Category Archives: Ireland

St. Patrick’s Day at the 9:30 Club with the Pogues

Shane MacGowan, still upright on the second of three nights at the 9:30 this week.  Photo by Erica Bruce.

Shane MacGowan, still upright on the second of three nights at the 9:30 this week. Photo by Erica Bruce.

The world’s greatest wedding band, says I. Reviewed for DCist.

On Stage: Pumpgirl

Madeleine Carr is the titular, tomboyish gas-station attendant in "Pumpgirl."  Photo by Linday Murray -- Solas Nua

Madeleine Carr is the titular, tomboyish gas-station attendant in Pumpgirl. Photo by Linday Murray — Solas Nua.

I previewed the new Solas Nua show, Abbie Spallen’s Pumpgirl, for Post Weekend. Solas Nua is one of the most reliably interesting companies in town. I’ve loved several of their productions, and even the ones I’ve disliked have struck me as honorable, ambitious, interesting failures.

This Song Is Not a Rebel Song; This Song Is “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” 14 Years Later

(And now another dozen years beyond that.)

U2, the oldest (well, longest-standing), sacredest of my sacred cows, will release No Line on the Horizon, their 12th studio album, on March 3, and you’ll be able to spend as much money as you want on the thing. (A pay-what-you-will, just-the-music download edition a la Radiohead would be the decent, tasteful thing for U2 to do — they can easily afford it — but it ain’t gonna happen.)

I’ve long believed U2 to be superstitious about the months in which they drop albums, and their long-awaited latest was originally rumored to be a November release — like 1991’s Achtung Baby, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind (which actually came out on Halloween, as I recall, which is almost November), and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

The Joshua Tree, still U2’s most beloved and iconic album despite strong competition from Achtung, was a March release, way back in 1987. But the new record will be U2’s first March record since — gasp! — 1997’s POP.

Am I going to re-open the debate about U2’s most controversial album? Hell, no. (But if you feel like delving into that, you can stop by Carrie Brownstein’s superb Monitor Mix blog, where she recently suggested that POP and the subsequent PopMart Tour — which I saw four times! — might stand as a textbook case of shark-jumpery.) I just hope No Line on the Horizon isn’t an overhyped, undercooked, and yet still ultimately underrated album that we’re all still fighting about in 2021. That seems to have been POP ‘s fate, though it still gets revived and defended in unlikely places by unlikely people. The Imposter, for example. His cover might be the definitive version of “Please.”

That U2 played “Sunday Bloody Sunday” every night on their last two tours after having rendered the 1983 song all but obsolete with “Please” in 1997 is just straight-up pandering, Man. At least play both!

Double Shot of DRUID

DRUID’s kiss-me-quick production of two Synge plays, The Shadow of the Glen and The Playboy of the Western World, reviewed for DCist.

Sonic Doom: Bell X1 at Ram’s Head Onstage


“We don’t know how rock to get,” confessed Bell X1 frontman Paul Noonan at Ram’s Head Onstage in Annapolis Saturday night. He was talking about the awkwardness of turning it up to 11 in an all-seated supper club (“We don’t have shows like this back home in Ireland”), but his band has bigger problems: It you haven’t got the songs, then your chops are worth about as much as a Johnny Buckland guitar solo. (I just had to look up the Coldplay guitarist’s name to complete that sentence, so there you have it.)

Bell X1 is what remained of Irish indie-rock outfit Juniper after Damien Rice left for a solo career, so no surprise that Rice is one of the many purveyors of the atmospheric balladry Bell X1 tries very hard to emulate. Their genteel, out-of-focus soft rock — imported to the States when “Eve, the Apple of My Eye,” ha-ha, got picked up by “The O.C.” a few years back — sounds like a diluted Coldplay, itself a soggy imitation of better bands, like that other Irish rock band named after a famous Cold War aircraft. (Give yourselves another point for originality, Bell X1! Maybe that’s why you called your album Flock.) But the biggest flaw of Bell X1’s white-glove sound is that it allows you to hear the lyrics — the one about the angel and the devil playing poker in the Garden of Eden, for example (“I’ll See Your Heart and Raise You Mine”), or the one about how you have the most beautiful face, and we’re all floating in space. Surprisingly, there have been a handful of decent pop songs written about Writer’s Block; Bell X1’s “My Firstborn for a Song” is not among them. Somebody get Glen Ballard on the phone!

