Frank and Walters

THE HARVEST MINISTERS TAKE DUNDALK

It’s over twenty-five years ago now since, one Saturday evening, Ken Sweeney set his mother’s runaround for Dundalk and sped the pair of us up the road, out of Glasnevin and onwards to Mister Ridley’s. The two of us were softly obsessive about one of our many favourite bands, The Harvest Ministers, a Dublin outfit who’d been making decent headway for a while, earnestly kicking against every single convention of the time, often maybe over-earnestly so. With their boy-girl twin lead vocals and deft lyrical flourishes, they’d been ludicrously compared to Prefab Sprout on a shoestring. But burrow in behind their fragile frontage and William Merriman’s dark introspection owed far more to Hank Williams’ ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ than Paddy McAloon’s ‘If You Don’t Love Me’.

 

Five years after they formed in the initial afterglow of post-‘Joshua Tree’ optimism, and representing the absolute antithesis of all that that record stood for, they were making a rare foray out of Dublin and Ken and myself were anxious to see how they got on. Or, indeed, if they’d complete the course at all. On paper, the prospect of The Harvest Ministers taking on a nightclub crowd in Dundalk looked like a real mis- match and Ken had the runaround primed, immediately outside the venue, for a quick getaway. Just in case.

 

I knew little of the scene in that part of the world. Anything I did was informed by the ribald, souped-up yarns imparted by the late George Byrne and, in print, by the delicate hands of Tony Clayton-Lea in Hot Press, who handled much of the constituency work in the North-East and who got through a fair amount of mileage on his beat. There was also the storied battle-front experience of Cypress, Mine !, the paisleyed Cork undergrounders who, one Saturday afternoon, may or may not have been hastened out of County Louth during an eventful double-bill in Drogheda Boxing Club, possibly by local youths bionic on apples.

 

Ken and myself were briefly back in Ireland from London, where we were both based at the time. He was one of the small number of fledgling artists on our books at Setanta Records and had, months previously, rescued me from a squat in Peckham and taken me in under his own roof, far across town in West London. I was stick-thin at the time and, lost in the music and in the giddy rush of an emerging story – I was working closely with The Frank And Walters – hadn’t been minding myself. In spite of all the shimmer, I just wasn’t having a good time ;- I didn’t like London because I wasn’t clued in enough or sussed enough for it and so I fairly welcomed the prospect of a few days of respite.

 

We set up base in Ken’s family home for the duration :- Mrs. Sweeney was a terrific and gracious host who afforded me a mighty welcome and, unusually for that time, regular, healthy meals. And although I’m not sure if she completely appreciated the ambition in her son’s work, it wasn’t as if she let on. I was helping him to promote his first album, the excellent eight-song ‘Understand’, which he’d released on the Setanta label under the band name, Brian, and had set up a range of interviews and live appearances for him around the country. ‘Understand’ was clearly a compelling piece of work but, as with much of the Setanta output at the time, I wasn’t convinced we had enough access to the pipes and wires down which we could distribute the message as widely as it deserved.

 

And so, hastily around the country, kitted out in our long-sleeved Setanta sweatshirts, we proselytised for the week, the highlight of which, I think, was Ken’s live acoustic performance on the RTÉ television series, ‘Nighthawks’. But the purpose of our trip wasn’t just to promote the Brian album ;- we were blazing a trail for Keith Cullen’s asset-rich but still emerging imprint which, at the time, also boasted the likes of The Frank And Walters, The Divine Comedy and A House on it’s roster.

 

And it was to this end that, hours before The Ministers took the stage in Mister Ridley’s, we’d fetched up at the local radio studios of LMFM, where Ken did a short piece with the aforementioned Tony Clayton-Lea, who at the time also presented a weekly show there. We did likewise in RTÉ Cork Local Radio and at other selected stop-offs around Ireland ;- I had a cluster of Setanta samplers in my ruck-sack which we’d leave behind us as we left ;- the definitive calling cards, we thought.

 

Mister Ridley’s was – and remains, by all accounts – a popular nightclub in Dundalk, a serious provincial discotheque with notions, even if the shape and scale of the place has changed enormously in the years since. God knows how The Harvest Ministers, with their brittle, barely-pulsing songs ever ended up playing there, but then the band’s long history is pock-marked routinely with this sort of thing. An eternal search for God Knows How.

