Wednesday 26 October 2016

Slane: the 'dinosaur' music event that just refuses to die

Up to 80,000 music fans will descend on Slane Castle today. Its format may be antiquated, but its appeal continues.

Published 30/05/2015 | 09:00

Fans Noirin Lavin, Denise McKenna and Sheena Callan, Dundalk at the Bon Jovi concert at Slane Castle in county Meath. Picture:Arthur Carron/Collins
Fans Noirin Lavin, Denise McKenna and Sheena Callan, Dundalk at the Bon Jovi concert at Slane Castle in county Meath. Picture:Arthur Carron/Collins
Michael D. Higgins at Slane castle in 1984 to see Bob Dylan.

It was the summer of 2009 when I travelled to Slane Castle to interview Henry Mount Charles's son, Alex, about his fledgling whiskey business. The conversation had only begun to warm up when Henry swept into the grand living room and took me to task, in the most charming way, about how I had once dismissively written off his famed music event as passé. He seemed especially put out about my line that Slane concerts took place in "a field in Meath" and was adamant that the tried-and-trusted formula of a single-stage set-up would not be changed.

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"The atmosphere and excitement over the course of a single day building up to a headline act is special," he told me. "That's why we place huge emphasis on a headline act."

After taking a break in 2014, Slane returns today with the Foo Fighters - one of the bigger-selling American stadium acts of the past couple of decades, but not quite huge enough to generate the sort of excitement that previous headliners managed. And, despite the presence of support acts Kaiser Chiefs, Hozier, Ash and The Strypes, promoters MCD have been especially busy over the past few weeks in reminding punters that tickets are still available.

And yet, the fans will come in droves. It may not be a sell-out, but the vast bulk of the 80,000 available tickets (at €79 a pop) will have been shifted. Despite its detractors, Slane continues to exert a pull that few events in the Irish summer can boast.

You never forget your first Slane and I certainly won't forget mine. R.E.M. were headliners in 1995 having taking a circuitous route to global stardom, and they were in sensational form as they toured their grunge-inspired album, Monster. But it was arguably the band that supported them who had the greatest impact that warm summer's evening: Oasis were white-hot at the time, thanks to their era-defining debut Definitely Maybe, and they played as though their lives depended on it.

The Mancunians would return as headliners many years later, in 2009, for one of their last shows before the Gallagher brothers had one fight too many and split acrimoniously.

There was a certain magic about U2's pair of shows there in 2001, especially the first one because it came just four days after Bono's father had died and the set was charged with emotion and nostalgia. In retrospect, that particular August day gives a good idea of Slane's pulling power: among the support bands were the already massive Red Hot Chili Peppers and the soon-to-be huge Coldplay.

There was no headliner in 1985, but that didn't matter to the 100,000 who turned up to witness a four-hour Bruce Springsteen show that has become the stuff of Irish concert lore. Henry Mount Charles tells a great story of Springsteen and his E Street band running through the set in its entirety the previous night - in Slane Castle's great hall.

Thin Lizzy headlined the first Slane in 1981, with support from U2. The concert was held during an especially fraught time in Irish history with the Maze Prison hunger strikes providing a dark backdrop to the summer. As a member of the Ascendancy, the young Lord was subject to death threats for his temerity in hosting a concert in the grounds of an Anglo-Irish estate. It passed without incident.

Mount Charles's ambition knew no bounds over the next few years, as he enticed some of the world's biggest names to Co Meath: Rolling Stones (1982); Bob Dylan (1984); Bruce Springsteen (1985) and David Bowie (1987). The lure of Slane was built in these years and helped sustain the event when the headliners were decidedly below-par. The Verve (on the back of just one strong album) and Stereophonics, in particular, were seen by many as too pedestrian to command such a large crowd.

There was nothing odd about a one-stage set up when Slane concerts first began; in fact, it was the norm in Ireland right up until the 1990s. But the advent of multi-stage festivals like Witness (soon to be renamed Oxegen) and, especially Electric Picnic, make Slane look quite antiquated, something of a dinosaur in a world where even a comparatively modest Dublin festival like Forbidden Fruit - also on this weekend - has several music options available any one time. There's no hanging around waiting for the roadies to ready the stage for the next act.

But musician Bressie, who has been on the Slane bill twice and has regularly attended as a punter, says the event's shortcomings are worth putting up with for the special moments. "People expect everything to be easy, to be shipped from door to door, but sometimes you have to put up with a long bus journey and a trek for great music in a natural amphitheatre like that.

"As a smaller band, it's a hell of a step up to play a stage that big and it can be intimidating, but it's great to be able to say you played Slane. If I could go back, I'd want to try to savour the moment that bit more. You're so focused on making sure you don't mess up that you can't fully enjoy the experience."

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