Ricky Ross Live At The Empire Music Club Belfast 4.11.15
Soul Surmise 7th November 2015

The very first time I excitedly saw Deacon Blue on television Ricky Ross and Lorraine McIntosh were being interviewed at a piano and broke into a stripped back version of Ragman. I wanted more of it and got it at Greenbelt Festival in 1990 when Ricky did a wee surprise secret appearance and in a very small tent. (thank you Andy Thornton for the tip off). There were also piano versions released of Raintown, Wages Day, Circus Lights; I loved these incarnations.

So… that Deacon Blue’s frontman was doing a solo tour was right up my street called Thrilled! Though The Empire Music Club has its audience issues (a bar running down the side causing the clinking glasses; and toilets at the back causing a perpetual “excuse me” as those, who put their drink above the song, go back and forth and back and forth) it was not the worst atmosphere I have suffered through in The Empire. Ross’s crowd were on the main respectful.

That respect was particularly impressive considering that Ross did not play to the we-want-the-hits crowd. Yes, there was Wages Day, Real Gone Kid and a particular audience delight with When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring) but there was no Dignity and the best known songs were few and far between. Between those hits Ross laid out a set list full of craft and depth. From the more recent Deacon Blue records we got the title track from A New House and That’s What We Can Do from Hipsters.

The last four solo albums all made appearances and we’ll come to the encore from McIntosh Ross. Pale Rider was the most represented, as it should being particularly suited to this intimate setting.

For me, the theo-musicologist, I was drawn to a few spiritual stepping stones throughout the evening. Ricky Ross writes for the head and the heart but no one should miss his depth charges to the soul.

The baby comes, folks don't sleep
Those shepherds keep
You up later than you meant to be
One child grows and people notice
He's breaking chains
And making poor folks' lives so heavenly
(The way it's meant to be)

Ricky’s aim with this tour named The Lyric Book Tour, after a book that collects the best of his lyrics across his entire career, was to enjoy that catalogue of songs again and also get a chance in the more intimate setting to tell a few yarns. A fascinating aspect of the night were those song introductions telling of images in Ricky’s mind of Dundee or seeking a phone charger in a house of daughters or the old car that wasn’t too sleek and lovely but could carry the biggest Christmas tree home year after year.

The theo-musicologist in me got most excited when he started to introduce a song that I quickly realised was Riches and the yarn was about Jim Punton a youth work guru from the late 70s and early 80s. I never met Punton but lived in the slipstream of his influence and Ricky brought that very first Deacon Blue b-side alive by sharing how Punton had inspired him with a vision and practice of the kingdom of God by giving what he had away to improve the lives of those who needed.

“When you go on your journey don`t say goodbye
Don`t need clothes to wear
Or money to buy
Don`t take a bed to sleep in or sleeves to cry on
And don`t go gently into that good night”

My other favourite story, and the one that has stayed with me like a dog at my heels since the gig, was about a dog (see what I did there!). This dog caught Ricky’s attention as it galloped happily across a Glasgow street right into the arms, surprisingly for Ricky, of its homeless owner. Ricky pondered the better life that that dog could have had but seemed to conclude that all the comforts an owner in Bearsden could have given the dog would not have made it any happier than it was. Sharing this when he got back home Ricky’s wife Lorraine said that that was the kind of love that only dogs and God had. The song explores this from the voice of the dog… or God… and if you have ears to hear the parable… Utterly grace coloured brilliant!

Let me then head straight to the last song. Walls is from the McIntosh Ross record and I’d heard it many times but tonight, after Ricky speaks very warmly and tenderly about Belfast, the song takes on a dynamic prophetic edge. I listened in almost prayerful reflection, surmising Vicky Cosstick’s book Toward A City Without Walls and some of the work I am involved in around this symptom of my divided city:

“Walls come down eventually
Maybe only so that you can see
The space
In between
And you can see you can be

Walls come down so easily
As hard as it seem to you and me
And everybody here
There’s a hope
That all you can dream you
May be”

Please God!

Steve Stockman