Kaz Hawkins (feat. Sam York) – Belfast Cathedral – 22 July 2017 Print E-mail
Written by The Dark Queen and Mark Ashby   
Saturday, 29 July 2017 04:00

I must admit, I felt quite nervous as I stood at the top of the steps outside Belfast’s majestic St Anne’s Cathedral on this chilly Saturday evening. And, it wasn’t just the fact that I was about to enter a place of worship for a faith I don’t believe in: that was a minor detail. No, it was because I didn’t quite know what to expect once I crossed its threshold, because I knew I was in for a rollercoaster of a ride.

 

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Yes, I knew it was the official launch for Kaz Hawkins’ wonderful new album, ‘Don’t You Know’. Yes, I knew it was going to be a very personal journey through Kaz’ life story – a story filled with trauma and horror, a story of abuse and attempted suicide - a story I could tell myself (if I had her talent) - but ultimately a story of triumph over adversity and one which finally has resulted in unbridled happiness for the lady at its centre… What I did not know was how I – or, for that matter, Kaz herself – would react.

 

As with everything in Kaz’s story, there was a little bump in the road, with the scheduled support act having to pull out at the last minute, due to unforeseen circumstances. But, following a lengthy pre-amble from MC Stephen Mullan, including some funny stories to break the ice, we are treated to an early appearance by Sam York. Sam – who has written songs for and performed with artists as diverse as Tom Jones and Jesse J – plays piano on the album but picks up a guitar for this performance, and immediately succeeds in filling this amazing space and gaining the full attention of the crowd with his soulful voice.

 

Sam York 4

 

His songs are gentle in their philosophy, and, in many ways, echo the theme of the album: ‘Ballerina’, for example, is about breaking free from the chains that hold you back in your bid to be who you want to be. Despite having played in some pretty big arenas, he looks nervous, dwarved by his surroundings: well, it is a big task to set the scene for the rest of the evening. He tells us how he got the call from Kaz asking him to play on the album: “she had never heard me play piano,” he recalls… but, he flew to Belfast, got drunk with Kaz and her husband and things went from there… He also pays tribute to the wealth of songwriting talent we have here in Northern Ireland, namechecking a few I must admit I’ve never heard of, before taking the brave step of covering Foy Vance’s ‘She Burns’: it’s an ambitious choice but he pulls it off.

 

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‘Safety In Numbers’ shows that this sexy Jamie Dornan lookalike is a man of many talents, as his finger-plucking is up there with the best. The reaction of the audience is quite subdued, but that may be partly due to the fact the gig is taking place in a cathedral, where applause is generally not heard. But, I enjoyed his short set, which helped to calm some of the butterflies in my tummy! (DQ)

 

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Like my other half, I was slightly nervous about tonight – and it wasn’t really to do with my innate dislike of churches and all that they stand for (after all, my Viking ancestors did their level best to burn down as many of them as they could). No, my concern also was about how DQ would react: like its two predecessors, ‘Don’t You Know’ had resonated with her on every level, and it wouldn’t be the first time that Kaz’s story, with which she can readily identify, has reduced her to tears… It definitely was going to be an emotionally charged night, and DQ’s means of coping with its impact was to throw herself into her work, recording the occasion visually for posterity – hence my few humble words here…

 

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MC Stephen Mullan sets the tone, asking people not to applaud when Kaz appears: he explains that she is starting with the album’s opening track, ‘Nendrum’, and its significance, revealing that they had driven past the ruined abbey one day on their way home from a recording session, and subsequently revisited the site, only for the singer to reveal she had been there before… she had gone there after being discharged from a mental health unit – with the intention of committing suicide. “It was the place my best friend went to die, but decided to turn her life around…” There is a suitably reverential silence as the singer makes her entrance from the northern end of the chancel and through the choir stalls, resplendent in black with a red sash around her waist, her voice slowly rising to the rafters and into the ‘Spire Of Hope’ above her.

 

As the last echoes of this atmospheric opener swirl around the stone pillars, Kaz admits to “shaking like a leaf”: this evening, after all, is fulfilling a dream of hers, to perform on the very spot on which she now stands. It’s a moment which, as she says, is “testament that should never, ever give up on your dreams”, and one which reflects the honesty with which she approaches both her music and its delivery: well, this is a woman who freely admits that “you’ve seen my life on social media”, and so there is no hiding place, and especially not in a venue like this.

