Lisa O’Neill at YES, Manchester – Live Review (11/02/20)

‘What a voice.’

This is the initial reaction upon hearing Lisa O’Neill live. Although maybe a bit marmite. To the right audience she is spectacular. O’Neill opens delivering a haunting, acapella rendition of ‘The Galway Shawl’. An Irish classic done justice. One that makes a man put his book down hurridely upon hearing her voice. The crowd listen attentively and open mouthed as O’Neill domineeringly delivers with hands on hip. Her magnetic voice seems to trap every gland against the walls it reverberates off. A delayed applause follows. It often does through O’Neills set. A minute is needed for the audience to regain their composure.

This becomes more apparent in her originals, for she is a fine wordsmith. Topically drifting from lost English loves, to the attempted assasination of Mussolini, to a daunting parachute jump. She always has something to say and builds upon it in a live surrounding with anecdotes to support each number. O’Neill states her lyrics ‘come from the fairies or the wind’ in her well spoken Irish tongue. She tells the crowd of rural areas in Ireland that can ‘write their own songs’. It is as if O’Neill is unleashing the sheath irish singer songwriters have kept well hidden.

If anything, the imagery for ‘No Train To Cavan’ supports this. O’Neill educates the crowd on border smuggling in rustic Irish towns. Whether this being of tobacco or wheelbarrows. She compares the past times with now. We could consider not much has changed at all. She mentions crossing the border on tour, getting scrutinised with Ireland’s history behind her. Even the tiniest amount of hand luggage causing suspicion. She scorns, saying “we’re innocent” before shrugging it off. She goes on to play the song, ending with an abrupt, but wonderful guitar slap. Here she tends to send myself, and undoubtedly others into reveries. Is it not a coincidence that the most prestigious songwriters write longingly about trains?

On more political tracks we see her at her most intense. ‘Rock The Machine’ is a set highlight and perfect example of this. O’Neill paints pictures of dockers jobs being destroyed by machinery. She sings from the perspective of a man who has lost everything. You can tell she is passionate about the subject from her facial convulsions alone. She states “Sometimes I wish the water would swallow up the machines” before performing this number. The track is backed by O’Neills yearning banjo and her sparse band. That being Christophe Capewell on violin and Mic Geraghty on harmonium. They both add emotive layers of texture that build on the songs apocolyptic atmosphere.

‘Violet Gibson’ is just as political. But one of older times. O’Neill tells the story of Gibson attempting to assassinate Mussolini. A track which I find incredibly haunting on record, let alone live. In it’s commentary before she brings home a discussion about Gibsons prison and mental hospital sentence. She questions the audience on what it really is to be mad?

‘We planted a sunflower on her (Gibsons) grave and want it to keep growing. There is a good side to madness’. 

 She could really make a great experimental record. For this track feels like a ghostly counterpart to Scott Walker’s ‘Clara’. It is solidified on stage. In moments of intense gusto, she kicks her right leg back. As if she is a horse about to strike. This is recurring in O’Neills most passionate moments. Along with a widening of the eyes. She can be a very animated figure.

The level of wit and intelligence make her even more admirable. This resulting in thinking she would make a great live album. Some moments give me Tom Waits ‘Nighthawks At The Diner‘ hints. Just with a more refined audience. Her family members, sitting next to me called me ‘friend’ when squeezing past me from a bar trip for example.

O’Neill is always educating or amusing the crowd in some shape or form. Some of O’Neill’s wittiest moments are commented below.

“I think they (the birds) sing for joy. I sing too. I don’t sing just to mate.  Maybe I want to mate with a train or wheelbarrow?”

“I love dealing with people” … “when i’m not in a bad mood”

Lisa: “Once I dated a man from Manchester”. 

Man in crowd: “Is he in here?”

Lisa: “I hope not…”

“Violet Gibson didn’t have a good shot at life”

O’Neill closes her set with ‘Blue Moon’. A jazz standard that gets the crowd going. It is frankly one of the best renditions I have heard. A socially, and politically aware hour that is really quite special.

Note on the support:

Supporting O’Neill is Keto. A singer, songwriter hailing from Nottingham. She tells the audience of how O’Neill scouted her out personally at an open mic to support her on tour. On research I have a lot of respect for her. She self released her debut album ‘Blackened Pool’ last year. Gaining acclaim from KEXP and Steve Lamacq. 

To me she has a wonderful voice. In her highest notes she could be mistaken for Joanna Newsom. However the music was lacking from instrumental diversion and each track marred into each other by the end. A man behind me agrees. Saying to his wife: ‘The first two songs did it for me’. There’s a secondary opinion. The lyrics also didn’t do too much for me, but weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. This is from some picky music snob who doesn’t like much so take that with a grain of salt. 

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