A weekend of failed flirtations and unexpected bonding (aka U2 @ Croke Park, Dublin)

When you’re standing in Croke Park and the lights go down (as much as they can go down at an outdoor show) and you’re suddenly hearing Sunday Bloody Sunday followed by New Year’s Day on a Saturday night in July you are bound to ask yourself is this some kind of U2 concert?  And, of course, it was.  

The opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest rock bands perform one of music’s most iconic albums – The Joshua Tree – in their home city on the 30th anniversary of its release was too good to pass up and it was an excellent reason to make my second trip to the city of Dublin; a journey which proved to be both one of the feet and the mind.

One of the best ways, though not necessarily the only way, of getting from Oban to Dublin is to travel first to Glasgow, and it was here that I enjoyed a few craft beer refreshments at the Hippo Taproom on Friday night.  It would be advisable not to visit this bar in the expectation of being served your IPA or chocolate porter by a hippopotamus, as the name almost definitely suggests that you might, because you will only find yourself disappointed.  Besides, when you really think about it, how could a hippopotamus pour a schooner of beer with those massive clumsy paws?  It would result in far too much leakage for any business to remain sustainable.

As I supped on a pint of milk chocolate stout poured by a barman with a beard I unexpectedly became the subject of the attention of a silver-haired gentleman who was clearly enjoying a few post work beverages of his own with a couple of colleagues.  He asked me how I decide which beer to drink in a bar like this, as he finds most IPA’s too bitter and acidic to enjoy, and I responded with a series of words which fell from my mouth with no particular reasoning or meaning.  Our conversation moved on beyond beer, as most conversations do at some point, and it was when he took it upon himself to tell me that he is 52-years-old that I began to realise that there was a chance this man was flirting with me.  When he proceeded to speculate that I “must be early forties” I recognised that, if he was flirting with me, his technique of seduction is worse than my own.  Once I corrected him and pointed out that I am actually thirty-three years a man he attempted to make amends for his flawed flirtation by touching my arm and suggesting that his mistake was an easy one to make when I speak with the eloquence and wisdom of a man in his forties, which he certainly would not be saying if he knew me.  Some minutes passed and the first man to have ever hit on me in a bar left with his colleagues to catch the last train to Edinburgh.  I ordered some pistachio nuts at the bar and contemplated if, in the scenario I had just experienced, I was the nut or the shell.

Despite my libations the previous evening I made it to Glasgow Airport in good time on Saturday morning.  Whereas I frequently arrive at railway stations with barely minutes to spare before the train departs, I always get to the airport much too early (apart from two occasions:  the time I was so hung over that I couldn’t possibly make it to London Gatwick and the Monday morning of this trip, when I was so hung over that I arrived at Dublin Airport with around fifteen minutes to spare.)  There is part of me that thinks there is an over-emphasis put on the need to be at the airport hours before your flight to allow time to go through security.  I feel this deceit is probably concocted by Starbucks – and probably other retail operations – because what else are you going to do when you’ve cleared security and have two hours to idle away in an airport other than spend £5 on a coffee from a man who adds four letters to your two letter name?

The moment I receive my styrofoam cup of froth addressed to Jay-Jay (always with a hyphen) isn’t the most awkward of the air travel experience for me, however.  It is far more uncomfortable trying to decide whether to start a conversation with the woman sitting next to me on the plane.  I am not at ease opening a discussion with a stranger at the best of times, but I find silence equally as unsettling.  Others appear to be terrific at talking to new people, even the silver-haired gentleman in the Hippo Taproom, but I have to deliberate over it if I do it at all.  How do you start a conversation with a stranger on a plane?  You can’t ask her where she’s going, because unless one of you has made a hugely unfortunate mistake or there has been a serious breakdown in the process of boarding passengers it should be fairly obvious where she’s going.  So I sit there anxiously processing the various possible outcomes of talking to this unknown woman in my mind:  falling in love with her, making a terrible play on words that ensures the rest of the flight is more awkward than it would have been if we had sat in silence, discovering that she is a serial killer on the run from the law, finding out that she had a deeply disappointing night in the Hippo Taproom when she learned that her beer wouldn’t be poured by a hippopotamus.  And then so much time passes that it would just be weird to speak to her thirty minutes into the flight, and so you develop a fascination you never knew you had with looking at clouds and nondescript land mass from above.

Dublin is a city of many bridges – 23 if you’re keeping score or don’t have access to Google – but on Saturday it appeared there was only one place people were going.  Nobody mentioned it by name, almost as though they were trying to keep it secret, and I don’t think that I heard the name U2 spoken the entire day.  Instead folk would simply refer to “the concert.”  “Are you going to the concert?”  They would ask.  “It’s busy with the concert on tonight,” it was said.  There were U2 t-shirts everywhere.  Mostly the black Joshua Tree anniversary tour novelty shirts, but there were some men who wanted to show that they were of a certain vintage by proclaiming their love of War or the Vertigo 360 tour through sartorial selection.

