Danny Bryant – Belfast, Empire Music Hall – 27 April 2017 Print E-mail
Written by Mark Ashby and The Dark Queen   
Saturday, 13 May 2017 04:00

Part of a short run of dates in support of his just released ‘Big’ album – appropriately recorded with the backing of a big band – this first night immediately raised a question in the back of my sceptical old skull… and that was how the hell they were they going to cram nine musicians onto this converted church’s not exactly substantial stage. As it turned out, they did – just about…


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First of all, though, a quick word about opener Davy Watson and his (very) brief support slot. With the audience still filing into the venue – and numbers immediately appearing substantially down on perhaps what would initially have been expected (but, then, there was the counter-attraction of the legendary Robert Cray, playing just across town to a sold out crowd on the opening night of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival – and ordering their first round of drinks, he, unfortunately, is very much background music for many.


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Musically, Watson’s style is a pleasant mix of country-fuelled southern blues and Americana, delivered with a Lou Reed-style drawl. In amidst his own songs, there is a stripped-down and impressive version of the Howlin’ Wolf standard ‘Killing Floor’, and the bottom-ended tone of his sound reflects that he’s better known for playing an instrument with a couple of fewer strings than his weapon of choice for this evening.


As I mentioned at the top, it was a bit of squeeze, but they manage to get all nine members of the Bryant Big Band onto the cramped stage, with the four-piece horn section squeezed over to the side – so far, indeed, that saxophonist Lauren Young looks in danger of falling off the stage at any second (thankfully, she doesn’t!). It’s a situation Bryant acknowledges early in the set: “I especially lost a lot of weight to fit on here!”


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Right from the off, Bryant shows that, while he may be the band leader, he’s also conscious that’s only one of a number of musicians, and that he is generous in his leadership: during the instrumental opener, ‘On The Rocks’, for example, he takes the harmony around each of the band members in turn, allowing them to introduce themselves through a series of individual insertions.


‘As The Years Go Passing By’ sees Bryant push himself to the fore, however, with a series of stunning solos, which he interjects organically into the huge melodies produced by the horn section, who in turn know when to pull back when their leader wants to let rip. But, he soon shows his generosity again, with the poised trumpet solo dominating the main section of ‘Prisoner Of The Blues’, before the man himself once again frenetically tears up his fretboard with an easy grace that belies the intensity of what he is delivering.


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While making the sound of the songs much more expansive, the big band format often leaves little room for compromise, or improvisation, but Bryant still manages to wring every ounce of emotion, passion and emotion from the performances of both himself and his supporting cast, who themselves continue to be thrust to the forefront: Stevie Watts – perched almost as precariously on the other side of the stage from the horns – brings a real element of honky tonk to his contributions, such as on ‘Holding All The Cards’ and ‘Just Won’t Burn’, while the baritone sax is allowed to really let rip on the intense ‘Blood Money’.


Where possible, however, Bryant is trying to keep the blues as stripped back as possible, with the horns extrapolating upon his basic guitar miens, such as on the magnificent ‘Temperature Rising’, which is likes a heavy-ass Eagles with a massive Neil Young chip on their shoulder, while closer ‘Painkiller’ is beautiful and haunting for a full four minutes, before the full band kick in and take the song to the next level, with Bryant’s climactic solo re-invoking the pathos of the first half of the tune, showing once again that he is one of those guitarists that make it look so simple as his fingers glide over the strings and frets that you hardly notice he’s ripping out a sublime solo or a heart-rending harmony.


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The main set finishes just shy of an hour and 20 minutes – and it takes a few more for the crowd to make a, quite frankly, feeble attempt at a call for an encore: which is perhaps why Bryant cuts it in half, eschewing the set-listed strip down to a trio and instead bumps straight into ‘Stop Breaking Down’… but, things already are, and although the band look like they are more than capable of playing all night, the poor audience reception means that it is not to be and so the curtain is brought down on what has been an otherwise exemplary, nay inspiring performance. Testify, Brother Bryant!




‘Big: Live In Europe’ is out now on Jazzhaus Records.


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