It all started in a cross-handed way. One man perched on a stool. His rich, resonating voice filled the room – no amplification, no instruments. It was the beginning of a night that ended too quickly.
Matthew Byrne, possessing a sturdy, lumberjack quality, wouldn’t look out of place swinging an ax in the woods or hauling in the day’s catch on a fishing boat. However, tonight his place was a cozy, upstairs room entertaining a captivated audience.
The opening song ended with the last lines spoken, not sung. Matthew then reached for his guitar and launched into two sets of beautiful, folk songs that centered around his native Newfoundland.
There was a story behind each song – likely hundreds of stories – stories of hard work, of tragedy on the seas, of running rivers, of lost loves, and the prettiest murder ballad I’ve ever heard.
The clarity of his voice made it easy to follow the tales as he recalled lives and lifestyles lost to history. Ways of life foreign to most people today were reborn from a single voice and a lone guitar. His guitar, played with a light touch, smooth and clean, blended perfectly with his voice.
Matthew wove funny stories and interesting anecdotes between the songs. Relaxed on his stool he’d explain some of the unusual terms in the songs or the history of the times in which they were written, exposing the whys, the hows, the wheres of the tales. At times he’d get more personal relating the songs’ ties to his mother, father, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
One of my favorite songs of the night was True Love Knows No Season (aka Billy Grey).
You can watch it on YouTube here:
If you don’t see the video above you can find it here.
Other highlights were Three Score and Ten, a sorrowful lament recounting the tragic loss of boys and men at sea, and Heroes, a bright, uplifting original instrumental.
Fair warning, the albums can’t do his voice justice. His music possesses a richness and his voice a resonance that can’t be fully captured by a recording, it can only be experienced with Matthew singing a few feet away, guitar in hand, eyes closed, being swept into his own songs.
Although the albums can’t compare to his live performance, they do have some features not available in a solo concert. Many of the songs on the albums have other instruments in accompaniment- bass, fiddles, accordions, flutes, violin, cellos – adding elegant textures to the songs. A couple of the songs are duets. The voices of Pauline Scanlon on Barque on the Harbor and Meg Warren on Fare Ellen, the lovely murder ballad, blend delicately with Matthew’s voice.
The concert was hosted by Dave Stewart and Lois Shea at McClary Hill Farm in Epsom, New Hampshire, only a few hundred feet up the street from where I live. It was the perfect setting in which to experience Matthew’s music with nothing to get between you and the music.
My wife and I had a front-row view in a room filled with more than 50 people.
The concert was opened by Fiona Shea, Lois’ daughter, and Dan Faiella , members of Sparrow’s Joy. With Fiona singing and playing fiddle and Dan on the guitar, the young duo played a lively mix of Northern Roots folk that got everyone’s feet tapping and nicely warmed up the crowd for the main event.
The night ended with several sing-alongs, with the audience lending their voices to the choruses of Come Fare Away, as well as a traditional sea shanty.
Otherwise, the night was filled with one soothing voice with a subtle, understated power much like the men and women in his songs.
If I had to sum up the concert in one word it would be genuine. Matthew has a genuine talent and a genuine love for what he does. Throughout many of the songs his eyes were closed. Even though he must have played the songs hundreds or even thousands of times, they still appeared to capture him as they captured the audience.
If you’re wondering what “cross-handed” means, it’s another phrase for a cappella. But you’ll learn there’s far more to the term if you ever get a chance to see Matthew Byrne live. And why did cross-handed songs historically end with a speaking line? You’ll have to see him yourself to find out.
I’d never heard of Matthew Byrne before the concert was scheduled. Now he’s found a spot in my regular playlist. If I get a chance I’ll definitely see him in concert again.