There was one place in Dublin where the concert wasn’t a consideration, though.  Across the River Liffey in J. W. Sweetman craft brewery, a tall building painted a creamy white like the smooth head of a pint of Guinness and which is dressed with a number of hanging baskets blooming with an assortment of colourful flowers, there were groups of people gathered together watching the hurling whilst a riotous hen party competed with the sounds of whooping and cheering.  The hens were most definitely from Liverpool and some ordered pints of Guinness, which seemed like an especially bad idea at four o’clock in the afternoon.  Some chose to dilute their Guinness with blackcurrant juice, which seemed like an even worse idea and immediately caused me to dislike them.  

In my position at the bar I ended up with two hens, one at either side of me, possibly due to congestion but probably down to poor organisation.  They talked loudly across me and my pint of Barrelhead IPA, the sound of their Scouse screeching still nesting in my memory like a small startled bird which is still too afraid to leave two days after the fact.  These hens became concerned with the gaelic sport which was on the television and one of them asked me “why are they playing lacrosse?”  In my mind my face was in my palm, but as I couldn’t actually conjure an image of what lacrosse looks like I didn’t feel confident in disputing this assumption.  “I think they call it hurling over here, and they’re probably playing it to determine which is the better team.”

“Oh,” replied the hen.  “It looks like it would hurt.”  I nodded in agreement with this observation, as it does look like hurling could be quite painful.  The hens took their pints of cloudy Guinness and rejoined the rest of their flock in taking photographs with novelty inflatables.  The barmaid remarked that I would be featuring in all of the pictures the women were taking.  I told her that they would be appalled to find that in the morning and confided in her that while the situation of being surrounded by a large hen party would be the stuff of dreams for many men, I was finding it utterly terrifying.  She laughed wildly, presumably out of acknowledgment of my ineptitude.

I hadn’t really researched how I was going to get to Croke Park, believing – rightly as it turned out – that I wouldn’t be the only person attending the concert and so shouldn’t have any trouble finding the stadium.  Still, after four or five pints of beer it wouldn’t usually be advisable to blindly follow a large group of people in the hope that they are going to the same place you are.  It worked out for me on this occasion, and the whole thing felt like a procession of sorts.  Thousands of people in uniform marching slowly, if not solemnly, towards the same place with a single goal in mind.  The sky was blue, like in the U2 song Bullet The Blue Sky, though a quartet of rain drops splashed my face as I lined to enter Croker, lending to a fear that my decision to leave my jacket back in my hotel would prove to be foolish.  Fortunately there was no rain to follow and the only wetness I would experience would be from the sorely overpriced bottles of Carlsberg on offer pitchside.

A lot of consideration was taken over the question of tactical use of the toilets prior to the concert.  Urination is not always easy to predict in ordinary circumstances, but you can generally get a feel for when it is going to happen.  One of the downsides of drinking beer – or any form of liquid, really – is that your need to expel urine is bound to increase in line with the quantities you intake.  So when you are drinking bottles of beer at a concert, even terrible beer like Carlsberg, you are going to need to get rid of that shit at some point – or usually points.  You don’t want to find yourself in desperate need of relief just when U2 are about to launch into the rarely played Red Hill Mining Town, so you forensically plan your toilet breaks and hope for the best.  

My strategy after going from (and going at) J. W. Sweetman was to make immediate use of the facilities at Croke Park and then pee again around the halfway point between Noel Gallagher finishing his set and Paul Hewson and the lads taking to the stage.   Naturally I wasn’t needing to use the toilet at that moment.  Only an hour or so had passed and not enough beer was requiring to pass through me when I strode up to that urinal with a mask of confidence.  I stood there hoping for something to happen.  Anything.  I just wanted a drop to justify my strategy.  But I was met with the same sound of awkward silence that I had experienced earlier in the day on the plane.  Then the guy to my left spoke to me, his thick Irish brogue distracting me from the task at hand.  I can’t remember what his opening line was, but I recall admiring his ability to start a conversation over the urinal at a U2 concert when I struggled with the issue on an airplane.  He noted that I was a fellow ‘shy pisser’ – which I suppose I am, really – and we bonded.   He expressed a sympathy for the men waiting in line behind us, acknowledging that they were likely cursing us and the refusal of our genitals to perform their natural function.  I said that what I found especially frustrating about the situation was the sound of urine cascading from every man to our right, as if mocking us.  How do they do it?  How can they walk up to this urinal and just piss like there’s nothing to it?  It felt like we were there for at least fifty-three minutes exchanging tips on how to convince our bodies to pee in pressurised social situations and discussing the strategic need to urinate now rather than when The Edge would be belting out those glorious opening chords from Where The Streets Have No Name minutes from now.  Then it happened.  That wonderous thing of waste water trickling from your system.  I apologised and left.  It was the first time I had ever been sorry for peeing, and certainly the only time I have ever felt comfortable talking to a fellow-man with my penis in my hand.

