I’ve been attending live shows at Whelan’s, on Camden Street in Dublin, for decades. During which time the physical lay-out of the building has changed in line with the development of the street on which it is located and, indeed, the thinning of my hairline. The fabled old venue is now a far broader, more physically elaborate concern than it was, thirty years ago, when it was an unofficial party headquarters for the folk and dog-on-a-string set. But in the time since, it’s booking policy has stayed resolute and, like many of those who regularly return to perform there, seems to be rooted in old currencies like taste and decency.
Whelan’s is in far better shape now than many of us who’ve lived and indeed, loved in it, as much a refuge for the bewildered and the distracted as a live music venue of distinction. And unlike much of that which now surrounds it in central Dublin, it hasn’t yet offered up its soul to the glass, chrome and steel girders that are increasingly prominent around that part of the city.
The lay-out in its main-room should, by any measure, render it un-workable. The hollow can be an awful sound-trap that, like imported craft beer, has unexpectedly messed the heads of the good and the great over the years. But that catholic booking policy, though, brings a pardon to every charge and, although you’re never entirely sure what you’ll find there from one night to the next, the place regularly pulls rabbits out of hats. Whenever the stars get into line, there’s hardly a better location anywhere in which magicians take the floor.
A life-sized sculptural representation of a solitary Dublin drinker, The Stone Man, has forever kept guard at the main bar as a perpetual night-watchman who has seen every single live show at Whelan’s. Its long been one of the venue’s bespoke features but, beyond that, can maybe also be read as a metaphor for the place itself, an old-school constant – a throwback, even – in a world gone increasingly anxious and unreliable. A point that hasn’t been lost, you’d think, on the inestimable Lloyd Cole, a frequent visitor to the place who, in 2008, recorded a live acoustic album in the main room there and titled it ‘The Whelan’. Lloyd, as we know, isn’t one for indulging the gobdaws.
Nostalgia, of course, is a canny seductress and you’d want to be fair careful of her once she gets into her stride. But there comes a tide in the affairs of all those who make and inhale music when they just don’t need to be told anymore: that point where you no longer feel compelled to justify either the music you make or listen to. The result of what the next vacuous Love Island wannabe or, indeed, the next great emerging half-forward – and increasingly, there are few differences – might refer to on a sponsored Instagram post or during a pre-match interview with Marty Morrissey as the importance of the journey over the lustre of the destination.
I stopped making excuses for my favourite bands and performers many, many years ago, after the penny finally dropped and I realised just how un-natural, and indeed anti-natural, the basic idea of ‘being in a band’ is. Think of the most complicated and difficult marriage you can, and then multiply it by the number of bass-players your average group gets through in a lifetime and that’s where the level of intensity is. Which is why I’m so in awe of those in groups everywhere who’ve stayed the distance and managed to keep their faculties and their friendships intact as they’ve done so. From the biggest bands in the world dutifully going about it because they’re contractually bound or because they know no other way to the old school-friends, now working in middle management positions in state agencies, still bound by sound and hacking around together in someone’s garage. For no other reason than, into their middle and later years, it’s a handy way to escape the kids and annoy your wife.
Indeed, whenever I hear ‘City of Blinding Lights’ or ‘With Or Without You’ or ‘One’ by U2, I’m now struck less by the grandeur of the music and way more by the fact that U2 is still able to line-up shoulder-to-shoulder, still able to throw the odd brick. Irrespective of what one might think of the music, and there’s plenty here about that, what, ultimately, is more important? Go on, I dare you.
This is the kind of weighty matter that, I suspect, occupies many of those among the Whelan’s set, those regulars who congregate in its alcoves before shows, the music a cover beneath which important relationships are kept steady and the heads kept on the straight. Those for whom those once-a-year appearances by the old-guard – Something Happens, The Frank and Walters, Nick Kelly and their ilk – are desperately re-assuring, the music as unimportant or as vital as you need it to be, depending.
During those fleeting moments years ago, their greatness was briefly determined by ‘Burn Clear’, ‘After All’ and ‘Arclight’, back when they represented youth, dynamism, life, optimism and energy. Now, as the world hums on, they’re fundamentally as human as the rest of us, determined as much by an ability to simply endure as much as anything more profound. They become us and we become them.
I couldn’t believe how quiet the middle of Dublin was on the Monday night before last Christmas. Even Camden Street, normally so noisy, belligerent and difficult to navigate whether on foot or behind a wheel, was empty. In the back room at Whelan’s, however, the tills were ringing out, business nicely brisk and the going good; another end-of-year Delorentos show, another sell-out.
The North Dublin four-piece now carry the baton once held by The Franks, The Happens, The Fats and that clatter of zesty, local outfits who boxed spectacularly above their weight and spoiled us during the Jack Charlton years. They are the heart of a bridging generation that, in the history of recent Irish popular music connects A House and Whipping Boy with Fontaines D.C. and Murder Capital. A group that, five albums into a weighty career, now finds itself at an inevitable junction.