 

They’ve been on the go now for over thirty years and yet you’ll struggle to locate them in any of the annals that document contemporary music in Dublin from 1985 onwards. I first saw them at one of the heats at the Carling/Hot Press Band of The Year competition in Sir Henry’s in Cork during the late 1980s where, then as now, they stood out because they didn’t stand out at all ;- they were reluctant, callow, soft and hardly there. In a broader salad of paisley, black denim and long, swept-back hair, they were hunched and cut apart in their charity-shop jackets and dead men’s shoes. They were far from perfect and, in one way, still are – which is why, I think, I took to them so quickly and so intently.

 

Will Merriman first patched his group together during a period when U2 had just gone global and when a single, anthemic chorus got you to first base and a positive Hot Press notice without ever breaking sweat. He’s seen many summers – and indeed many drummers too – in the decades since and The Harvest Ministers’ family tree certainly extends far, deep and wide. But on that night in Mister Ridley’s, Will – the band’s leader, songwriter and constant, led what is easily the band’s best-known and most cohesive line-up, supported by the long-serving Padraig McCaul on guitar, piano and sax, the tearaway Pat Dillon on drums, Gerardette Bailey on sweet, sweet backing vocals, Brian Foley, then previously of The Blades on bass and Aingeala De Burca on violin. And it was this line- up that featured on the band’s first album, ‘Little Dark Mansion’, which was released later that year on the Bristol-based Sarah Records label.

 

You’d never, were you so pushed, expect The Harvest Ministers to get a disco crowd going, post-midnight, but that’s what was expected of them in Mister Ridley’s. And, at the time, there was nothing unusual about that :- given that many venues, especially those outside of Dublin, were located in nightclubs, many excellent live bands were routinely booked to bridge an hour or so over the course of what were long nights and, by so doing, up the intensity – and the take – at the bars. Indeed the one-time Ultravox singer, Midge Ure, once just refused to take the stage at The Bridge Hotel in Waterford when he was told he was going on-stage in the venue’s faux-Roman classical finished dance-hall as a support act to a disco.

 

And so, when The Harvest Ministers ambled onto a small space in the corner of the main floor at Mister Ridley’s, caught in the flickered glitter shapes cast by the numerous disco balls mounted overhead, they looked, as they’ve often tended to, like Nemo and his friends set free from the tank. Opening with a spartan, skewed new number called ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’ can’t have endeared them to the revellers, many of them already well flutered. And, for a while, patronising as you like, Ken and myself worried if The Ministers would make it through.

But they were quickly into their groove and went on to play a protracted and often wild set that featured several of what have long been staples :- ‘Forfeit Trials’, ‘Theresa’, ‘Silent House’ and ‘You Do My World The World Of Good’ among them. And, maybe with a calculated nod to their surroundings – or maybe not ? – the jerky ‘Oliver Cromwell’, with its convulsive sax and frantic snare over which Will repeatedly sings the big money-line – ‘Oliver Cromwell … is a pansy’. And as I recalled in a review in Melody Maker magazine subsequently, ‘by the end of the night there are couples waltzing around at the front and not an evil word is spoken’.

 

I’m consistently drawn back to that night in Dundalk for many reasons, not least of all because, not for the first and certainly not for the last time, I saw exactly how music, in this instance neither obvious, direct or immediate, can often forge a direct emotional contact even in the most unlikely of settings. Where, kicking against all reasonable theory or argument, The Harvest Ministers absolutely aced it. Of all of the live shows I’ve seen – and I’ve seen far too many at this stage – it is easily one of the more memorable and certainly on any list of favourites.

 

And that’s maybe why, I think, The Harvest Ministers continue to be such an unremarkable and yet at the same time wholly remarkable force. Because notwithstanding their exceptional back catalogue, and the scope inherent in what Will is still trying to do, it’s just impossible to dislike them.

 

In a curious twist of fate, they went on to release two terrific albums for the Setanta label, ‘A Feeling Mission’, produced by Phil Thornalley in 1995 and 1997’s magnificent ‘Orbit’, which was over-seen by John Parish, a long-time side-kick of P.J. Harvey. And betimes during this period, it looked as if the band might, almost in spite of itself, achieve some manner of cross-over, especially when the sound was bolstered up on the likes of ‘If It Kills Me [And It Will]’. But that they’ve remained resolutely stuck in the hedges and caught on the margins ever since shouldn’t in any way devalue Will’s song-writing stock :- all that’s really changed in that respect is the manner in which he now records his material, and with whom.