The U2 show was a triumph.  It is difficult to recall such peace and love and harmony at a gig and the set was worked perfectly around The Joshua Tree.  I can’t compare it to the Innocence + Experience tour two years ago.  That is still my favourite gig experience, but there was something very special about seeing the band in their hometown and to be in the place that moulded these songs.  You know that with U2 you are going to get a visual and musical experience that no other act in rock can provide, to the extent that when an aircraft flyover painted the sky with the colours of the Irish tricolour it somehow felt understated.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to spend a Sunday in Dublin without U2, but as it turns out U2 has a way of finding you in Dublin.  After spending an afternoon taking the enjoyable tour at the Irish Rock ‘N’ Roll Museum – which obviously is laden with artifacts related to Bono, The Edge + Friends – I embarked on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, which is something I was greatly looking forward to after my experience of the New York City version last year, despite having a limited knowledge of Irish literature.  As it turned out I had been drinking beer since one o’clock on Sunday afternoon, so when the literary tour began at 7.30pm I was in little mood for enlightenment and had greater interest in the pub crawl aspect of the event.  As individual groups of people began to assemble upstairs in the Duke pub on Duke Street two things became evident:  almost everybody on the tour was both older than I am and American and I was the only solo attendee.  

I remained unperturbed, however, and continued to nurse the Jameson’s on ice with a slice of lemon which I was becoming fond of.  Straight whiskey isn’t something I normally abide.  I am typically a lover of Jack Daniels and coke, but someone who should know about these things recently advised me that whiskey is best consumed sour and without sugar, and this trip to Dublin convinced me of the merits of that argument.  The only trouble with my enjoyment of this tonic – other than a single measure proving to be so small that I soon decided to double up – was that I found myself drinking a lot of it.  And more frequent visits to the bar resulted in my wallet becoming choked with coins due to my inability to tell the separate pieces of currency apart by sight.  I always found it easier to hand over another pink note rather than force a barmaid to watch me attempt drunken mental arithmetic as I fished around the coins in my wallet for the correct change.  

Back at Duke Street, when my wallet was still relatively light, I spied that three of the American visitors were female and approximately of my age, if not younger.  One of the ladies caught my eye in the sense of being physically attractive to me, but in reality all three were pretty pleasant in comparison to how I must have appeared to them.  I made it my goal that by the time we reached the next bar on the tour I would have imbued myself into their company.  After a stop at Trinity College where we discussed Oscar Wilde we walked to a pub the name of which has completely escaped my memory.  It had multiple rooms and the group dispersed to explore this bar; I simply wanted to drink Jameson.  As I stood at the bar watching the barman inexplicably pour a single shot of whiskey into a large glass I became aware of the fact that the American who appeared physically attractive to me was standing beside me waiting to be served.  This was my opportunity.  The question might be asked:  how could I possibly talk to this attractive American woman at a bar when I couldn’t bring myself to open a conversation with a woman on a plane?  But I could, for two reasons.  I was still in admiration of the confidence of the shy pisser, and I was drunk.  So I feigned ignorance and asked her if she was on the literary pub crawl.  It was an abysmal opening line, but it was an opening.  In a few brief moments I learned that she and her friends were from Boston (I speculated that she must have a little Irish in her, which was another horrendous line) and that one of her friends had also attended the U2 concert the night before.  She wasn’t a particularly good conversationalist, but by the time we reached the next bar on the crawl it didn’t matter.

I drank another two double Jameson’s at that third bar, which again remains nameless in my mind although it was the subject of a quiz question at the end of the night when we learned that its former name was ‘The Monico’.  The Americans sat at the far end of the bar and didn’t acknowledge me and I didn’t feel any haste in wanting to talk to the poor conversationalist again.  So I drank my whiskey and waited for the cow bell that would signal the end of our allotted twenty minutes in this particular bar.  As I rose to my feet and left at the sound of the ringing of the bell one of the Americans asked me if I was the Scot who had been at the U2 concert the previous night.  I looked around and was fairly sure in deducing that she couldn’t have been talking to anyone else, so I engaged with her.  We talked all the way to the next and final bar on the tour, Brendan Behan’s.  We made a pact that seeing as we had a limited grasp of what was actually going on, literature wise, on the tour we would not take the end of tour quiz seriously and instead offer joke answers to the questions in the hope of winning the booby prize of a miniature bottle of whiskey, as opposed to the star prize of a t-shirt.  Unfortunately she betrayed me and answered a question seriously, though I maintained her favour by insisting that Oscar Wilde excelled at ten pin bowling and Bono was one of only four Irish men to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature (that wasn’t so much of a joke answer as Bono was nominated for the Man of the Peace prize in 2008.)

By the end of the tour I was invited by the three Bostonians to sit with them and join them for a drink.  We discussed U2 – a little, at least – how it might feel to discover that you have inadvertently turned up for dinner at the home of a couple of swingers, the Claddagh ring which the American I was most enjoying talking to was wearing and the Scottish accent.  I walked them back to their hotel, which was far, far away from where I was going, via a stop at the statue of Oscar Wilde, which one of the Americans had to climb over a locked gate to get a photograph with.  On the way to their hotel the American with the Claddagh ring who attended the U2 concert and I walked several paces behind the other two Americans, talking shit and making each other laugh.  She gave me a guided tour of Dublin whilst putting on the worst Irish accent I have ever heard and we both discovered the only bar in the whole of Dublin which sells Guinness.  Even though I had no idea where I was it was the finest walk I have taken.