Those listeners to the mainstream weekday radio schedules will hear Delorentos intone Ryan Tubridy’s programme on RTÉ One every morning [‘S.E.C.R.E.T.] and the band’s material [‘Petardu’ and ‘Home Again’] has also featured on a couple of recent television advertising campaigns. Given how deep and wide their canon extends, and how impressive their development has been, it would be a shame if, in the broader public mind, this was the extent of their legacy. So while the band is technically marking the tenth anniversary of the release of it’s fine second album, ‘You Can Make Sound’, its also book-ending a productive decade and maybe stock-taking for the road ahead. The few bob to be made from the handful of sold-out, end-of-year shows won’t be scoffed at either.
The last decade has taken then far and wide but, commercially, nowhere near far or wide enough. Their curve has been a largely upward one, though, and the group is a far different concern now than when it first emerged in the mid-noughties. Alongside another Portrane-based outfit, Director, they were the feisty, riffy sound of Fingal.
Like many young bands and new groups with an instinctive knack for writing, they were in a ferocious hurry and that early material, much of which is terrific, is marked by an almighty rush to get to the big pay-off. Nothing we haven’t seen previously, though; any punk-infused bucks might, at one point, have been expected to fire off fifteen songs in any thirty-minute set, anthems the lot of them.
But Delorentos always had the physical heft to match their fast hands, however, and those early numbers with which they so dynamically announced themselves – ‘Do You Realise’, ‘Eustace Street’, ‘Idle Conversation’, ‘Sanctuary’ and the perennial ‘S.E.C.R.E.T’ – sound as impressive now as they did when they first detonated. Instant, gnarly pop songs that gave them a real head-start on the rest of the field. Director, who themselves released a couple of moderately diverting post-industrial, Franz-gender elpees, are another curious footnote in the recent history of popular Irish music. But Delorentos shared little with them really bar an Eircode and, by any standards, had far more in common with another fine Dublin guitar band, Sack, to whom those first couple of elpees bear more than a passing resemblance.
With five albums in their locker now, Delo have assembled a body of work as impressive as anything put together by any local group during the last forty years, with the obvious exception of U2. A House, Villagers, The Frames, The Franks, Something Happens; in respect of breadth and body, they’re up there. And yet, in some of my more introspective moments, I wonder if they really get the credit they deserve?
I heard one of them talk impressively on radio some time back about the vagaries of song-writing, and particularly about how an IMRO-sponsored workshop led eventually to one of the band’s best songs, ‘Everybody Else Gets Wet’, one of the many stand-outs from their fourth album, ‘Night Becomes Light’. The idea of formal, structured writing will be anathema to many, kicking against basic creative instinct, the magic in the moment and so forth. And yet its maybe indicative of Delorentos and how they approach their work, for many bands the definitive four-letter word. Recalling the great Cork writer, Seán Ó Faoláin, one might regard them as a band who, in the presence of great music, live nobly’. Either way, ‘Everybody Else Gets Wet’ is a banger.
‘Wet’ is also indicative of the band’s transition from the angled, indie-beat of their first couple of elpees to the more complicated, precise and far less frenetic approach heard on their last three; in time honoured fashion, they’ve mellowed nicely as they’ve gone on. So that while I’m not convinced that the most recent Delorentos album, 2018’s ‘True Surrender’ is the group’s best or most compelling, what is far clearer is that under the keen eye of Tommy McLoughlin, its easily the band’s most expressive and confessional. In part, as on ‘Islands’, ‘S.O.S.’ and the stand-out, ‘In the Moment’, it throws back as far as the bubby, prototype synthy sounds of Tony Mansfield’s New Muzik. Elsewhere it nods to the band’s more familiar, modestly-indie cut influences, Keane most obviously.
The detailed press release that accompanied ‘True Surrender’, and that still features on the band’s website, suggests that Delo have entered a far more complicated phase, not just in respect of their output but in respect of what shapes it. That tonal shift is manifest across the eleven cuts on that elpee, where allusions to parenthood, uncertainty and broader perspectives are fore-grounded. The record opens ominously – ‘I see stormy weather, coming at me across the great water’- before Ronan Yourell determines at the close that ‘there’s a new horizon calling out to me’. Where once, fleet of foot and fancy-free, Delorentos did angst and anguish better than any group in the country [‘I know, you’ve been talking to him. And it’s all coming out now’], these days there’s an existential shadow on their lung. Sad, uncertain songs are almost invariably more beautiful and way more unsettling and, in this respect, ‘True Surrender’ certainly adds another layer to what is already a serious body of work.
Much of which featured during the band’s fin-de-siècle, greatest hits shows before Christmas and not even a persistent tuning issue in Whelan’s could detract from another fuzzy night in the band’s company. During which there were also a couple of references from behind the mics to upheaval and the roll of life; one of them lives in London now, some of them are recent parents, such things. So these are interesting times for them because, although they can point to a fine local following, some of which is borderline fanatical, they’re unlikely at this point to convert that into a broader, international-facing success.
It’s probably the single most unfashionable, overly-simplistic and maybe even patronising thing to ever write about a band but I love Delorentos because they genuinely make me feel good. And I invariably leave their shows feeling buoyed and far better about myself. There’s surely a place for that, isn’t there? Because that’s really the whole point, isn’t it?