A friend of my father’s blagged me in through a side door to see Depeche Mode at The City Hall in Cork in October, 1982 but, on the drive home afterwards, all I could really remember was the aggressive support set from a shambling local band called Microdisney, who were jeered and baited throughout. ‘Any requests ?’, enquired the singer at one point ? ‘Get off the fucking stage, ye’re shit’, came a response from the middle of the crowd. And maybe Microdisney were shit, who knows ? But they certainly left a mark of sorts and, for years thereafter, I slavishly followed their fortunes and numerous misfortunes.
I’m still not entirely sure what makes a great live show or an impactful set but I certainly know what makes a poor one and, over the many years I’ve since spent beside mixing desks all over the world, I’ve seen far more implosions than fireworks. That which makes live music so compelling and attractive in theory – unpredictability, surprise, potential, possibilities – also make it so unreliable and often so unsatisfactory an experience in practice.
There was a time when I saw twenty bands a week, every week. This was back when I had no meaningful ties or responsibilities, had few other interests and when I wore my social stamina like a badge. No show was too small, no band too pointless, no pint too flat, no toilet too nuclear, no venue too unwelcoming. During that decade in the fog, live music was one of the few things that really mattered: forget the quality, feel the width.
But during those years I was fortunate too to see some pretty blistering stuff and I’ve been floored on occasion by the sheer magic of a handful of acts who, in an absolutely subjective way and for whatever reason, spun my feet like they played with my heart. I saw a nascent Radiohead at close quarters, saw Nirvana support Sonic Youth twice and The Frank And Walters play a magnificent set for an invited record company in a rehearsal room in Cork. I’ve seen The Pixies play to a largely disinterested crowd of three hundred people in Amherst, Massachusetts while they were the most exhilarating live band anywhere and saw Suede – ‘the best new band in Britain’ – a week after they appeared on the front of Melody Maker before they’d released a single note. I’ve seen The Divine Comedy in a series of different pig-pens in London and U2 in football stadia all over Europe. I was there when The Cranberries played The College Bar in U.C.C., when Therapy? played upstairs in The White Horse and when Pulp played The Rock Garden in Crown Alley to 60 people one Saturday.
And yet I’m not sure if I’ll ever see a better live show than the one I saw Elvis Costello play in Dublin’s National Concert Hall in April, 1999. Backed only by Steve Nieve on piano and, for a handful of numbers, by himself on acoustic guitar, Elvis played thirty songs in two hours, scattering a typically wide-ranging set with the guts of ‘Painted From Memory’, a collection of sassy piano-based ballads he’d recently recorded in collaboration with Burt Bacharach.
Drawing from an exceptional and far-reaching body of work that transcends the years like it does the genres, The Beloved Entertainer made every single blow count and, from the top – a searing ‘Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone’ from ‘All This Useless Beauty’ – his intentions were clear and his aim true. At his best, Elvis is a master craftsman and an often untouchable live performer and, even two hours later, was still reluctant to wrap and go. As the house lights came on, he laid into a remarkable a capella take on ‘Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4’ and, with all of the stage mics turned off, bounced his voice off of the walls of the NCH like a bored teenager working a bionic yo-yo.
But as always, there’s another context too ;- my companion that evening in the stalls was an Elvis fan who I’d met through friends. We had a shared love of good music and sport and, sixteen years, one marriage and three daughters later, still look back on our tentative first steps from Cassidy’s on Camden Street around to Earlsfort Terrace in the rain. And, although neither of us would probably care to admit it, thank Elvis for taking care of the real business.
NOTE : This piece also appears in ‘In Concert ;- Favourite Gigs Of Ireland’s Music Community’ [Hope Publications], published in December 2016 to raise money for the Irish Red Cross, especially in it’s efforts to assist those forced to flee their homes in Syria.
The book, which we recommend, is available to buy via http://hopecollectiveireland.com/2016/12/15/supporting-syrian-refugees/