As we reached this hotel in the middle of nowhere in Dublin 2 I suggested to the American with the Claddagh ring that we take in a drink together at a nearby bar.  She seemed enthusiastic and tried to convince her friends that one more drink wouldn’t be a terrible idea, but they were travelling to Belfast by bus the next morning and she ultimately decided that it would in fact be a terrible idea.  It was just another example of the north taking from the south of Ireland, yet this failed flirtation didn’t seem quite as bad as some of the others experienced over the weekend.  Instead I walked a few feet to another nameless bar and indulged myself in a few more double Jameson’s on ice with a slice of lemon as I contemplated the night and the weekend I had just been a part of, which truly was a terrible idea on account of the fact that I reached the airport with around fifteen minutes to spare this morning.

The night I nearly missed the gig (aka Laura Marling @ O2 ABC, Glasgow)

My relationship with Laura Marling might be best described as being “one-sided”, in that only one of us considers there to be a relationship, or indeed even knows of the others existence.  I’m content for it to remain that way, though, because as it is there is also only one of us who knows that there is no chance of any romance blossoming between us.

I almost missed my date with Laura Marling last night.  In fact, there’s a part of me that wonders if I maybe did miss it and the rest of the evening took place in some fanciful dream.  I fell asleep almost as soon as I checked into my hotel room around 6.45; I had only intended on sitting down for ten minutes but the next thing I knew it was 8.57 and I had no idea how that was possible, aside from the obvious explanation that the minute hand kept ticking around the clock as normal.

I’ve been sleeping so strange at night of late, almost as though I have forgotten how to sleep.  Or at least how to stay asleep, because I keep being returned from slumber at various points through the night as the gerbil running the wheel in my mind refuses to take a comfort break.

It’s frustrating, because how to sleep is one of those things that nobody ever taught us to do, we learned it for ourselves.  Like crying and sneezing and procrastinating.  It just happened, and I’m not sure how to begin teaching myself to sleep properly again.  I went into a branch of Waterstones in Glasgow this morning hoping to find a book in the self-help section which might offer some guidance, but I couldn’t find anything on the subject and I felt unsure as to whether I could ask the shop assistant for help finding a book in the self-help section, so I left.

After a brief moment of startled panic and frustration at having missed the Laura Marling gig, I realised that my hotel was but a stone’s throw away from the ABC and that I could still make it if I wanted to.  I stumbled out of my room in a daze, nothing felt real.  I withdrew some cash from a nearby ATM, only to open my wallet and realise that I must have done this earlier.  As I climbed the stairs into the venue I could hear the unmistakable sound of live music and I assumed that I had maybe missed the first song or two of Laura’s set.  Fifty minutes later the show was finished and it transpired that it was Friday night and the ABC becomes a club at 11pm, so rather than missing two songs I had actually missed forty minutes.

The entire experience felt like a dream, a discombobulated product of my weary unconscious.  On stage Laura Marling was dressed in a heavenly white gown, the microphone stands were adorned with flowers and shrubbery and she had a band.  I have never seen Laura Marling play with a band; it was surreal.

I could tell from the way that she wasn’t looking at me that our romance wasn’t going to progress on this occasion, but her beautiful voice made up for that disappointment.  It is difficult to be sad when there are musicians like her around.  If this was a dream it’s the nicest one I’ve had in some time.

A night in the church (aka Conor Oberst @ Albert Hall, Manchester)

Manchester has a great history of producing legendary musical acts, from The Smiths to Oasis and Joy Division to James and New Order.  The list isn’t endless, but it is substantial.  So it seemed only fitting that I should see one of my personal Gods of emotionally tinged sad music, Conor Oberst, at a converted church in this city.

The Albert Hall was originally built as the Methodist Central Hall in 1908 and was designed with Baroque and Gothic elements.  Its Chapel Hall was unused from 1969 until its renovation as a concert venue in 2012-13.  That’s more or less all Wikipedia tells us about the building, which is a quite beautiful and atmospheric venue, ideal for a gig like this.

Getting there was somewhat less beautiful, however.  Ordinarily any day which begins with your weak and weary eyes taking in the surroundings of the easyhotel in Glasgow can surely only get better, but the cold which made the football barely tolerable the night before was in no mood to let me cling to that hope.  A three-hour train journey to Manchester seemed as palatable to me as the beef and ale pie I would later attempt to consume at a Wetherspoons on Oxford Street.

As I sat in my seat on the train awaiting its departure and listening to my playlist of sad emo songs by Conor Oberst in an attempt to brighten my outlook, a large older gentleman hobbled slowly towards the seats at the opposite side of the table from me.  He spilled into both of them in the manner I’d imagine a bowl of jelly might and it became clear that he had purchased two tickets for them.  I observed him as he emptied his bag of shortbread and chocolate and his wallet and a diary and various other items, before proceeding to tear up several sheets from his sticky pad and attach the pieces to his belongings.  It was a curious thing to witness, and sadly the most interesting sight of the entire journey.

Things would get better, eventually, with a beer.  Don’t they always?  Fortunately there is a BrewDog bar adjacent to the Albert Hall where I could enjoy pints of Dead Pony Club in the company of several other flannel clad fans of misery.  On the downside I was only capable of drinking three beers, which was due to either the man flu sweeping my body or the fear of missing the 7.19 train back to Glasgow the next morning.  Whatever it was, this was the most sober gig I’ve been to in some time.

