WXPN is an American radio station that really knows how to treat its listeners. The alternative station, which is almost entirely funded through listener contributions, offered an impressive holiday package to Ireland to fully subscribed members, but this is no ordinary trip. As well as the usual flights, hotels and day tours, the Philadelphia-based alternative radio station has also organised a series of surprise secret gigs for the itinerary, including a special performance by O Emperor in Limerick and an intimate evening with Paul Brady in Cabra castle later in the week. Tonight however it’s pulling out all the stops by taking over the Gravity Bar in the Guinness Storehouse to host a special evening with acoustic sets from Villagers and Bell X1. What makes the event even more special is that the whole evening is being recorded for broadcast on one of NPR’s flagship radio programmes – World Cafe.
As impressive as all this is, it’s actually the setting for tonight’s gig which immediately grabs you. With a 360 degree view of the city from the Gravity bar, Dublin has never looked so pretty. The mountains off in the distance, a sea of amber lights rushing out across the city and an intense, fire red sunset all combine to create a stunning effect. A blue lit stage and room full of jet lagged but giddy US fans completes the scene.
After a welcome speech from the station director, the programme kicks off with a rapturous welcome for Villagers. Conor is joined by Cormac Curran on keyboards for a stripped down set and straight away charms the mostly middle aged audience by cheekily announcing that they are not his usual demographic. Beginning with ‘On A Sunlit Stage’, Conor does what he does best; creating that pin-drop kind of atmosphere that has his audience entranced from the start. Despite being State’s umpteenth time to see Villagers, it still sounds as precious and beautiful as ever, with ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’ still sending shivers down the spine. ‘Set the Tigers Free’, ‘Ship of Promises’ and ‘Becoming a Jackal’ are all performed through an impeccable sound system, sending the audience into thunderous applause and a standing ovation, as Conor leaves the stage.
The amazing sound quality of tonight’s gig may be down to the fact that both performances are being recorded for broadcast on NPR’s World Cafe series. Celebrating 20 years of being on the air, tonight marks the first time that they have ever recorded a show outside America. The timing couldn’t have been better for Bell X1 who had just released their latest album in the same week. Beginning with a stripped down version of ‘Velcro’ (see it here), State is left slightly underwhelmed as mellow acoustic guitar replaces the upbeat keyboards and the anthemic drums on the album version. Second track ‘Sugar High’ however fixes all this as glitchy beats and a catchy piano hook gets feet tapping and heads nodding. We’re then reminded that this is not your typical show as we break for an interview between host and Paul Noonan.
Everything from what his early days with Juniper were like to the recession is covered before the host asks about Noonan’s supposed tendency towards product placement in his lyrics. A touching version of ‘Rocky’ takes a lover sees Noonan sharing the funny but sad story of the homeless casanova who used to live sleep outside his window before abandoning his chair, for a much more animated version of ‘Safer Than Love’. Stretching across the stage, Geraghty is joined on piano by Noonan’s outstretched fingers as he reaches across the small stage, for one of the night’s highlights.
Finishing off with a special version of ‘I’ll See Your Heart And Raise You Mine’, Bell X1 brings the night to a close as once again the audience breathes sighs of contentment, applause fills the air, and a standing ovation follows. This hasn’t been your typical gig and definitely not your typical audience but hopefully both acts will benefit from the kind of exposure in the US, this recording is sure to bring.They deserve it.