No wonder that for most of their 70-minute main set, even the band seemed bored. For Shame: Noonan, the former drummer who inherited lead vocal duties when Rice left, is a capable and charismatic singer. With a good song to sell — the Talking Heads’ “Heaven,” for example, performed during the encore — he’s plenty watchable.

Bell X1 closed with their best shot, “Flame,” which boasts funky “Miss You”-by-way of Scissor Sisters-flavored guitar part and a snaky bassline that immediately hooks you. The buzz lasted all the way until the chorus, when the five grown onstage squinted to sing in unison about how they want to “toast marshmallows on a cold, dark night.”

Honestly. Some bands just won’t help themselves.

Bell X1 play the 9:30 Club with opener Brooke Waggoner on Tuesday, June 3rd. A shorter version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.

Hurry Up and Kill Yourself Already: Solas Nua’s Portia Coughlin

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We know just how she feels: Linda Murray is just asking for chronic back pain in Portia Coughlin.

It’s no fun reviewing a show created by people you like and respect unfavorably. (And there’s a bit of it going ’round lately, seems like.) But this is The Job.

Also on DCist this week, my first Weekly Music Agenda.

Irish Song of the Damned

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A recent-ish (and Shane-less? Is that him, supine in the foreground at left? I can’t tell.) photo of the Pogues.

So. Spent the last two nights at the 9:30 seeing the Pogues for the first and second time. Hardly the debauched evening I might have expected if I’d seen them 20 years ago, but they sounded great.

I was on company time the first show (Paper of Record review here), when I spied Baltimore Sun newsman-turned-Homicide author-turned-creator of The Wire, David Simon, walking up to the VIP balcony. I waited around to try to talk to him after the show, but was told the balcony was closed for a private function.

Simon’s presence at a Pogues show on Sunday evening was ironic because the final episode The Wire had begun airing on HBO about 15 minutes before the Pogues took the stage, and because the Pogues’ music has been featured prominently in several episodes of the billiant HBO series. “Metropolitan” has scored at least one of Det. Jimmy McNulty’s  (Dominc West) adventures in drunk driving, but more to the point, there’s a tradition on the show — one that presumably, given Simon’s insistence on authenticity even in the most minute details, has its origins in the actual practice of the Baltimore Police Department — that when a cop dies, his brothers in arms lay him out on a pool table, eulogize him, and then sing the Pogues’s “The Body of an American” over him.

Sunday night, the Pogues played “Body” 12th in their set of 26 songs, I think. I turned around to try to catch a glimpse of Simon’s face but couldn’t see him just then.

Anyway, Paper of Record pop critic J. Freedom du Lac blogged about my sighting, and The Reliable Source picked it up today.

I still wish I could have spoken to Simon. I’ve got lots of things I’d like to ask him, about journalism and music and filmmaking and The Wire, but if I only had a second I’d thank him for creating what I’m hardly the first to call the most sophisticated and truthful show probably in the history of television. One of the funniest and most moving, too.

We’ll Find That Bastard If It’s the Last Thing We Do

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Solas Nua’s Trad, reviewed in DCist today.

Mightily do I dig Solas Nua. Their Scenes from the Big Picture at Catholic back in May was what we pointy-headed aesthetes like to call “the shit.” I had a nice talk with Jessi Burgess, founder of the Inkwell, at their opening gala Saturday night. She’s directing the next Solas Nua show, Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan, so we have reason to expect greatness, or at least grooviness.

This Movie Is Not a Rebel Movie, This Movie is U23D

Bono fronts the World's Biggest Band while sporting the World's Most Inclusive Headband.

Bono fronts the World's Biggest Band while sporting the World's Most Inclusive Headband.

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of being right up close at a U2 concert, let me divulge with a spoiler: Bono — a.k.a. Paul Hewson, a.k.a. The Fly, a.k.a Mr. MacPhisto; champion of Africa and two-time Nobel Prize nominee; debt-relief crusader and F-bomb-dropping bane of the Federal Communications Commission; the big-brained, big-hearted, big-mouthed and wholly unembarrassable frontman for The (all together now) World’s Biggest Band — is a wee, short little dude. Five-seven, five-eight, tops. When he performs — and truly, no rock and roll frontman has ever looked more at ease serenading a stadium-load of air guitarists than this guy — he wears thick-soled boots that give him an extra inch-and-a-half on the vertical plane. Every little bit helps, right?