 

Most recently he’s been buttressed by Andy Fitzpatrick, the New York- based, former Dadas frontman who’s been an ancillary member of The Ministers for years and it’s the pair of them who, ostensibly, laid down the down the core of The Harvest Ministers’ current album, ‘Back To Harbour’, which was recorded in Fitzpatrick’s apartment and released last week.

 

And, as we’ve come to expect [and long since come to take for granted], it’s another pretty special instalment that, over the course of it’s eleven tracks, plots a familiar course dominated by casual strumming, brushed drums, delicate melodies, layered strings, a soft organ wash here or there, over-laid with Will’s vocals which, to this day, are sometimes barely there at all. Especially strong over the home straight, you’d have to wonder if he’s ever written a cluster as impactful as ‘The Debutante With The Nose Ring’, ‘Through The Trap Doors Of Insanity’, ‘No Feelings For You’ and the absurdly beautiful ‘The Heron’ ? All of which, yet again, come highly recommended.

 

Several years later I returned to Mister Ridleys. Plenty of water had roared out past Dundalk Bay in the seven years since I’d last darkened it’s doors and I was now working as, of all things, a television producer. Myself and my friend, Dave Hannigan, were making a documentary for RTÉ about the retired Irish footballer, Paul McGrath, and were picking up an important aspect of the story.

 

McGrath was, and remains, a fascinating subject and, in our efforts to unravel what was a complicated and often difficult past, we’d come looking to speak with another Irish footballer, Barry Kehoe, who had also, like Paul, played in the League of Ireland before briefly trying his luck at Manchester United. Barry’s story was no less complicated :- he was a magnificent midfield player at his hometown club, Dundalk, but his career was curtailed by injury and, later, by a long battle with cancer. As a contemporary of McGrath’s at Manchester United, however briefly, he was an obvious contributor to our film. And I located him quickly and easily enough ;- he was living and working in Dundalk, managing a nightclub in the town. Mister Ridleys.

 

Myself and Dave remember the time we spent on that Paul McGrath documentary very fondly and, across the Atlantic, we’ll still trade short messages about those wonderful months, back in 1998, as we pieced together ‘They Called Him God’. And as the cast list passes away one by one – Tommy Heffernan, Charlie Walker, Graham Taylor and Barry Kehoe himself, who eventually lost that cancer battle in 2002, those memories take on added significance for us.

 

On Barry’s suggestion, we conducted the interview with him at his place of work and, while our crew began to set their equipment into place, he proudly took us on a tour around Mister Ridleys and, as he did, The Harvest Ministers, from out of nowhere, flashed through my mind. The mirror balls, the waltzing couples, ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’, Ken and the runaround.

 

‘And over there’, said Barry in a warm but typically flat Dundalk accent as he pointed to a small alcove area touching onto the dance floor, ‘that’s what we call The Erection Section’. And, for whatever reason, The Harvest Ministers disappeared back to the dim recesses of my mind, as did any thoughts I had about lunch for the cast and crew.

Brian

Via Ken Sweeney

 

JONNY REP and BALLINCOLLIG

jonny-rep-turned-around

The suburb of Ballincollig, to the west of Cork city, is known to many because of John Spillane, the gentle Cork songwriter with a delicate hand who, on his 1996 album, ‘The Wells Of The World’, commemorated the village with two chords and a sting. ‘Johnny Don’t Go To Ballincollig’, he warned on that record’s very first line. ‘Where you always get disappointed’.

I’ve been making the ten-mile trip out from Cork city to Ballincollig, on and off, for the guts of forty years and I can’t say I’ve ever been really disappointed by it ;- not even during the frenzied New Year’s Eve I spent there fifteen years ago. But growing up in the middle of the city during the 1970s, Ballincollig may as well have been in Donegal ;- in the days long before ring roads and over-passes, it was simply out there somewhere, in the country. And yet that never stopped my mother from loyally making the journey once every season to visit her hairdresser – trading, with typical Cork notions as a ‘hair coiffeur’ – whose box-room premises were very definitely at odds with the outward ambition of the business and which were located towards the Ovens end of the main drag back.

And when we’d be outside in the car, impatient and restless, waiting for her perm to fully set, my father would turn to me and suggest that Ovens, a truly mad place down the road, was the most appropriate spot in Cork in which to locate a crematorium, if anyone were clued-in or daring enough.

