Gareth Dunlop

Three Friends, Three Hours: Foy Vance, Lee Rogers and Gareth Dunlop Serenade The Birchmere

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(Gareth Dunlop at the Birchmere. Photos by Kelly Wosahla)

Gareth Dunlop, Foy Vance, Lee Rogers

The path that took Gareth Dunlop to the US and a solo set at the famed Birchmere outside Washington, DC, can be traced back twenty years ago. There in the pubs of his native Belfast he and Lee Rogers, another aspiring singer-songwriter, spent time in pubs watching Foy Vance and peppering him for advice..

“We asked too many questions,” Dunlop reflected three songs into his opening set on how those early days forged a path that brought him to the US and led him to produce Vance’s latest album Signs of Life. On this night, the three were billed as Foy Vance With Lee Rogers and Gareth Dunlop.

Dunlop came onstage unannounced for a twenty minutes solo set before making way for Rogers and then returning to join Vance’s band on bass guitar. Like his Irish counterparts, Dunlop spoke self-deprecatingly, stating we could probably tell he “wasn’t from around these parts.”

Dunlop created his own one-man band, strumming the bass string of his acoustic guitar on “Paradise,” a technique he relied upon to create the underlying tension of his intense songs. The enigmatic, minimalist approach was tailor made for the listening room that has had a storied history for decades.

Dunlop dove deep into his tortured soul on “When I’m With You.” On a more playful note, he cited his placement in the tv show Lucifer before the “Devil Like You” and teased his placement in an upcoming horror movie. Dunlop switched to piano for “Look Back Smiling” in which he mused on the speed of life going by.

Gareth Dunlop was seemingly gone just as quick as he had come on, making way for Rogers who came on without an introduction but was no less compelling. Rogers recalled how a 3 am conversation with Dunlop three years ago led to a co-write “Silent Song.” Rogers was aided by guitarist Colm McClean (who was moonlighting ahead of his gig with Vance’s band), and added bluesy slide licks to accentuate the introspective song as well as in the blues travelog “Further On Up The Road.”  Rogers came out charging with “Everytime,” the first track from his new album Gameblood. The emotional urgency of the sweeping love song and the barroom lines from “Life and Lies” and “Uneasy Love” lingered long after the lights came up and signaled Rogers to make way for Vance’s set.

Vance was all smiles as he stepped onstage and surveyed the crowd. He was here ten years ago and was supposed to come back but was interrupted by Covid. He began with “15,” a song fittingly from his first album that many years ago. He began a rhythm loop and chanted “Hope Peace Love” which played while he made his way to the drum kit. Guitarist McClean joined for the little jam that could as they riffed away and warmed up the crowd like they were doing musical calisthenics. 

“That could have been an absolute fucking train wreck,” Vance deadpanned with his wide smile lit up by the contours of his handlebar mustache and pleased by the outcome.

Vance’s five piece band set foot onstage with Dunlop strapping on a bass guitar, joining McClean, drummer Pete McCauley and percussionist Matt Weir and playing Vance’s current single “Sapling.” The rhythm section provided a thunderous full throttle kicking in on “Sign of Life.” Vance was at the piano with the band reaching an emotional crescendo during “Roman Attack” and McClean’s frenzied guitar licks powering “Hair of The Dog.” “System,” was gorgeous with its echoes of Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” “String Hand” was soulful with McCauley coming in on falsetto vocals and he and Vance playfully going back and forth.

It was late into Vance’s set when he called Dunlop to sit at the piano and sing the title song of his album “Animal.” Abetted by the full band, Dunlop’s song was still edgy as it came to a sudden stop.

On the full-tilt rocker “Casanova,” Vance sounded like John Fogerty as if he were backed by Rockpile. “It Ain’t Over” had a cascade of electric guitar and the brush-like effects of Weir’s cymbals that sounded like rain and closed out the set

To Vance’s delight, people were shouting out the names of songs for encores. ‘Indiscriminate” showed off the band’s gospel chops. On “Barefoot in the Basement,” a co-write between he, Dunlop and Rogers, Vance brought up Rogers to sing alongside him. Drummer Pete McCauley came down from his drumkit and sang “Until The Lights Dim” which turned into a soul serenade. We savored it and clapped along as the band made its way offstage during “Shed a Little Light”.

It was great to feel the love people had for Vance. As he sang alone for his final song “Guiding Light,” the night had an almost spiritual feel of the human soul.  Though just a few years older than his comrades, it was clear his encouragement and mentorship had been passed on and now come back full circle. 

Before we realized it, three hours of enthralling music had passed as if in a blink.


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