My only older brother was the first person to introduce me to the acoustic guitar. I remember the moment clearly, but not so fondly. I was in my room trying to write while he was in his room making noise. Little did I know that weeks of his persistent chord plucking would result in music that later inspired me to love the very instrument that initially annoyed me.
One afternoon, I ventured into his room. He was sitting on a wooden stool with his legs crossed and the suspect instrument cradled in his hands. He proudly showed me his calloused fingertips, a sign of his hours of practice. With a note of caution, he let me hold his guitar. Soon I was making the rudimentary sounds he had made just weeks ago. It was then that I decided that I wanted to immerse myself in the sound that came from its frets and strings.
Ten years later, Iâ€™m still fixated on the acoustic sound that my brother introduced me to. Itâ€™s no wonder that I was delighted to discover the Irish acoustic-soul musician, Foy Vance, suggested to me by Mackenzie, Randomvilleâ€™s editor.
Iâ€™d downloaded his latest LP, Hope, and played it many times. I also found him on YouTube and five-starred every one of his live performances that I could find – including one of my favorites – a cover of Michael Jacksonâ€™s â€œBillie Jeanâ€ at Belfast Universityâ€™s Mandela Hall. I finally had the opportunity to see Foy live on a recent and pleasant Saturday evening in March here in New York at the Mercury Lounge. He was scheduled to appear as part of the Craic Festival. The two acts preceding him were Fairplay Collective and Colin Devlin. Both of these talented guitar playing acts set the stage for what would prove to be â€“ in my opinion â€“ the best guitarist of the night.
As excitement overtook me, I heard a male voice exclaim, â€œFoyâ€™s here!â€ I looked around trying to locate the man whose songs dominate my â€œrecently playedâ€ iPod list. From the sea of a now-filled Mercury Lounge, Foy â€“ dressed like a 1920â€™s era newsie â€“ emerged. He wore a beanie hat, white v-neck tee, grey pinstriped blazer and Docker-like pants finished off with a pair of worn brown shoes.
He took just a few brief moments to situate himself, almost immediately beginning to finger the chords of his guitar. Finally, his live voice sounded a melody over his music. I wondered, â€œIs there such a thing as Irish soul?â€ Yes, there is, and Foy Vance was its deliverer!
Vanceâ€™s vocal sound had the intensity of an urban crooner and the spirit of skilled jazz improvisation. At times he grabbed the mike and rocked the guitar with a furious passion. Often, with eyes closed he belted out verses with the grimace and grit of a musician singing as if his life depended on it. Whether he stooped low to get the plucking of his strings just right or cocked his mouth to the left to get the shrill of sound that songs like â€œIndiscriminate Act of Kindnessâ€ required, he imbued the guitar with a life of its own.
Throughout the set he played many songs from Hope including â€œBe With Me,â€ â€œShed a Little Light,â€ and â€œIf Only You Could See Me.â€ These songs helped Foy (who grew up a preacherâ€™s son) bring a bit of church to New Yorkâ€™s Lower East Side. His songs tackle simple human needs like love, acts of kindness, hope, and self-worth, and brought out the call and response of â€œamenâ€ and â€œhallelujahâ€ from the crowd. After a little over an hour, the musical service began to wind down. It was obvious by the crowdâ€™s requests for more that they werenâ€™t ready to leave, nor was Foy. So, as he packed up his instruments, he prepared the crowd for a trip home by singing an a capella refrain: â€œOh no, never let the spirit die, lawd.â€
Not to worry, lad. As long as there are musicians â€“ budding and seasoned – willing to hold the guitarâ€™s hour glass body and strum its chords from the neck down, music aficionados wonâ€™t let it die. Oh no, we wont.