|Ricky Warwick and Damon Johnson - Ahoghill, Diamond Rock Club - 14th December 2012|
|Written by Mark Ashby|
|Saturday, 05 January 2013 03:00|
There are times in your life when you enter into a situation where you literally do not know that it could be one of the most special occasions in your life… and so it was as a busload of us hardy souls braved the freezing December air and made our regular pilgrimage from the bright lights of riot-torn Belfast to the depths of the County Antrim hills to the mecca of the local rock scene.
What we knew is we are on our way for a date with the one and only Ricky ‘Feckin’ Warwick, who on a night off from Thin Lizzy’s "farewell" tour was playing his only solo show of the year – and his first back in his native Norn Iron in more than 18 months, at what he himself described as "the home of rock’n’roll", the awesome Diamond Rock Club in the village of Ahogholl. We also knew he was being joined by Lizzy guitarist Damon Johnson. So, we knew it was going a bit special… how special we could not even begin to suspect as the coach disgorged us into the cold night and we climbed the steps to the venue.
Local songsmith Matt Fitzsimons did his usual respectable job of warming up the crowd (many of whom were personal friends of the wee man with the big voice), especially with his stripped back version of Whitesnake’s ‘Here I Go Again’, with which he finished his set.
Warwick’s opening selection of ‘Can’t Wait For Tomorrow’, the opening track from his last solo album, 2009’s stunning ‘Belfast Confetti’, could have been seen as somewhat prophetic, to the many in the know (by now). The singer had been suffering from a severe chest infection for several days (a condition he directly addresses later in his set): it was so bad that promoters in both Belfast and Dublin over the previous two evenings had been sent into a state of virtual panic, with Ricky having to receive urgent medical attention before being able to proceed with the Lizzy gigs in both cities… in the circumstances, the lyric "I’m tired, I’m busted" seem quite apt. However, he wasn’t going to let such a mere trifle affect his performance.
‘The Whiskey Song’ is a tribute to the city of Belfast and the men and women who shaped it by working in the what were once the world’s biggest shipyard, ropeworks and linen mills – and, of course, the golden amber with which they invariably ended their working day: the hard men who were as tough and toughened as the ships they built.
Over the next hour, Ricky delivers a characteristically passionate set drawn from both The Almighty and his own solo archives. ‘Church Of Paranoia’ and ‘Belfast Confetti’ are emotional and evocative, while ‘Bandaged Knees’ is beautiful in its misery (it was The Almighty’s anti-Christmas song, the background to which Ricky takes great delight in reciting). ‘Throwin’ Dirt’ is a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to a fan who died a few weeks earlier at the disgustingly young age of 40, while ‘Jesus Loves You… But I Don’t’ loses none of its vitriol. There’s also a raw cover of ‘Runnin’ Free’ before Ricky closes the first half of the set with a rowdy ‘Wild And Wonderful’ and a haunting ‘Three Sides To Every Story’.
So far, it’s more or less business as expected, with Ricky in great form, the banter flowing and everyone singing along… and then he introduces his "Alabama soul brother", Damon Johnson, who introduces what he calls "Act Two" with two rules: "Rule One – no dancing during the gospel songs; Rule Two – no gospel songs!” The place is in uproar already, and the duo haven’t even picked a note. With Lizzy assistant tour manager Jack Taylor keeping rhythm on a snare drum, the two guitarists launch into unplugged renditions of ‘Jailbreak’, ‘Southbound’ – it’s opening couplet of "The boom time is over, A ghost town is all that’s left here" all the more poignant in the current economic situation – and an awesome ‘Emerald’, on which Johnson even nails an unplugged version of the song’s blistering solo.
Warwick repays the favour of his bandmate joining him by letting Johnson take the lead on ‘Got No Shame’, a harkening back to the latter’s time with Brother Cane (with whom The Almighty played a few support gigs, as Ricky happily reminds us), before plunging back into the Lizzy catalogue for the "very overlooked" ‘Borderline’. A brilliant rendition of The Almighty’s ‘Free N Easy’ prompts Johnson to remark "that was fucking awesome", not the last time he is to make that comment this evening! "Awesome" is a description which could easily be used for the huge triptych of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, ‘The Cowboy Song’ and ‘The Boys Are Town’ before the duo take the foot off the pedal with a laidback ‘Ace Of Spades’, and then send the set past the planned two hour mark with massively enjoyable versions of The Band’s ‘The Weight’ and Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’, with both men grinning from ear to ear as they take it in turns to sing the lyrics…
"Lizzy’s management are backstage, and they’re panicking ‘cos we’ve three more shows to do," Ricky points out, addressing his health issues for the first time. "yeah, if you see an announcement that the London show is cancelled, it’s your fucking fault – we’ll blame Ahoghill," adds Johnson, before the pair sign off with a song that always brings hairs to the back of this particular aging rocker, ‘The Arms Of Belfast Town’.
If you’d have told me 20-odd years ago that one day I’d be watching one third of Thin Lizzy playing acoustics versions of their classic repertoire in a country pub deep in the Northern Ireland countryside, I’d never have believed you… but, that’s what makes special nights like this so special – the unexpected delights that make rock ‘n’ roll such a wonderful beast.