State has had to get in training for 2009’s Hard Working Class Heroes festival. The annual Dublin binge-gigging session, with Temple Bar as its linchpin, necessarily involves regular jogs, and sometimes sprints, across the Liffey and Dame Street, lest some bright, desperate-to-impress new light of the Irish music scene be cruelly missed by punters and media.
As has become traditional, the list of acts chosen for this year’s event from the hundreds who applied meant a veritable X-Factor’s worth of gushing emotion from the successful and unsuccessful alike. Without an overseas -invasion’ this year (previous festivals have played host to acts from Canada, Scandinavia and Scotland), all 100 bands and artists were drawn from the island of Ireland, and another broad cross-section of styles, genres and haircuts was pretty much guaranteed. Many of them we already know very well; many have been inching up the greasy pole of nationwide recognition since last year’s festival; and a whole bunch of others are like new kids on their first day at school – keen to show off their kit but still hoping that their new togs won’t look too conspicuously ill-fitting.
State begins the seventh HWCH in gloomy pillar-forest that is the Academy 2, where I â™¥ The Monster Hero is playing in front of more photographers than he is punters. After all this time, ticketholders’ continued reticence about turning up on time to watch new acts is a shame for everyone involved. The tall, skinny Dublin solo artist, resplendent in checked shirt, braces and beard, does his best with the empty room but, even nerves permitting, his act seems a little under-rehearsed. Creating interesting, psychedelic guitar loops before our eyes, his first two songs are probably a lot more organised than they sound, but still come over as an amiable shambles. But, just as he appears to be warming up, he throws in a dreadful cover of Phoenix’s -Lisztomania’, completely misreading the situation and the whole point of HWCH. We go elsewhere.
Next door in Twisted Pepper, young electro/guitar duo Albert Penguin aren’t much less cute than the teddy bear they use in their publicity photo. In the glare of the spotlight though, they look like shy schoolboys performing a scientific, sonic experiment in front of parents and teachers, without an idea of the potential outcome. Their chiming pre-recorded tunes are lovely and sweet, but the emphasis is clearly on melody over showmanship; to say that their performance element ‘needs work’ is to severely understate the case.
HWCH have taken a bit of a gamble on Alright Chief, who cheerfully announce to the Button Factory audience that they’re playing only their ‘second ever gig’. This is slightly worrying for a merit-based live showcase festival – their demo must have been a real belter, because they still can’t prove their credentials on the stage. Their songs are best described as -melodic, mid-tempo pop-rock’, none of which scrape a single musical boundary on the way to their (albeit very pleasant) conclusions. Let’s see how they improve come next year.
Over in Andrew’s Lane, Dublin duo We Cut Corners have another of those increasingly popular singing drummer concepts; they also do a line in strident guitar noise and shrieking vocal chants, and yet, -Dumb Blonde’, a guitar ballad, contains a pinch-your-hackles vocal performance which leaves many, including State, stunned. Accomplished and confident, We Cut Corners are definitely ones to watch with interest. At Think Tank, Heathers continue to pile up their plinth of platitudes with yet another startlingly good set; no matter how often you see the Macnamara sisters, their unique songwriting style and vocal delivery is always a delightful surprise.
Back in The Button Factory, attitudinal alt-rock Belfast band A Plastic Rose certainly aren’t suffering from a lack of belief. In fact, all the dual-vocalist four-piece are missing right now is a slight dash of subtlety and panache – hopefully tonight’s experience will hasten that delivery. A hop back over the Liffey, and Dublin’s Bitches With Wolves are keeping an enthusiastic Twisted Pepper audience in raptures with their shockingly bouncy, but slightly hard to swallow, dance-pop. They’re fronted by a prima-donna Technicolor dreamboat, who cavorts across the stage like a gazelle in a tinsel factory; they also feature a bassist who may be fresh from winning a Boris Johnson hair-alike contest. Nevertheless, for an act with stars so obviously deep in their eye sockets, their choruses don’t really sound like they hold too much water. Still, they are a colourful spectacle which is a world away from most indie rock – definitely worth seeing, but maybe only once.
Meanwhile, the excellent, and ever-improving, Dark Room Notes have taken over the Button Factory. Their increasing onstage confidence now more faithfully and justly reproduces the true light and shade in their atmospheric, moody pop. With Ronan Gaughan’s breathy vocals, backed by faultless musicianship, and a fine performance from the mixing desk, they deservedly earn a very warm reception and a filled dancefloor. They’ve already released one of the best albums of 2009, and their new songs suggest the follow-up is shaping up well indeed.
Later, the highly photogenic Talulah Does The Hula engage a very merry Twisted Pepper, where half the audience really do appear to be photographers. (Actually, where have all the photographers sprung from? Don’t people want to be DJs anymore?) TDTH are quite patently a lot greater than the sum of their collective musical talent, but their knack for producing ridiculously catchy girl-group choruses cannot be sneezed at. Nor is it. They are a real and glamorous echo of why we all fell in love with pop music in the first place.
Rounding off our evening in a packed ALT are the by no means inconsiderable Villagers. As a performer, Conor O’Brien does a unique line in humble rapture, quite possibly astounding himself with the subtle magnificence of his own music. But, thank heavens, there are no Gary Lightbody shenanigans with this man – it’s enough that he knows in his heart these are songs with futures: stunning first time around, but with the necessary roots and branches for longevity. Surrounding himself with studious, conscientious, professional minstrels, who are actually artists in their own right, Villagers are a magical combination in the making – we’re not alone in our anticipation of that debut album. Without doubt, a stardust-strewn end to first day of HWCH.
More tomorrow and we can’t wait..