There is something inherent about a church, I feel, that makes a person cough.  That was one facet of my cold that was missing, right up until I entered the Albert Hall.  Then I found myself clearing my throat and coughing incessantly, and I wasn’t alone.  The difficult part was trying to find an appropriate point during these poignant acoustic songs at which to let them out.  It felt like being nine-years-old again and at mass on a Sunday morning trying to stifle a cough – usually brought on by the incense – because the priest was still delivering his important reading,

This venue still looks much like a place of religious gathering, with its stained glass windows and beautiful terracotta decor, the organ resplendent at the back of what would once have been the altar and is now a stage.  Its acoustics capture wonderfully the emotion in Conor Oberst’s voice; the sharp sorrow of his harmonica.  The show leans heavily on his most recent release, Ruminations, which was recorded over three days in New York City with little more than the equipment seen on stage last night, making this feel as though we were being brought right into the album.  You could almost taste the liquor on Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out, a song about the NYC bar “that saved my life.”

Uncanny was preceded by an apology for America and “the orange rat” and an impassioned plea for human beings to stick together.  We’re probably going to hear a lot more of this at gigs over the next four years, or until Trump is impeached, whichever comes first.

The triumvirate of Bright Eyes songs that closed out the night were the undoubted highlight, with Phoebe Bridges almost stealing the show on Lua; her voice was flawless and haunting.  At The Bottom of Everything was a lively, foot-stomping finale, with its final line stating that “I’m happy just because I found that I am truly no-one” seeming somehow fitting.

A weekend in London (aka Wilco @ O2 Academy Brixton)

When the 12.40 from Glasgow rolled into London Euston at 5.05pm it meant two things:  1) Remarkably for a Virgin service it was arriving several minutes early, and 2) we were heading straight into rush hour on a Friday evening in the capital.  Within minutes I was telling myself that I hate London as hundreds of commuters were fleeing in every conceivable direction around me.

That was a very rash statement to be making in my internal monologue and I immediately accepted that I was being foolish.  I’ve been travelling to London for nigh upon fifteen years, and while there has been the ocassional falling out it is easily the longest relationship I have ever been in.

All it ever takes is one ride on the Tube and I know that everything is going to be alright. Even a simple journey to Covent Garden (changing for the Piccadilly Line at Leicester Square) is enough to set my loins ablaze.  Maybe I just have a fetish for underground transport systems, but there is little makes me feel more alive than planning out a journey from A to B via C (and sometimes D and E) and then completing it.  The tap of an Oyster Card, the stoic announcements asking you to “mind the gap”, the rush of an oncoming train; it’s all so exhilirating.

My purpose in London this time was fourfold:
1)  To see Wilco play for the first time since they played Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall far too many years ago (that is to say that I can’t remember how many years it has been)
2)  To attend the Fulham vs Sheffield Wednesday game at Craven Cottage
3)  To have a beer at The Harp, the best bar in London and maybe the world
4)  To find a suitable bar to watch the Celtic game

In a manner which is absolutely contradictory to the way in which lists traditionally work I completed these tasks in reverse order.  The abforementioned trip to Covent Garden was a means of striking #4 off my list as it had been recommended that Philomena’s was the ideal location to watch the Kilmarnock vs Celtic match.  This turned out to be the least Irish “Irish pub” I have ever drank in, and despite the fact that there were three or four different games showing on various screens I’d venture to say that it barely qualified as a sports bar due to the constant assault of nineties disco classics on the ears at the expense of commentary from any of the sports on TV.  It was almost as though they were trying to appeal to three different audiences at once:  the drinker, the sports fan and the dancer.  As The Killers might ask:  Are we sports fan or are we dancer?

[Sidenote:  I’ve never been entirely clear on what qualifies a bar as being ‘Irish’.  Is it the name?  The decor?  The content?  ‘Irish pubs’ are everywhere, in every big city, but I’ve never found out what distinguishes them from any other bar selling Guinness.  I’m not saying that they should be filled with dancing drunk leprechauns cheerily greeting you at the door, but you know, maybe for a little added authenticity?]

It’s difficult to be too harsh on Philomena’s, however, because their table service ensured that I always had a pint of Peroni in hand and that I didn’t have to miss a minute of Celtic’s arduous 1-0 win against Kilmarnock.  So thanks for that.

The Harp, now there’s a bar with an Irish sounding name that has no pretences of being ‘Irish’.  I’ve enjoyed many a good night in here and it was my pre-game boozer of choice on Saturday, with it being a short walk to Embankment station and the District Line train to Putney Bridge (see how exciting planning can be?)  This place is a classic old style pub with no loud and overbearing pop music, no distracting televisions and loads of old men discussing world affairs around pints of Suffolk ales.  Though in this bar, given its proximity to the heart of London’s theatre district, they were likely discussing all things thespian, but the point stands:  These old dudes know what’s going on, and they talk about it over pints of fine English ale.

It was with a bit of a heavy heart and a hint of a stagger that I left The Harp, however I had underground stations to travel through, lines to change and a journey to Brixton via Craven Cottage to navigate; an opportunity to truly engage my love for planning transport routes.  This was tested even further by the suspension of the Circle Line.  And while I had no intention of riding on the Circle Line on Saturday anyway, I felt it was worth celebrating my success in travelling from Putney Bridge to Brixton without the use of the yellow line on the Tube map by dropping in to The Craft Beer Co. for pre-gig beers.