The Cork-based promoter Denis Desmond –not to be confused with his more high-profile, hirsute and alpha namesake – launched a nationwide competition for school bands in 1989 and I regularly fetched up all over Munster to help out with the judging. It was a laudable and naïve under-taking, and certainly not something from which a coin was turned easily but, for me, it was a cost-effective way to catch the best and worst of what was going on inside some of Ireland’s most addled adolescent minds. And it was on this beat one Saturday afternoon that, in a musty old hall on The Crescent in Limerick city, that I first heard, and was quickly captivated by, the competition’s eventual winners :- The Hitchers. Their first single, ‘There’s A Bomb In That Basket Of Fruit’, was recorded as part of their prize for taking the spoils on a memorable final night in Connolly Hall in Cork in March, 1990.

During one of the competition’s earlier heats out in Ballincollig Community School the previous winter, the premises was put under siege by a group of tooled-up young toughs half-way through. After a couple of local goth bands struggled through their sets, the building was put into lockdown and the production crew was sped out of the village under Garda escort. I was back in The Long Valley on Winthrop Street in good time for last orders and had, for a change, a genuine story to impart to those in the upstairs bar. And in that story, the bands I toiled through earlier that evening were way less memorable than the cider-fuelled carry-on around the school grounds.

It was Denis Desmond who first turned me onto The Outside, a reluctant five-piece from Ballincollig with smart, poppy fingers and a keen touch who quickly became one of my favourite local bands during the late 1980s. The name captured them perfectly :- Francis Ford Copolla’s 1983 teen film, ‘The Outsiders’, betrayed their references while, in the same breath, summed up how they saw themselves, cut adrift in what was still a developing suburb away from the thrust and noise ten miles back along the road. I made a point of seeing The Outside whenever I could, most memorably in The Cork Opera House as part of a three-night showcase for new bands that Denis also ran, and where they were as good as they’d ever become. They picked up a couple of handy supports along the way too and I really thought they had genuine potential. They were a work in progress, of course, but their canny pop songs displayed a real grasp of the fundamentals and hinted at a frame of reference broad enough to keep them interesting and arresting. And I was sorry to see them pack it in so shortly afterwards ;- another band poisoned forever by the public shift of death I’d given them.

Some of their number fetched-up thereafter in a handful of other, more boisterous guitar bands – Semi, Fred -before eventually putting down roots as LMNO Pelican, who deviated from the family line and were a dirtier, slightly more skewed indie concern. The Pelicans became a prominent adjunct on the comet ridden by both The Frank And Walters and The Sultans Of Ping during the stellar period between 1990 and 1995 but may have been unfairly lost in the supervoid that briefly surrounded it. I’ve written previously about the band’s spiritual leader and pulse, it’s late drummer, Brendan Butler, and it was because of him– and his overwhelmingly positive view of life and music – that myself and Mick Finnegan, one of the many unheralded figures at the heart of Cork’s music scene from post-punk onwards – ended up together on the producer’s settee when LMNO Pelican entered Elm Tree Studios on Cork’s Mardyke in 1993 to record their second E.P.


They’d already made a considerable dent with their debut, the excellent four-tracker, ‘Boutros Boutros’, from which ‘Call Yossarian’ – in the spirit of the feistier Dublin guitar bands from a decade previously, The Slowest Clock in particular – was a particular stand-out and a signal of real intent.

For years afterwards I wondered if Mick and myself just made a proper hames of the follow-up and that, far from enhancing the band’s sound, had actually sucked the spirit from them ? But ‘Red Dot’ E.P. still means the world to me :- I certainly knew what we wanted to do on those four songs even if, to this day, I’m still not entirely sure where most of the bottom end went during the mixdown ? There are some terrific flicks, hooks and licks on that record, many of them provided by Fergus [Gus] Keane, the Pelican’s ace guitarist who, even then, was already an honours graduate of the Tom Verlaine/Graham Coxon school of icing. And I’ll still pull that record from the racks the odd time and get a rare thrill from ‘Wangley Dan’ and ‘Chalkey Gods’, recalling a terrific couple of weeks during which we panel-beat the record into shape and laid it down, plotting the harmony lines, adding cello parts and working up the shapes as we went.


The core of that band – Pats, Fergus and Derry – can be found these days scaffolding Jonny Rep, the best constituent parts of The Outside, Semi and The Pelicans compounded, basically, and then lacquered with an urgent, riffy finish. These days they’re joined in the vanguard by a pair of strays from two other prominent Cork outfits, Niall Lynch from The Shanks and Dave Senior from Rulers of The Planet and, dragging it all together from behind the mixing desk, Ciaran O’Shea who, with his brother, Declan, founded and led the ambitious [and very noisy] Cyclefly who, for a spell, briefly threatened a serious international breakthrough fifteen or so years back. From his Whitewell Studio, outside of Cloyne in East Cork, Ciaran certainly knows how to create a formidable wall of guitar sound [and where to locate the bottom end] and Jonny Rep’s records sound absolutely vast. For the sake of easy reference, they’re like an indie Traveling Wilburys trading Ride-style blows on every single line.