But to paraphrase Al Capone, you can get further with a pair of platform shoes and a 3-D IMAX film that captures your every messianic gesture in close-up — and then projects your mug with frightening, acne-scarred digital clarity on a screen six stories high — than you can with platform shoes alone.

Thus arrives U23D, the most unambiguously-titled movie since, um, Aliens vs. Predator. It’s an 85-minute concert film compiled from a half-dozen early 2006 stadium gigs from U2’s Vertigo Tour. (Two other concert DVDs from the Vertigo Tour have already come out, making it perhaps the most exhaustivelydocumented rock roadshow since Bono created the world in seven days. Oh, relax, would you? I’m kidding now.) Released through National Geographic (!) exclusively in IMAX theatres, it’s the first live-action film to be completely shot and edited using a digital 3D process that James Cameron helped to develop and is using to shoot Avatar, his post-Titanic return to features. The results are, from a purely technical perspective, extraordinary.

The images have a convincing illusion of depth, and the film’s sound design contributes to the immersive feel of the thing by discretely separating different vocal and instrumental sounds. On “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” for example, your hear Bono’s lead vocal in front of you and the Edge’s backing part somwhere behind your head.

While this captures the feeling of being there more convincingly than traditional concert movies, it’s still a wholly unique experience, equally removed from a gig or a film. For one thing, you can both see and hear better than you would from even the best seat in the house at an actual concert, with the cameras giving us a variety of perspectives that would be impossible to achieve in a live situation. Of course, many concert films do this much, but at the cost of immediacy. Not so here: You feel the crowd (or, in some thrilling band POV shots, your fellow performers) around you at every moment.

The sound design, too, emphasizes the rumble-in-the-gut feel of a concert over a pristine presentation of the music, allowing crowd noise to remain a constant presence in the mix. No overdubs were added after the shoots. Bono’s once-mighty vox, an uncertain quantity in recent years, gets a little help, with the film’s audio selectively mixed to hide its limitations. (The culprits seem to be poor vocal technique and smoking rather than age — though it seems impossible given all he’s achieved, Bono is only 47 in Earth-years.)

With their two world tours of the 1990s, Zoo TV and PopMart, U2 did more than any band ever had, practically or artistically, to compress the space of a football stadium into a place where something like intimacy was possible. So it makes sense that they’d want to try to advance the medium of the concert film in the same way. As co-directred by Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington, both longtime associates of the band, U23D errs on the side of taste, preferring long takes to the hyperactive jump cuts of many concert films and avoiding the eye-poking novelty of the other 3D movies you’ve seen. There’s little sense of Bonozilla terrrizing Tokyo (or indeed Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Santiago, or Buenos Aires, the cities where the movie was shot). The “wipe your tears away” passage of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is the only point I can recall at which he directly reaches out to “touch” the viewer.

2008_0123_TheEdge.jpg The 3-D effect is most striking in the crowd shots, wherein the sea of heads and arms seems to extend outward from the screen even as they vanish into a horizon of camera flashes and illuminated cel phones. Bono’s hand gestures get some John Madden-eqsue etch-a-sketch accompaniment during “Love and Peace or Else.” In most concert videos, this sort of embrodiery is always a mistake, but the way the digital “chalk lines” seems to hover in midair actually makes you wish U23D indulged in a bit more of this sort of gimmickry.

Dramatic low angles and backlighting only make The Edge want to rock harder. Photo courtesy @U2.

At 14 songs and 85 minutes, U23D is only about two-thirds as long as a typical Vertigo Tour concert, which will be enough for all but the diehards. Things begin rather clunkily with the ubiquitous iPod jingle “Vertigo,” a fun rocker but not a show-starter. U2 know how to make an entrance like few other bands, but that’s one aspect of a U2 show that Owens and Pellington have missed entirely, instead giving us some dull slo-mo footage of fans running into the venue.