This chain of London bars is a haven for hop lovers with 30 keg and cask taps of various beers (the Covent Garden branch has over 45.)  Though with hipster craft beer enthusiasts comes procrastination, and it is often the case in these bars that bearded beer drinkers will take as long deciding what to order at the bar as they will drinking their pint.

Saturday was a night for bearded, plaid shirt wearing hipsters in Brixton with American alt. Rock band Wilco playing their final show of 2016.  The Chicago sextet churned out riffs like the Craft Beer Co. poured pints, and the Academy audience drank it up.  Their set was as unpredictable and powerful as a citrus infused IPA, from the wild drum assault on Via Chicago to Nels Cline’s imperious showcase of the electric guitar on Impossible Germany.  Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than Jeff Tweedy and co’s command of the stage was the sight of a mass brawl breaking out in the stalls – twice.  I can only speculate as to what middle-aged men have to fight over at a Wilco gig, and if I had to guess it would be combover techniques or tweed.

Fortunately I wasn’t wearing tweed and so didn’t get caught in the midlife crisis melee and my love of London was reaffirmed by a weekend of rock and roll and trains.

The night we couldn’t stop talking at the gig (aka The Low Anthem @ Electric Circus, Edinburgh)

“Hey, I know we see each other all the time and we’re always talking, but how do you fancy getting together on Saturday night to talk about the old school days?”

“Sounds great.  Want me to come round to your place?”

“Nah, X-Factor is on on Saturday night and I like to be able to hear all the acts.  If I record it we could maybe go out to a bar?”

“Hmm pubs can get pretty loud sometimes.  We might not be able to hear each other over the sound of other conversations.”

“Aye, you’re right,  People can be so obnoxious!”

“Maybe we could go to a restaurant, get a wee bite to eat?”

“Eating out in Edinburgh can be quite expensive man.  Besides, most of the good spots will be full.  I doubt we’d even get a table in Wings at seven o’clock.”

“Here, this could be a shout.  There’s a band playing at Electric Circus on Saturday.  The Low Anthem.  They sound like they could be an acoustic group, quiet enough for us to talk over.”

“Good call.  And Electric Circus…seems like they’d be expecting us to behave like badly trained monkeys.”

“Probably.  Though you don’t think that other people might think that we’re worse than Donald Trump if we’re talking over a bunch of quiet songs they like?”

“Who goes to a gig to listen to the music anyway?  Ha ha ha.”

“lol.  True.”

“I’ll bet Electric Circus is one of those great places that puts two straws in your Jack Daniels and coke.”

“Oh, let’s hope so.  I love those bars!  I don’t even need one straw, let alone two.  But I just like that they are there, getting in the way of my nose.”

“Totally worth paying £4.20 for.”

“I can’t wait.  Saturday night it is then.”

“Real shame about Leonard Cohen, eh?”


U2 iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE @ The SSE Hydro, Glasgow

In some respects there are no words which can suitably describe the magnitude of seeing the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour – U2′s first arena tour in over a decade – first-hand, but then that would make for a pretty terrible blog post.  Besides, there is SO MUCH to be said about these shows.  So I’ll get the easy words out of the way first:  This is the best gig I have been to in twelve years of attending live musical performances.  Without question.  There is no debate.  It isn’t even close.

This was almost more like a West End theatre production than it was a rock concert, so meticulously choreographed was the show.  Everything is so measured and precise as a narrative is woven through the night taking us from the band’s youth in North Dublin to their present day form as one of the biggest bands in the world in the second part of the set.  From innocence to experience, with an enormous screen bridging the two timelines.

The gig starts out normally enough.  The arena lights dim as the volume on the PA system cranks up a couple of notches and Patti Smith’s People Have The Power plays out.  After several minutes Bono emerges onto the ‘e’ stage, little more than a spotlight acknowledging his arrival.  He begins the tribal call out of The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) as he strolls up the long narrow walkway which spans the entire length of the arena floor to the traditional stage, where the rest of the band have assembled and the guitars and drums kick into action.  This is a great opening song.  I’m not so sure it would be effective anywhere else in the set, but as an opener it sets the tone perfectly.


The first four songs threaten a concert of pure balls to the wall rock and roll.  The stage is minimally lit with fluorescent tubes whilst a giant lightbulb hangs above the band, presumably resembling Bono’s childhood bedroom.  Both nights followed a similar formula with Vertigo and I Will Follow forming a fierce tandem in songs three & four.  The countdown at the start of Vertigo still sounds like such a dumb U2 quirk, but it is such an effective arena rock song.  Friday night’s surprising The Electric Co. was subbed out for Gloria on Saturday.  The message was that this was U2 at their most youthful exuberance.  It was loud, brash and very well might have fulfilled Bono’s promise to turn The Hydro into the Barrowlands, with him having noted that Saturday marked 35 years since they first played the historic Glasgow venue.

