fiddle, were greeted with appreciation rather than excitement from the packed and seated crowd, before button accordionist Dave Munnelly brought some beauty and bottom end to the night with a lovely workout.

But it was left to Dempsey to include the crowd again: something magical really happens when that giant frame walks up to a live mic in front of people.

He was joined by Prowse for a powerful take on Brendan Behan’s ‘The Auld Triangle’ – complete with “written in a five star hotel in Liverpool called Walton Prison” intro. Maybe its his lightness of touch that sets him apart. Who knows?

Jennifer John stepped back up to sing ‘Shipbuilding’ (told you the song choices were on the money) and Prowse gave Amsterdam‘s ‘Home’ for the offertory, before more riotous reels brought us into view of those Three Graces and the end of our journey.

It was apt that, with the Irish Sea Sessions travelling to Ireland for gigs in Belfast and Derry this weekend, the whole ensemble grouped together to sing ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’ and were serenaded on their way by a standing ovation and sing-a-long.

We don’t do marks out of ten here at Seven Streets, but here’s a verdict for you: better than last year.

Roll on 2012…

Alan O’Hare

Images by Mark McNulty

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