 

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Starting off with the album in its running order, ‘Don’t Slip Away’ and ‘Because You Love Me’ have Kaz’s voice echoing around the entire cathedral, bouncing off its vaulted ceiling and stone walls with a sublime power that hardly needs the microphone in her hand in a celebration of the healing power of music and the pure compassion of true human love, as well as belief in the ability to rise above the odds. (MA)

 

Following ‘I Saw A Man’, the first song not from the new album, and dedicated to her video director Stephen’s late father, Kaz talks openly about her ongoing campaign to raise awareness of mental health (appropriately, tonight’s concert is in aid of the charity AWARE), and how she has to delve deep into her personal experiences to get her message across. She then explains how “something magical happened” during the recording of ‘Surviving’, and I’m in tears as the song resonates around this immense space with a resounding message of comfort, hope and resolution. It ends with the first standing ovation of the evening.

 

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Her cover of Elton John’s ‘The Border Song’ is delivered with every ounce of the power and passion of one of her great heroines and influences, Aretha Franklin. One of the highlights of the first set is ‘The River That Sings’, which she wrote in tribute to Tom Hendrix, whom Kaz had met on her first trip to America. For those unfamiliar with the story, Hendrix, who died in February, spent 30 years building a wall in memory of his great-great-grandmother Te-lah-nay, who walked for five years, “burns and blisters on her feet”, from a reservation in Oklahoma where the Yuchi tribe were forcibly relocated back to her native Alabama and the tribe’s beloved “singing river”, the Tennessee… it’s a powerful and moving story, and the song matches the determination of the people about whom it was written – as well as it’s writer.

 

Next, we’re back to the quiet Kaz. She admits to being nervous about the next song, ‘Soul Superstar’, “because my family are here”: after all, it is about a young girl called Karen growing up in Sandy Row and how she “learned to be humble”. “Karen is hidden, because I am Kaz – but I bring Karen out for this song”, she says, the tears streaming down her face (not for the last time). Again, she dedicates the song to everyone who has fought to get where they are today. She finishes the first set with ‘Hallelujah Happy People’ to bring this part of the show to a great upbeat end. (And I bet ‘hallelujah’ has never been belted out like this in the colourful history of this building – MA).

 

‘Avril’s Interlude’ introduces the second half of the show, as Kaz and Sam walk hand in hand, smiling, to the “stage” for the album title track. Kaz then tells the story of her granny “kidnapping” her and taking her to audition for ‘Opportunity Knocks’ – “I was wearing a green taffeta dress” – and one of the programme’s team telling her she should listen to Etta James. It’s the cue for the second cover of the night, ‘St Louis Blues’, and her version is soulful and mellow, and then powerful and vicious.

 

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Kaz then introduces a brand new song, ‘Colliding Into One’: it’s passionate and painful, in the right sense of the word, as she sings “I’m holding on…” – a line with which anyone suffering mental health issues will identify. ‘Better Days’, which she reveals was written for her son, is upbeat and fun, as Kaz wholeheartedly enjoys fulfilling her dream, before ‘This Is Me’ threatens to raise the rafters with its message to each and every person in the room that we all are worth it and deserve it. After this, she declares that “I’m alive because of music”. (DQ)

 

Kaz’s story is one of fighting to survive: it’s a story which touches every heart and soul. It’s a story DQ can identify with: after all, she has the word “Survivor” tattooed on her neck, symbolizing her own victories over the scourge of cancer. It is also the story of someone grateful to those who saved her, lifted her up from her darkest depths and helped her win her fight. It’s a story summarized in the forceful ‘Lipstick And Cocaine’: in its introduction, Kaz declares “I fought for the right to speak for those who remain silent”, while the song itself defiantly states “never again” in its writer’s determination to continually move forward. (MA)

 

For the show’s finale, Kaz is joined by her musical director, David Jamison, on cajón, and Sam York back on guitar – and, more importantly, her daughter Amy, who cannot hold back the tears as she tells her mum how much of a tower of strength she has been and how proud her family are of her. The pair pull themselves together for this special moment to sing ‘My Daughter My Reflection’: the love between them is plain to see, and their voices blend beautifully as they bring down the curtain on a beautiful evening filled with love and purity. And, yes, I cried too… (DQ)

 

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Kaz Hawkins and Sam York play the Park Avenue Hotel, Belfast, as part of the Eastside Arts Festival, on Friday (4 August).

 

PHOTO CREDIT: All photos © The Dark Queen/ Über Rock. View our full gallery of photographs HERE.

 

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