Evolution took us from the stage to Bono’s childhood home on Cedarwood Road as the giant video wall lowered over the walkway.  This is where we moved from rock show to theatre as Bono literally walked inside the screen down an animated representation of the street.  It was a spectacular visual and a triumph of technology, the pinnacle arriving during Until The End of the World when Bono’s larger than life image was projected from the ‘e’ stage onto the screen where The Edge was already playing, creating the image of The Edge playing guitar in the palm of Bono’s hand. This was a 21st Century arena show where artists are having to be incresingly creative to earn ticket sales to supplement the changing habits of music consumption.  U2 have arguably long been the masters of this, going all the way back to the Zoo TV tour.

It wasn’t all about the awesome visual effects in the screen, though.  Simple images of victims of the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan car bombs gave added emotion to an already powerful version of Sunday Bloody Sunday, with the closing caption of “Justice For The Forgotten”, while haunting footage from a drone flying over the rubbles of a Syrian city added weight to Bono’s plea over the refugee crisis leading into Where The Streets Have No Name.  U2 are often criticised for being overly political and overly preachy; they are never going to change and on this occasion they were sharp and on point.


Following a brief section where the entire band played inside the screen – which had earlier exploded into a pop art replica of the Berlin Wall – as various images of their past selves were projected onto the wall, the show moved onto the ‘e’ stage where it really came into its own in terms of song quality.  Mysterious Ways allowed Bono to dance with the female of his choosing from the audience – seemingly managing to pluck out the most attractive woman in Fife – and show off the fact that the shows were being streamed online around the world.  Desire and Angel of Harlem were true highlights of Saturday night, replacing Friday’s equally satisfying version of The Sweetest Thing.  This is the point in the night where it was no longer seating or standing sections:  it was all standing.

There was an intoxicating atmosphere inside The Hydro.  This had all the intimacy and exhilirating excitement of a gig at the Barrowlands or Tuts.  It was sweaty and ripe for a sing-along, and the closing stretch from Zooropa on was laden with hits which allowed the sold out audience to stretch their vocal chords.  Pride (In The Name Of Love) has long been my favourite U2 song and it was simply awesome in these shows, the chorus ringing around the arena from tier to tier.  With Or Without You was predictably well-recieved, with the subtle white lighting proving just as effective as anything the large screen offered.  Bono has always been quite self-conscious about his voice, but on some of the acoustic tracks – particularly Every Breaking Wave – he really excelled in reaching some of the high notes.

Having now looked at previous setlists it seems the encore on this tour has three combinations:  City of Blinding Lights and Beautiful Day are staples, then you either get One, Bad and “40″ or I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.  While I was aching to hear the Joshua Tree classic again, the former two combinations on Friday and Saturday respectively proved more than satisfying.  Bad is such a terrific song, the performance which launched U2 into superstardom, and its refrain moved perfectly into “40″.  It’s a song I hadn’t even considered them playing, yet it was an ideal conclusion to the tour’s narrative.  It encapsulates the band’s journey and their message wonderfully, and the chorus “how long to sing this song?” was being sung long into the night along Argyle Street.

iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE was a terrific feat of technology.  The dedication and preparation that has gone into this show is immense and its payoff is the most rewarding and immersive gig experience I’ve had.  But it isn’t all about the impressive conceptual technology; this was a triumph of U2 as one of the best rock bands of their generation and inarguably the best live act touring today.  They sound as good as they ever have and still have a great energy surrounding them.  This was more than a music concert:  it was personal and intimate in a large setting, it was an event, an experience.  For all the hype and ego and politics that surround U2 they are still, underneath it all, a band from North Dublin, and on this tour they almost make you feel like it’s home.

Calling Festival 2015 @ Clapham Common, London


It has been two years since Calling Festival lost the Hard Rock sponsored monnicker and moved out from Hyde Park to Clapham Common, with the formerly weekend spanning event being curtailed to two days in 2013 (where it spent a year at the site of the Olympic Stadium) and now to a single sunny Saturday in 2015.  It would be tempting to suggest that the inner-city festival has fallen on hard times (sic); an event which can boast of past headline acts such as Bruce Springsteen (3 times), Neil Young, Aerosmith (twice) and Paul McCartney was this year struggling to sell tickets – even with the assistance of £10 “flash sales” – with Noel Gallagher’s name on the top of the bill.

Not that any of this was on the minds of the 15,000 folk who elected to spend their fourth of July on the couldron like Clapham Common, in spite of distractions elsewhere in London such as AC/DC at Wembley Stadium, the Wireless Festival and Andy Murray’s bid for a second title at Wimbledon.  The site, on the southside of Clapham Common, baked in an unrelenting heat – the sunshine like an extended guitar solo from the Gods.


Early acts on the site’s two stages found themselves playing to sparse crowds who often seemed to have had the misfortune of a rock show intruding upon their picnic, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Elle King, whose bluegrass stylings and big voice evoked comparisons with Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes.  Over on the second stage young English rockers Vant proved to be more photogenic than musically memorable – although that may be enough to get them onto the cover of the NME.  Sunset Sons, meanwhile, offered a pretty fantastic slowed down version of the


The layout of the arena and the stage timings meant that – if you wished – you could see all fourteen acts on the bill.  With bar queues growing through the day in accordance with the rising temperatures I elected to linger in the vicinity of the main stage, securing prime spots as the main support acts began to appear.


