Those who know The Virginmarys know that social commentary is used fiercely throughout their music. Most recent album Divides is probably the strongest example of this yet, tackling at full force the every day struggles in today’s society. Fresh off the back of a US support tour and main stage Reading and Leeds festival performances, Ally decides to tackle these issues head on. Starting on home ground, Ally releases a video announcing an acoustic set in aid of the Silklife Foodbank in Macclesfield on 21st September. The cost of a ticket? As much food as you are able to supply on the night to this charity. Unsurprisingly these limited places have been snapped up in thirty minutes.
As dusk was falling, tucked away down a small alleyway, I find Macclesfield’s beautiful little Unitarian Chapel which prides itself in welcoming a diverse spiritual community. This provides a most atmospheric setting for tonight’s gig, for no charge other than donations to the food bank. Being broadcast live via The Virginmarys’ Facebook page by the band’s drummer, Danny Dolan, surrounded by family, friends, fans, local community and just a few candles, Ally steps out to rapturous applause. The hairs on the back of my neck are up already, before a note is even played. A raise of the hand and a nod to the people, Ally opens the set with the rather apt “Long way Down From the Top”. As Ally’s stirring vocals and beautiful acoustic guitar tones reverb around the chapel, you can hear a pin drop and I find myself reminding myself to breathe. Ally remains on the guitar and treats us to a beautiful, stripped back version of “I Wanna Take You Home” before playing a charming, previously unheard before track followed by a powerful rendition of “For You My Love”, his vocals remaining flawless throughout. More ecstatic applause is met by Ally’s extremely humble “Pack it in” but his smile says it all.
Moving onto the piano and it suddenly strikes me how very poignant Ally’s ‘heart on his sleeve’ tattoo is. Sitting there completely exposed and vulnerable, pouring out his very heart and soul through his music, I get a sense of that’s how some people must feel reaching a point in their lives where things are so difficult they are unable to provide themselves or their family with basic sustenance. The whole purpose of tonight is never more apparent. As Ally keys the first few notes of “Lost Weekend”, I become completely overwhelmed and the tears start to fall. Afterwards, Ally takes a moment to talk about early days and writing and I could be wrong but he seemed visibly moved at this point also. “Passing Place” is absolutely haunting and there is barely a dry eye in the house.
The mood is lightened as Ally comes back to the guitar and takes time to interact with the crowd and thank everyone for their incredible support. Launching into “Free to Do Whatever They Say”; this passion-fueled song gives reference to the extreme austerity society faces today and sits perfectly within tonight’s set. Another sublime, unheard song next about supporting and helping each other through tough times. A beautiful echo effects pedal just intensifies Ally’s divine vocals with spine tingling effect. Again, a generous donation of sound equipment for tonight’s set from Trackside Studios, where these tunes are smashed out week after week by the band.
Songs old and new resonate throughout this captivating set, and far from my usual not being able to stand still at a gig, I find myself barely being able to tap my foot along to the beat so spellbound am I by the whole performance. The acoustics in here are out of this world, literally. “Walk in My Shoes” is highly emotive and not for the first time I’m biting the inside of my lip, there’s just something extra special hearing this on piano which takes it to a new level and again I think it’s the whole vulnerability that Ally so graciously shares with us all. Before singing “Moths to a Flame” Ally reaches out across the oceans to those he knows are watching via the live stream, it’s what this song is about, after all.
The evening starts to come to an end and Ally thanks all those involved in hosting the event. Open to requests now, and we’re treated to the the stunning “Keep Me on the Run” and “Stripped”; Ally jokes he hopes he can remember the lyrics, and then drops a faultless performance, his astounding talent unequivocal. Exposing his most vulnerable side Ally then talks about bleak times and being completely broke himself and explains that at the very least you can come to some sort of acceptance and happiness if you can fill your belly with something. No matter who you are, or what the circumstances are, you deserve to eat he says, and to make any kind of difference to that feels like the right thing to do, if the government doesn’t look after the people then the community need to look at that. A round of applause ensues. The set closes with a powerful, heartfelt performance of “Cast the First Stone” which brings the house down. All around me people are hugging and talking about how emotional the performance was and more importantly about the cause itself. It was an absolute honour and privilege to witness something so special and spiritual, and I won’t get over this performance in a very long time, if ever. An incredibly moving performance from an amazing guy who not only writes and sings about all that is wrong in this world, but actually goes out there and does something about it. We should all take a leaf from his book.
Black and white photos with kind permission from Phil Heathcote Photography