Sometimes, someone comes along with songs that drill un-anaesthetised into your heart. Which is how I found myself shocked that I was sobbing my heart out, six feet away from Neil McSweeney last year on our wonderful neighbourhood lightship, LV21. Roberta Flack was right.
Alone, McSweeney is a howling wolf of a man, his voice pitching somewhere magically between The Proclaimers and an Evensong choirboy, all bellow and rapture. Lyrically, he’s all memory, observation and intimacy, never more so than on ‘Wonder In The Making’, a song that sums up parenthood with all the love, loss, helplessness and joy of the most enduring, universal love songs. There is a melancholy and a hope in much of his back catalogue – rawness, honesty and unflinching passion. He writes life’s small, tender moments with a sharp-eyed intelligence, warmth, humour and largesse.
Last night, he returned to the lightship and brought company in the form of Vera Van Heeringen, the Dutch singer and multi-instrumentalist.
Adding Van Heeringen into the mix brings a bright, fresh, depth which is transformative. Songs sad, familiar and comforting as an old cardigan (especially ‘London Road’) suddenly become new summer dresses to flirt and twirl in. Nostalgia becomes immediacy. Then becomes now.
There is an ease between them, a perfect harmony and a new EP of duets. They are perfectly matched in calibre as songwriters, and her technical brilliance is foil to his passion, earth to his fire.
A classically trained old-time and bluegrass player, she’s technically highly accomplished. Vocally, there are hints of Suzanne Vega and Gillian Welch – directness and sensitivity without a hint of frailty. Instrumentally, there are glimpses of Emmylou Harris, Bruce Cockburn and Mike Campbell. She plays Americana fiddle and mandolin too. There’s something in those lovely Dutch flatlands that mirrors the wilder Great Plains. Her solo songs, a musical companion to Annie Proulx.
‘Never Enough Time’ is a beautiful minor-key meditation rooted in urgency. ‘Milk and Honey’ is a simple, powerful narrative on migrant children.
McSweeney only plays a three-song solo set – ‘Flowers’, a joyful singalong of ‘Be Your Own Dog’ and the coruscating, full-throated indie swagger of ‘Postcards’.
I remember the excitement of hearing ‘Raising Sand’ by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant for the first time. It’s a similar matching of differences here. Except that they can also raise hell. All that sweet-toned folk tinged goodness turns on ‘Standing Still’ – that wishing of pain on the person McSweeney has been wronged by, Van Heeringen’s fiddle wrapped round their throat, the threat: one of these days I’m gonna get my way. I believe it. I believe every single word they sing.
Neil McSweeney plays The Bowerhouse, Maidstone on 18 December. http://www.thebowerhouse.info/buy-tickets.html
Neil McSweeney: http://neilmcsweeney.com
Vera Van Heeringen: http://www.veravanheeringen.com
Image credit: Anna Morell