First up were Echo & The Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch swaggering onto stage with a tumbler of bourbon in hand, bowing to the sweltering conditions as his trademark black trenchcoat made way for a suit jacket and a zipped up jumper, his first act to demand a packet of cigarettes from a roadie before launching into Lips Like Sugar.  This was a stagger through one of the finest back catalogues in recent British music, performed through a cloud of smoke and a haze of whisky with a certain – earned – cockiness from the Liverpudlian.  Statements like:  “You can sing along to the chorus of this one – the only way you won’t have heard it is if you were in prison” while introducing Bring on The Dancing Horses; proclaiming The Killing Moon “the greatest song ever written” and The Cutter as the second greatest.  On this evidence, though, there could arguably be some truth in those claims.

There was no shortage of self-assurance in the next set either, though with The Hives a certain amount of it is undoubtedly showmanship.  The Swedish five-piece produced an outrageously energetic and enthusiastic set, their pristine white suits no match for the blazing mid-afternoon heat and their desire to bound and karate kick all over the stage.  The Hives put on a show quite unlike anything I can recall seeing, finally turning the picnic on Clapham Common into a bold rock and roll concert.  Despite being absent from the mainstream psyche for some time, songs like Walk Idiot Walk and Tick Tick Boom have endured.  They held a swelling audience in the palm of their hands with an entertaining blend of humour and hits, compelling an entire field of people to squat on the grass before bringing them to their feet in a frenzy with the opening chords of Hate To Say I Told You So.  It was quite a sight to witness.


Modest Mouse were amongst my most anticipated bands of the afternoon, having never seen them before.  Unfortunately they were somewhat of a letdown – to me, at least.  I’m not sure whether they had simply drawn the short straw by having to follow the extraordinary Hives or if I was becoming distracted by the prospect of Ryan Adams – or if it was perhaps down to the story that they were playing on borrowed equipment with their own still stuck in France, but they were a little underwhelming.  Certainly their eclectic blend of styles is appealing, and Float On was a real highlight of the afternoon, but I left this set with the lingering feeling that it could have been so much more.

Though, as mentioned, the looming appearance of Ryan Adams on the main stage may very well have been occupying my thoughts.  This was the 20th time I have seen Ryan perform and I am convinced that he is on the best run of his career.  His new band The Shining click perfectly with him, and he seems so much more at ease now as the frontman than he did shouldering the burden of a solo acoustic tour.  This was a slick and professional set where Ryan’s guitar playing really shone.  There were moments – particularly on Dirty Rain and Peaceful Valley – where his solos produced actual gasps from people around me in the audience.  He was that good.  Kim and Shakedown on 9th Street – a Heartbreaker song I’ve been hoping to hear live for twelve years – have been recent additions to his set since the early Spring UK tour, while Come Pick Me Up (even minus the female backing vocal) remains a highlight.  To hear a good number of the 15,000 crowd singing along to the chorus of the harmonica-led Heartbreaker classic is something I never thought I would experience.

Fresh from their debut album charting at number two and a critically acclaimed set at Glastonbury, Wolf Alice found themselves top of the bill on the second stage, occupying the 45 minutes between Ryan Adams and Noel Gallagher.  A generous crowd forwent the bar queues and crammed into the tight area in front of the stage to see what the fuss was about the much hyped North London alt-rock quartet.  There’s no doubt that Wolf Alice have a captivating sound, alligned perfectly with the charisma of lead singer Ellie Roswell.  The comparisons with Garbage and Hole have some merit, and it’s easy to see that they have the potential to go far.  Bros and Moaning Lisa Smile ae genuinely big songs. They’re touring the UK in September and are simply must-see in a smaller, more intimate setting.

And so it was on to the headline act of Calling 2015:  Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.  After a full day of sunshine, beers and a fine collection of performances from the undercard, I would admit that I wasn’t particularly fussed about Noel’s biggest UK show to date; though it might be unfair for my lackadaisical approach to the headline set to colour the opinion of everyone else.  For me Noel is a decent songwriter (I disagree with Ryan Adams, who proclaimed him “the greatest fucking songwriter of our lives” during his own set) though his solo work will forever be overshadowed by his time with Oasis – and it was clear that’s what a sizeable element of the audience came to Clapham Common for.  They were in luck, as six Oasis songs made the setlist, most popular amongst them Champagne Supernova (which sorely lacks Liam’s vocals) and Don’t Look Back In Anger, which was the defining moment of the set.  In between times it felt like people were waiting for the next Oasis hit, and Noel, for all his charisma and arrogance on stage, comes across as a lacklustre frontman.

Calling Festival has changed drastically in its ten years and while Saturday – for me – ended in vague disappointment, it cannot be argued that the day wasn’t a great success.  The atmosphere was welcoming, the weather was exceptionally kind and there was a day full of quality acts on stage.  Considering that many venues were charging upwards of £65 for Noel Gallagher’s UK tour earlier this year, to see Ryan Adams, Modest Mouse, The Hives, Echo & The Bunnymen and Wolf Alice – as well as Noel – for the same price at Calling represented excellent value for money.  This was one of my favourite days in a long time.