I hadn’t heard from them for years until, out of the blue, they posted up Jonny Rep’s excellent and frightfully under-rated debut album, which was released back in 2010. And the tidy hand-written note that accompanied it – not begging favours, just bearing best wishes – is typical of how they’ve always conducted themselves. I was delighted to hear from them and even more excited to hear that they were all still at it, decades later, and with the same sort of zest they had back when they were younger, leaner and dreamier. Maybe it’s just another aspect of the cycle of life manifesting itself but there’s something keenly reassuring about friends sticking the distance through the decades, refuelling at various points in the road, driving on, with music to keep them in good spirits and to occupy their conversations.


These days, they tell me, they might get together in the rehearsal room whenever the mood takes them, no pressure, and riff it out until they’ve made a forward stride or two. They may make another record down the line or they may not. They may play an odd live show, they may undertake a short tour, who knows ? But what’s clear is that the twin spectres of disappointment and failure that overhang all bands of a certain age have, in this case, long given way to perspective and priority. It’s a freedom that’s evident in the music :- Jonny Rep have never sounded stronger, more cohesive or better.

Today, the band formally releases it’s second album, ‘Cold Sunbeam’, even if none of us are entirely sure what a formal release actually means anymore beyond, one suggests, a line in a Google group calendar. Yes, there’ve been a couple of positive notices, a steady increase in airplay, the odd radio appearance and a couple of soft pieces in the local papers but beyond that, one suspects, it’s more about a quiet, singular satisfaction at just squaring something special away, boxed off. And, once again it’s a very physical, confident record that, over the course of it’s nine formidable tracks, flouts it’s influences like it
detonates it’s riffs ;- early, often and to real effect. Added marks to, of course, to any band that references one of Blackpool’s most historic industrial landmarks in it’s album title.

Maintaining a long link – especially strong in Cork circles – between the indie set and football, the band is named to within a missing letter ‘h’ after the mercurial Dutch winger [is there any other kind ?] who played in – and lost – two World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978. Johnny Rep is another in that far-reaching line of footballers who played as fast and loose off the pitch as he did on it even if he is still, to his credit, one of the few players to have admitted to taking amphetamines during a career that was also pock-marked by a battle with booze.

In a curious reversal of stereotype, I can’t imagine Jonny Rep breaking out the whizz in the rehearsal room anytime soon in order to gain a sly competitive edge on an unsuspecting opposition. And they’ve also come far enough and through enough to know that ‘Cold Sunbeam’ won’t get them gold-plated status at Mar-A-Lago. But there comes a point when gentle genius lies in the most obvious and simple things :- like respecting life in the slow lane. And Jonny Rep have that in spades.

‘Cold Sunbeam’ is released today, February 24th, 2017, on Jonny Rep’s own label, Wangley Dan Records, and comes highly recommended.

TRASHCAN SINATRAS LIVE IN DUBLIN, NOVEMBER 12TH, 2016

Trashcan Sinatras have long operated at their own pace and under their own steam and are clearly reaping the benefits ;- the band members don’t appear to age and neither, clearly, do their songs. Unlike, on both counts, most of the almost exclusively male crowd that’s loyally and noisily assembled here to see their first Dublin show in almost a decade in a venue that, appropriately enough, was once a social refuge for thirsty workers. And judging by the spreads, stubbles, spectacles and slap-heads that sprinkle the bar-area at The Workman’s Club, The Trashcans have certainly gotten their core vote out ;- the turnout here goes unstintingly back the decades with them. Back to when their name also included a definite article, back to when their music was regarded widely as a defining article.

Quite how and why Trashcan Sinatras continue to endure – perpetually on the fringes, forever over-looked, consistently excellent – is their own business alone, but it’s a business for which those here tonight will be forever grateful. Part of me suspects that it’s now reached the stage where, after six compelling studio albums, they keep on keeping on simply because they can, just about. And that, almost thirty years after they first emerged from Irvine in The Smiths’ slipstream, with the smart cut-and-thrust of a young Aztec Camera – and with all the expectation associated – they’re just too far gone now for turning. Which also seems to be the case among their audiences, from whom a giddy delirium is blood-rushed once again tonight, up off of the wooden floors and deep into the neck of the elevated rostrum beyond. And there’s your connection :- everyone here has not only a story but a scream and a Trashcans yarn too. I’ve long bored my own friends and family rigid with the usual old jaw about majesty and the vagaries of the music market, proselytising. But I’ll continue to do so as long as the band keeps putting it’s best feet forward and, if that now means once every six or seven years, then so be it.