Predictably, the songs included are mostly U2’s Greatest Hits — “Beautiful Day,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “One” — but a few worthy album tracks make the cut. Most notable is “Miss Sarajevo, the band’s 1995 elegy for that war-torn city. When Bono sings the Italian verse that Luciano Pavarotti performed on the recorded version, it’s one of the highlights in terms of sheer performance. Meanwhile, the unholy sonic mess that is the botched start of “The Fly” is one of the carefully-chosen moments of imperfection left in, like Adam Clayton’s bungled bass solo on “Gloria” from the Under a Blood Red Sky live EP a hundred years ago. (Okay, it was 1983, but you know.)

Of course, we’ve never needed U2 to point out their own shortcomings. Witness the wonky close of “With or Without You,” a tune U2 have played at every full-length concert they’ve given since 1987, and still they bungle it as often as they don’t. (For a more assured version, see Rattle and Hum, U2’s prior theatrically-released concert film, from 1988.) But it doesn’t really matter — hearing 70,000 voices wail the song’s bridge is so hair-raising that the rest of the performance is little more than afterthought.

Bono’s sometimes eloquent, sometimes tiresome, always criticized sermonizing is all but absent, perhaps because all of the footage is from concerts in countries where English is not the native tongue. But the centerpiece of the Vertigo Tour shows, wherein “Sunday Bloody Sunday” segues into “Bullet the Blue Sky” while Bono dons a headband/blindfold bearing the command “Coexist,” with an Islamic crescent moon representing the “C,” a star of David the “X”, and a cross the “T,” is as powerful on film as it was in person. A few minutes later, when a recording of a woman reading the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights introduces “Pride (In the Name of Love),” you might have to stop yourself from pumping your fist in righteous solidarity.

You’ll want to stay through the credits, which feature some cool animation effects left over, presumably, from the movie proper, as well as a live performance of “Yahweh.”

“You’re all so much smaller in real life,” Bono once told a concert audience. In U23D, the long-lived Irish quartet has finally found the film format to match their outsized ambition. The World’s Biggest Band has become, beyond all argument, the world’s biggest band. Like, quantifiably. Seems appropriate somehow.

U23D opens Jan. 23 at the National Museum of Natural History’s Johnson IMAX Theatre. Advance tickets are available here. The film, if you care, is rated G.

It’s Irish Genius Week in my Clip File!

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po-faced [poh-feyst] – adjective, Chiefly British. having an overly serious demeanor or attitude; humorless.

And U2 Week in the Style section at the Paper of Record, apparently, what with yesterday’s gushing front-page profile of Bono, my review of the 20th Anniversary reissue of The Joshua Tree in today’s paper. Maybe I’ll post a longer version of that review here. Or maybe I’ll just say “enough is enough” and get on with my life, too much of which has already gone to cutting that thing down to the not-ungenerous length at which it ran. Verily, writing about your sacred cows can be a tricky business.

The other Irish genius of whom I speak would be Samuel Beckett. The National Theatre of Great Britain Production of his 1961 Happy Days starring Fiona Shaw is at the Kennedy Center’s Terrance Theatre for a short run of concluding the day after tomorrow. I reviewed it for DCist. Not exactly light entertainment — for that, there’s A Christmas Carol 1941 at Arena, which I took my parents to the following night; DCist review forthcoming — but, you know, thought-provoking, imaginative, ballsy. Beckettian, I guess.

This Just in: Dude Likes Chick, Chick Music, Ireland

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When the Swell Season — essentially Frames frontman Glen Hansard and Czech songstress Markéta Irglová— played U Street’s beautiful Lincoln Theatre last December, they nearly upstaged headliner Damien Rice. But returning to the Lincoln Sunday night, the Swell Season were deservedly the main attraction, riding a wave from the sleeper hit movie Once, wherein Hansard and Irglová basically play less famous versions of themselves, falling in love (kind of) as they wander Dublin composing songs together.

The movie and the duo’s songs share a bittersweet hue, but Sunday’s concert was purely celebratory. Performing in various configurations — Hansard solo, Hansard/ Irglová duo, and as a five-piece with cellist Bertrand Galen, violinist Marja Tuhkanan, and Frames fiddler Colm MacConlomaire — the ensemble conjured up forceful-yet-intimate readings of songs from the Swell Season’s sole album and the Once soundtrack, Frames favorites, and well-chosen covers of songs by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and, um, Michelle Shocked. (Don’t snicker. The rave-up of Shocked’s “Fogtown” that closed the main set was one of the evening’s highlights.)

