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Larry Norman Live In Belfast
23 Mar 2000
By Steve Stockman

All concerts in my life are judged against the very best; The Waterboys in April 1986 and Larry Norman in May 1981. That '81 gig, on the night that IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was going to die and Belfast was deserted apart from 2000 Larry fanatics, was about a man at the peak of his powers. He was not long out of his very halcyon period when his trilogy (Only Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago The Garden, and In Another Land) set a standard for all Christians to try to attain and 25 years later no one yet has. He was still writing great albums, Nothing New Under the Son was just released. He was a legend. He was the big influence. He was producing everything. He was rocking and he was in his very best of health. He was as good a rock performer as anyone, even outside Christendom. I remember thinking I've seen George Best play football and now I've seen Larry Norman--just Bob Dylan left. In the nineteen years since,  I have seen Larry many, many times, though I need to confess that I probably missed a couple of Belfast gigs. Last night he was as good as I have seen him since at least 1987.

You just never know with Larry. Will he be in full health, as promoter Trevor King said last night? Some of the audience have been to more Larry gigs than he has, as he missed one due to a heart attack. Will he be in the mood? For me the CDs on the way in (and then usually again on the way out!!!!) are as much a reason to go as the gig itself. It'll never be 1981 after all. Last night did have a fragile beginning. He meandered for endless minutes before we heard a tune and I wondered if I should start seeing him as a comedian come preacher in the 21st century. He stumbled over words and asked for help and didn't finish songs. Yet there were these odd minutes when the genius appeared fleetingly as in the last song of the first half "If I Were A Singer" and the classic "I Hope I'll See You In Heaven."

At the break I completed my bankruptcy and we chatted about how great it is that we should all be together again. Someone even said the queue was great to be part of. There is this connection with Larry that allows him to ask us for help because as he said he doesn't want us to make him a pop star. If anyone has crossed that boundary then it is Larry Norman in Belfast. It's a congregation, a family a happening.

It was good to be part of the happening but then came the second half. Well, I don't know what he took at the interval but this man was different in demeanor, strength of voice and sharpness. After a few sing-alongs, with the words up on the screens, Larry moved to the piano told the band that hadn't yet appeared that he was going to do a few songs on the piano and well his voice came back home after years on holiday. This was truly special. A new song "I Am Near" even hinted that his song writing days are not yet  over. A poem "I Am Is" was poetic and funny. Splendid versions of early songs like "When You Sent Your Son," "No More LSD," and "Note From Mr. God" seemed to keep his voice getting stronger and stronger. A new version of "If The Bombs Fall" that moves from the love of a woman to belief in the transcendent was another slant on a well loved oldie. By the time he got to "One Way" with the band joining him tenderly on bass and percussion we were getting as near Larry heaven as you can get. A closeness I thought was long gone.

The band then added sketchy and tasteful piano and the world famous guitar maker George Lowden. By this stage they had sadly little time left and I'm sure they had more rehearsed but we got a definitive version of "UFO" with a whirly sound from the drummer that surprised even the singer. After "666" and "The Outlaw," the evening closed with Larry singing a song for Belfast. I waited apprehensively. What would this be like?  Embarrassing? Oh no, I said before that the song writing is sounding good again and "The Troubles" was finely crafted and pointedly provocative and an encouragement to struggle through these new unseen territories of peace making.

So I'm a believer again. Not sure about the far too wordy epilogue. No need Larry. Let the songs speak. You seem to feel you have to do it though. There is a box set coming out of Larry's Belfast years, to raise money for orphanages in Romania. The first half suggested to me that there would be little of tonight's gig on that collection. The whole second half, bar epilogue, should be a CD in itself. He was back. Not only in name but in ability. Now we can hope for more reasons than sentimentality that it's not his last one.

Steve Stockman is a Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He used to book the bands for Greenbelt, edits Juice magazine, has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster and a web page - Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org. He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and 20 month old daughter Caitlin.


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