So tonight is far less a one-night stand, then, and way more of a real occasion. To which folk have travelled from all parts, as is discernible from the many high-octane conversations around the venue before and especially after the show and also by the interventions from the floor at intervals during the band’s set. That proclaim, as lovingly as they do invariably, the band’s genius and which, for a change, fall not on deaf ears but on those which may be moderately-functioning, aided and otherwise. Around the sides and in the alcoves, I’m certain I recognise a couple of heads from way back while, scattered around the back of what is one of Dublin’s most welcoming live music venues, a coterie of old-hands can recall and recite, from memory, the minutiae of the band’s first two albums, ‘Cake’ and the irrepressible ‘I’ve Seen Everything’, around which were sown the first drills of unstinting loyalty.

But while the band is in town to ostensibly promote it’s recent album release, ‘Wild Pendulum’ – constituency work, we can call it – there’s a sense here too that the day-to-day process and routine that defines so many jobbing bands just isn’t really relevant in this case. Trashcan Sinatras have been playing to the converted for far too long now – it’s been years since their audiences became so selective – so that, without pressure or prejudice, they can simply rock up, plug-in and drive-on, just keeping the home fires on the burn. Because all anyone is really seeking tonight is validation and assurance ;- that sense that, with The Trashcans still around, all can be well, however fleetingly.

And, as has been the case on those numerous occasions over the years, they just effortlessly and instinctively deliver. Because while their last two albums are certainly more layered and require more attention than those that went previously, their canon is so wide and magnificent that, over the course of any random twenty-song set, it’s just impossible for them to really put a single hair out of place. Dipping as far back as the their 1990 debut single, ‘Obscurity Knocks’, with it’s magnetic indie swagger, through the middle-order magic of ‘I’ve Seen Everything’,‘Weightlifting’ and ‘The Genius I Was’ to the more recent, post-graduate hand-craft of ‘Wild Pendulum’ – especially the royal flush of ‘All Night’, ‘Best Days On Earth’ and ‘Ain’t That Something’ – there is, as ever, something wildly consoling about The Trashcans and how they go about their work. In a year that’s been pock-marked by loss, in a week in which Cohen was lost over-board and Trump came home, there’s hope in the little things yet.

The terrific local singer and writer, Carol Keogh [Plague Monkeys, Tycho Brahe, Automata], is another long-time fan of the band and joins them to augment ‘Send For Henny’ and ‘What’s Inside The Box’, during which she manages the near impossible ;- elevates a magnificent band to even further heights. And just to connect all of the dots, Frank Duff of The Blue Brass lends a Tijuana trumpet feel to ‘All Night’ and ‘I’ve Seen Everything’ ;- the last time three different Franks were seen on the same stage together in this part of the world was when ‘After All’ and ‘This Is Not A Song’ were the pop songs du jour and The Trashcans and The Frank and Walters were mates on a major record label.

As is traditional now, the extent and breadth of the band’s back catalogue dictates many of the post-mortems around the venue afterwards, with as much talk about those songs that went un-wrapped as those that they played. A short cameo for ‘Iceberg’ but no ‘Earlies’. ‘How Can I Apply’ but no sign of ‘I’ll Get Them In’, and so on. No ‘Wild Mountainside’. No ‘I See The Moon’. It’s what happens, I guess, when a surfeit of gold from the hills meets the limits of an early curfew.

On the way out, one of our number encountered The Trashcans’ guitarist John Douglas at the front door of the venue. He’d thoroughly enjoyed the show, loved The Workman’s and would certainly have hung around except that, with a ferry to catch at 6AM and a show the following evening in London, the band was beating an early retreat. Immediately next door, The Clarence Hotel, co-owned by members of U2 and a monument to their standing as one of rock music’s most successful concerns, both critically and financially, is still bustling and busy ;- punters, guests and revellers mill about the building and around the entrance to the trendy liquor bar beneath it.

And its against this backdrop that The Trashcans slowly lug their own gear into a back-alley in inner Dublin, in the dead of a cold Autumn night, onwards.

