Arriving just as surprise guest Natalie Imbruglia wraps it up (Yes, she played ‘Torn’), State makes a beeline for the bar secures a pint just in time before raising it “TO ARTHUR” at 17:59. As we drink, we notice The Academy has been transformed for the night. Camera crews and their equipment have severely reduced the venue’s 850 max capacity. Huge lighting rigs affect the views of those on the balcony in certain areas and all the best vantage points are already occupied by a stage-hand. Spotlights and strobe machines litter the floor and we’re not alone in feeling it’s more like a television set than a music venue.
Despite all this, there is a noticeable buzz about the Lower Abbey Street venue. Rumours are rife that a ‘special guest’ is on the way, while others such as the two young blonde girls in the front row are happy enough with the lineup as it stands and scream excitedly at the mention of Paolo Nutini’s name over the PA. Famous faces such as MC for the night, Ed Byrne, a rather dapper Neil Delamare and bearded Corkonian Mick Flannery add a bit of showbiz glamour to the event (sort of) and keep punters happy obliging with autograph requests. The bar staff are working themselves ragged trying to keep up with orders of the Black Stuff and all the while people are cheering about Llamas. It’s an unusual mix of folk, from the very young to the very old. Everyone is in good form and a deafening roar erupts as Ed Byrne introduces the next act.
Enter Richard Hawley. This ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ performance did little to win over the raucous crowd. “My music is very soft, so if you speak loudly… that’d be great”, he begins without a hint of sarcasm. Choosing not to embrace the cheery atmosphere, he muddles his way through two very downbeat, standard numbers, losing people’s attention on the way and doing nothing to claw them back. The atmosphere wanes and a sizeable portion of the crowd make for the bar, leaving only the cravat-wearing types and those with enough fluid in hand to see him off. Finishing with a sublime rendition of ‘Just Like The Rain’, may have saved some face for the man from Sheffield, but this will be a performance (if three songs can even be called that) that pales in comparison to previous Irish outings. Perhaps it’s more a case of poor booking than poor show, but Hawley did little to help his cause.
As Hawley leaves the stage Ed Byrne reappears and tells us to “give it up for our next act… Richard Hawley”. Turns out that this will be a running theme for the night. This is a show “filmed in front of a live studio audience”, where slip ups and technical issues are rerecorded until perfect. Richard’s entrance was not captured from enough angles, so it is shot again. The Panel star introduces guest after guest throughout the night, interviewing some more than once for the benefit of the cameras and to the annoyance of the crowd.
Unsurprisingly then, Imelda May is welcomed to the stage with feverous applause and cheers. Not to everyones taste the Lady of the Liberties and her excellent backing band play an interesting and engaging set. ‘Big Bad Handsome Man’ puts the crowd back into dancing mode as she pounds on her tambourine releasing some scarily strong vocals from such a tame looking figure. On record Ms. May is often accused of forced vocals, however tonight as she moves effortlessly through her six song set, it is easier to image that her thick, unflattering spoken Dublin accent is the more forced. “Howayez. it’s grea’ to be back how-em”, she cackles before being quickly ushered by her band into her cover of the Stone Poneys’ ‘Wild About My Lovin’. Her native accent makes it’s only appearance in song her, with the famous line becoming “Bring i’ wi’ yeh when ye-cum”, rendering the number more annoying than anything else. Finishing up with the angry nursery rhyme that is “Johnny Got a Boom Boom” leaves punters content during the next half an hour break.
The female contingent of the crowd make themselves known as heart-throb Paolo Nutini makes his way onto the stage, with screams that overpower Ed Byrne’s introduction. The 22 year old wastes little time and launches straight into’New Shoes’. He preens himself throughout and moves his body like a man with a spinal condition. He is entertaining if a little inoffensive, but he does know how to please a crowd. He plucks a guitar and takes a shot at the Christy Moore made famous ‘Ride On’ resulting in an impressive sing-along from the crowd that Mr. Nutini honestly seemed not to have expected. From here he moves into recent hit ‘Candy’ and it’s all a very standard affair from here on in. He leaps and pulls at his low cut shirt, fisting the air when it gets a bit too much for him and air drumming when there’s nothing else to do. His showmanship is to be applauded, but based on his new material it’s hard not to get the feeling that it was his roguish looks and clever management that brought him to the top of the charts early this summer.
The imminent arrival of The Kooks sees a sudden surge toward the stage. However it is only 50% of Brighton four-piece that arrive on stage. Frontman Luke Pritchard and the chubby Worzel Gummidge lookalike Hugh Harris play an entirely acoustic set, relying heavily on material from debut album Inside In Inside Out. It goes down well, but the stumbly antics of Mr. Pritchard amusing as they are, raise suspicions about alterations to his mental state. He still has the wherewithal to bash through standards such as ‘Ooh La’ and ‘Shine On’ but attempts to explain the absence of the other band members are cut short by Luke’s seeming inability to focus on anything but his guitar. He mumbles thanks to Guinness and apologises for “the drummer and that” again before leaving on a limp verion of the ‘Sofa Song’.
A mass exodus occurs when Ed Byrne concedes that only Fionn Regan and Sharon Shannon are left to play and truth be told these punters might have made a good call. Fionn Regan’s The End of History was an interesting body of work that won him plaudits, aligned him with a young Bob Dylan and allowed him to charge over the odds for any of his shows in Ireland. Since then it seems he has lost his magical touch, which is a pity as this was the one performance State was really looking forward to. With the bulk of his performance coming from 2010-imminent release Shadow of an Empire, Fionn and his band take us through some unexplored territories with his band. It’s not a pleasant experience for your average punter and lines such as “Life’s like a paper cup, for using and disposing of”, become too much for some – not least the more eco-friendly among the remnants of the crowd. As he left the stage, most found it hard to remark on anything but how tight his pants were.
So then Sharon Shannon wrapped it all up. Smiling like a Billie-Barry child on Prozac, she is the antidote to tonight’s poorer performances. Knowingly cheesy and twee she and her ‘big band’ aren’t on long before a full blown hooley breaks out. Women recall Irish Dancing steps on the balcony as an impressively quickly organised ceili dance is orchestrated on the ground floor. Pints are spilled and nobody cares, screams of ‘yeee-oo’ are rampant and even the cravat-wearing stiffs are feeling as bit ‘oh, bejaysis’. ‘Blackbird’ (Not the Beatles version) is a guilty pleasure beyond any reason and even ‘Galway Girl’ is fun. It might have been the number of pints consumed during Fionn’s performance, or maybe the fact the so many of tonight’s shows were self-indulgent, down-tempo or just plain average, but it would be hard to argue that Sharon Shannon is not the highlight of a long, long day. I never ever thought I’d put those words together.
Photos also by Sean Conroy.