But the lovesick ballads featured prominently in Once — “Falling Slowly,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” and the title track —drew the biggest cheers from a rapt audience that mostly stayed quiet enough during the performances let these haunting, fragile compositions resonate.

Onstage as onscreen, Hansard and Irglová’s chemistry is palpable. He’s a furry-faced motormouth who can’t introduce a song without revising himself three times; she’s a no-nonsense siren whose voice ends all debate. But whenever Hansard indulged his cutesy tendencies — joining, for example, the already treacly Frames number “Star Star” with “Pure Imagination” from that deathless “Willy Wonka” movie — you knew the 19-year-old Irglová would have the next song, using her “If You Want Me” to pull the 37-year-old Hansard back from the twee abyss.

Truly, theirs is a match made in Heaven. Okay, Ireland. On this night, it was close enough.

A truncated version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.

This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!

Once, they call it. There’s a song by that name in the film, but the title could just as well be writer/director John Carney’s private joke about how often this premise can be expected to work: Two talented musicians, one of them very young and not yet famous; the other no longer young and probably as famous as he’s likely to become, meet cute on the streets of Dublin and spend a couple of days pining away for one another in song. Their songs. We get to watch Frames frontman Glen Hansard and Czech singer-songwriter Marketa Irglova perform them, live and for the most part, in their entirety. Risky, but it works, probably because of the two leads’ relative obscurity as musicians (in the U.S., at least) and not-quite-total inexperience as actors, rather than in spite of it.

The same can be said for the shot-on-video picture’s threadbare production values. It looks like it probably cost less than a used Prius, and one suspects there’s a reason all of the “extras” in the Dublin street scenes keep looking at the camera. (Most of whatever they did spend probably went into making sure the all-important tunes were recorded and mixed properly.) All of this is a big help to those of us who are predisposed to come to a romance with more skepticism than we bring to a Die Hard sequel (ahem) — we can’t help but be disarmed by the film’s modesty, in scope if not in theme.

Although Hansard and Irglova aren’t playing themselves, exactly, there’s a Prince-in-Purple Rain kind of thing happening here. But it’s weirder than that: Hansard and Irglova had written most of the songs heard in the film together for 2006’s The Swell Season album before they were both cast in the film. Carney’s original plan was to cast Batman villain and zombie-dodger Cilian Murphy in Hansard’s role. It’s hard to imagine how this could have worked: Trying to explain how a guy who looks like Murphy and sings like Hansard remains an unknown street musician in Dublin for 20 years would necessarily push the movie out of the realm of realism and into the realm of, at best, Elvisism — or far, far worse. In real life, Hansard’s band, the Frames, have had a strong following in Ireland—and who knows, maybe they’re huge in the Czech Republic, too—for a decade or so. Over here, well, let’s just say there was plenty of room to stretch out at their fine 9:30 Club appearance back in April.

In any case, this alternate-universe Hansard lives with his Da and works in the family vacuum-cleaner repair shop (!) while busking on the streets of Dublin. Because he apparently needs the spare change people drop in his guitar case when he plays Van Morrison covers, he dares perform his own songs only at night, when the crowds have gone. His songs are good, but not, you know, so good that it’s impossible to believe he’s made it past his mid-30s without making at least enough cash to get out of Da’s attic. He’s got talent, but he lacks confidence. What he needs is a muse.

Mercifully, as said muse, Irglova isn’t just a cipher put here to prod along the awakening of Hansard’s character. (The film never gives them names — they’re “Guy and “Girl” in the closing credits, which sounds pretentious but doesn’t play that way.) Their age difference of nearly 20 years actually makes sense, partly because it’s impossible to imagine Irglova’s character giving his the time of day once she’s experienced any of the good things about adulthood — everything we find out about her suggests it’s pretty much all been about duty and obligation for her so far — but more importantly, because this film is mature enough not to pretend their attraction to one another is forever. It’s honest in a way that movie romances almost never are.