BRILLIANT TREES LIVE IN DUBLIN, 2016

 

Twenty years ago, when Brilliant Trees were hot to trot, good to go and had just released their formidable debut album, ‘Friday Night’, Dublin were reigning All-Ireland senior football champions and Charlie Redmond, of Erin’s Isle and East Finglas, finally had his just reward. If Jason Sherlock had taken the sport by the throat with a drop of his callow shoulder, a tearaway’s slalom and a poacher’s eye to become Gaelic football’s most sellable asset, Redmond was Dublin’s battle-worn pillager, a rounded foil to the swagger of youth, the static in the flow.

 

They celebrated that 1995 All-Ireland win long and hard out in West Dublin. The Erin’s Isle club, located in deepest Finglas, also provided Mick Deegan and Keith Barr to the spine of that side ;- like Redmond, they were, as you’d expect, cut from durable stuff, seldom beaten. And so it’s apt that, on a night when the city centre is as vibrant as I’ve ever seen it on the eve of an All-Ireland final – and during another period marked by the dominance of a Dublin side playing cavalier football  – that Brilliant Trees have re-marshalled their forces and, as they used to do routinely over the years, taken over a small part of town. Theirs has always been a loud and partisan travelling support and, years since they last assembled so formally anywhere, they’re in from the suburbs and out once again in numbers tonight.

 

I’ve written previously about Brilliant Trees and about how, never too showy or overly complicated, they were such a consistent, classy and, in their own way, unusual presence around a scene that burst into life in Ireland’s regions after the World Cup in 1990 and that soon caught fire elsewhere. Physically lean, politically sussed and as principled as would allow, Brilliant Trees weren’t at all out of place on the Cork Rock bill at Sir Henry’s in 1991 where they shared a standing with the likes of The Frank And Walters, The Cranberries, Therapy?, Toasted Heretic, The I.R.S., Lir and The Sultans of Ping. And while it possibly took them longer to find their sea-legs and to realise the full range of their gift, their two albums, 1996’s ‘Friday Night’ and 2000’s ‘Wake Up And Dream’, rank as two of the purest – if slow-burning – Irish pop records of the period. Even if, in keeping with much of the rest of their story, they rarely feature in histories and lists, even those compiled in – and about – their own backyards.

 

Throughout their various exiles, I always felt that The Trees had plenty of business left unfinished and much left unsaid. In direct knock-out, the scoring systems just didn’t suit their style which, casually and at times naively, blended orthodox with southpaw. Many other, far lesser contenders from that period seemed to just glide the canvas a bit easier, skipping in and out of trouble, cross-punching a bit more readily. And there’s only so far and so wide a positive outward face will stretch when it dawns that the music industry is far more about the vagaries and the unreliability of the industry and far less about the regular detonation of the music. So little wonder then that, after one pointless blow-to- the- head too many, Brilliant Trees, however reluctantly, heeded the pleading from their corner and, heads bowed, walked away from the ring.

 

 

On the not inconsiderable matter of winning and winners, you’ll often hear sports psychologists mention how some of the most remarkable victors from across all walks of life are often utterly unknown. About how, away from the numbers and the footlights, personal victories are routinely achieved in all sorts of conditions and against all manner of difficulty, often determined by exceptional individual circumstance. And so, simply by walking on and out in front of a sold-out Grand Social crowd, comprised largely of the familiar faces of long-time friends, acquaintances and ultras, Brilliant Trees have already nailed it. With a meaty set pulled largely from the two albums and popped at the turn by a track or two from a new, forthcoming record, they sound as familiar, welcome and warm as they did during their first flush. Augmented by a steel rod in their backbone – Dave Morrissey on keys, Tony Brerton on drums and, for a magical fifteen minutes in the middle order, Ciarán Kavanagh on guitar – it’s re-assuring to see them with real weight on. While Alan, Tony and Sid look as lean and as fit as they did in their early publicity shots from decades ago, their sound, as you’d maybe expect, has wintered well, way more full-bodied.  Musically, they’re packing a middle-aged spread and they’re looking terrific on it.

 

From the reluctant shuffle of the opener, ‘Like You A Lot, Love You A Little’ to the down-beat closer, ‘Home’, and in around the familiar, powerful verges of a canon in which  ‘Take Me Away’, ‘Talent’, ‘Let It All Go’, ‘Heartstrings’, ‘Who Hurts Most’ and ‘In Your Dreams’ sound Especially ageless, The Trees know that now, definitively, they can park their anxieties. There was a time tonight when, with Ciarán adding a third guitar, they replicated the current Trash Can Sinatras line-up in tone and style as well as in physical heft. And while the more direct, less subtle end of the catalogue nods to far more familiar influences – The Smiths, Ride, Blur – the current single, ‘I Know, I Know’ is in far less of a hurry and, smooth and unforced, suggests that, what’s coming down the line could yet be the most beguiling phase of of what’s been a long and colourful journey.

