Thursday, June 4, 2015

Wet/Water: Energy Orchard's Sailortown

Wet/Water: Energy Orchard's "Sailortown"

So much to say about this band that hasn't been said. Where to begin? Hailing from Belfast, they scored a criminally semi-hit with their track "Belfast" from the 1990 eponymous debut.
Led by Bap Kennedy (brother of the famous pop vocalist, Brian Kennedy), lifted and sent gloriously soaring by the lead guitar work of Paul Toner, Energy Orchard were one of those bands that probably (unfairly) got their shot at a major deal because: Irish. And because: U2. But they deserved better. Much better.

Their first album has been in my regular rotation since 1990, not only for the allegiance it pays to it musical predecessors, Van Morrison being the obvious comparison, but also because it is a collection of rock songs so solid, so perfectly played, so gloriously about the emotional lift that only rock music can bring, as to be timeless. Kennedy's vocals and themes are full of longing and hope; the music rises in hopeful crescendos, a spiritual and strange sort of aching that transcended the limited '90s studio production of gilded keyboard and polished glitz. The best songs on their first album smolder, then blaze like church hymns. The Celtic roots are unavoidable, both because of geographical origins, but also because there is something of that rollicking Irish pub sing-around that sits at the heart of this music. But, like all great bands, Energy Orchard kept that original idealism and took it well beyond the limits of genre.

Energy Orchard went on to put out three more albums (Stop the Machine, Shinola, and Painkiller) as well as double disc live set called Orchardville. The live set burns with a vibrant, ripping energy that never quite came across on the studio stuff, but one senses that labels and producers might have had more to say about that than the band did. It always seemed to me that Energy Orchard, left on their own, would have been much more of the amazing band they were, but also a truly influential rock band. I suspect there was always some meddling prat in their midst, pushing for radio-friendly pop songs. And if you recall early to mid-'90s pop radio, you might forgive the band for only making four albums.

The amazing potential the Energy Orchard had, however, is evident in Bap Kennedy's solo career. An incredible country singer, he's worked with the likes of Steve Earle, and his catalog, which includes a stunning album-length tribute to Hiram King Williams, Hill Billy Shakespeare ( you know him as Hank), is as stellar and legit as anything you'd label as 'real country'.  (Domestic Blues and Lonely Street are amazing, too among others.) Kennedy's still producing albums, including last year's Let's Start Again.

I went to Belfast a few years ago, and listened to Bap's solo stuff, as well as all of the Energy Orchard albums--it was something I always wanted to do: connect the place the music came from, see if the connection of place matched the emotional connection Bap's music had always made with me. It was a good experience, and I couldn't help feeling a little like the protagonist of "Sailortown", their other big hit and one the greatest songs  ever recorded about youth and all it's mysteries and how they can be figured out by escaping, out to sea, through the bottle, in the arms of love. It's a sad song, with an incredibly redemptive sense of celebrating even the darkest of our days.

...I can't sit still, too much on my mind.
Gotta get outta this place, while I'm
Still young and alive.

I'll go walking down to Sailortown,
And I look out to the sea.
When them big ships come sailing in,
Maybe this one's for me.

I've belted out "Sailortown" many a night when I felt the same way. I belted it out in Belfast that night, too, drunk on more than beer and whiskey. The power of great music: even the inherently sad songs, when played with the right kind of guts, can lift you. "Sailortown" has always made me think that no matter what, as long as I had a song (and perhaps a drink or two), I'd get to stay 'young and alive', too...

Sailortown, live :

 and studio:
And, a bonus track, just so you can get an idea of that gospel-true soaring takeoff and comedown these guys did so well, an incredible version of "Hard Street":

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