 

 

And so, more confidently on their own terms than ever previously, Brilliant Trees are back. But for how long and for how far, who knows ? And does it matter ? No. The forthcoming record will maintain their momentum and give them a fresh wind, for sure. But tonight its enough to simply see them go for it so instinctively, taking the first, nervy step back out onto the dancefloor. Re-born, renewed.

 

 

CRYSTAL, FROM CORK

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Picture courtesy Siobhan O’Mahony

 

Crystal were one of Alan Murphy’s outfits, in essence a more formed and focused version of his previous band, The How And Why Insects, with his girlfriend, Lisa, added on vocals and Kieran Curtin replacing Anthony Murray on guitar. They were one of a number of bands from the Turner’s Cross/Capwell/Glasheen Road side of Cork City, via Coláiste Chriost Rí, but who, drummer Keri Jones apart, had little else in common with their peers, notably Censored Vision and Serengeti Long Walk.

With Brian Quigley [bass] completing the line-up, they were easily the most academically qualified band to emerge in Cork as the eighties ground to a close. But they were keen students of classic and alternative sounds too ;- Alan, especially, had a far-ranging frame of reference that stretched back to the classics and forward into the contemporary margins. And, once Lisa integrated more fully into the line-up, Crystal developed a sinewy – but no less sparkly – guitar-pop sound. So much to that, for a while, I genuinely thought they had enough about them to really kiss the sun.

But they never received the credit their ambition warranted, especially around Cork, and their live shows were often pock-marked by poor sound and indifference from audiences. But Crystal, with a rich depth of field, a real attitude about them, and swarthy good looks, were well able to hold their own in any company and, for a number of years were prominent, but never over-bearingly so, on the local circuit.

Some of the band later embarked, inevitably enough, onto careers in full-time academica, after which Alan and Lisa re-grouped, re-charged and re-modelled themselves as Starchild, a far more ambient and considered outlet for Murphy’s songs.

But not before, in August, 1991, I gave them this review in Melody Maker magazine, capturing them at their peak, live in The Shelter on Tuckey Street. At the time, Tuam band The Sawdoctors and raggle-taggle period Waterboys dominated the general conversation but, lurking beneath them, a fresh wave of excellent, alternative regional acts had taken their starter’s orders and already had the mainstream squarely in their cross-hairs. And with Crystal among them, I thought.

And so, with the game on, I stepped out to bat and, not for the first or the last time, gave a decent, emerging band, the kiss of death.

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Picture courtesy of Siobhan O’Mahony

Crystal, (The Shelter, Cork)

Crystal are a million miles away from raggle-taggle and they couldn’t care less for sub-generic jangle guitar pop. Mention The Sawdoctors to them and, like Woody Allen on love and life, they’ll internalise. Grow tumours. They’re resolutely hip. Essential. And they’re completely un-Irish, rather like Toasted Heretic and Therapy? and The Cranberries and The Frank And Walters, I guess.

Crystal are indie-kids with style and attitude and looks. They’ve missed all of ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, and the repeats too, because they’ve been too busy listening to My Bloody Valentine and R.E.M. and The Who. They’ve just fallen for ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Revolver’ and ‘Rubber Soul’ and they make some of the most beautiful noise-pop in, well, months.

Tonight in this wonderful little pop hut, Crystal are like a whale out of water. Their comic-culture upbringing, their style, their attitude, their complete disdain for anything remotely linked to Irish pop actually confuses tonight’s pop kids. Songs like ‘Forbidden’ and ‘Touch The Sky’ are murmur-pop songs that we can actually hear. And hum. And remember tomorrow. And then there are three-minute rant-and-rave pop songs like the perfectly-formed ‘Too Late’ and the head-spinning,body-line bounce of ‘Free’.

There’s Lisa’s voice ;- a travelling companion in first class for Dolores Cranberries’. There’s her looks. There’s Brian’s top-heavy bass guitar and a drummer on loan from Anthrax. It’s a confusing little bag. Like Fatima Mansions, if you like.

Crystal might well be a product of their environment, but that patch is well away from here. That is where they’ll stand or fall. The only certainly is that, like My Bloody Valentine, they’ll never be seen as an Irish band. Because they’re not.