Thanks a lot, Unthanks -- my gigs of the year
For me, 2011 was one of the finest years ever for live shows. I couldn't list all the great gigs I went to here but suffice to say there were plenty of other shows begging to be included, such as Richard Thompson's solo acoustic set in Vicar St during the summer, which was a masterclass in the craft of songwriting and the art of playing guitar as though your life depended on it.
In any other year, RT would be a shoo-in, but alas, I couldn't leave out any of the following and still get a good night's sleep. So, a prolonged standing ovation goes to. . .
1. The Unthanks
Vicar St/Electric Picnic/Whelan's, Dublin
Rachel Unthank was over eight months' pregnant when she brought her Northumbrian folk ensemble to the Liberties, leaving her sis Becky to do the clog-dancing. They also played the main stage of the Electric Picnic as well as a set amidst the arcadian bliss of that festival's Body and Soul area.
Then the other week, they had the audience in Whelan's rapt by their sensitive readings of the songs of Antony Hegarty and Robert Wyatt -- all topped off with an end-of-year, come-all-ye written by their dad George. In 2011, we were truly spoiled by this most charming band.
2. John Grant
Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny
You could hear a pin drop -- and a few jaws -- during former Czars singer John Grant's incredibly intense and moving set. The highlight of Kilkenny's triumphant Rhythm 'n' Roots festival -- he came back a few months later for a victory lap at the Electric Picnic, where, much to his delight and astonishment, the audience sang along this time.
Vicar St, Dublin
The venue we had been waiting for Moz to play for over 10 years finally hosted a two-night love-in that was unforgettable. The perfectly judged set included a clutch of splendid new songs about finding love in unexpected places (to be specific: Scandinavia) as well as all-too-rarely aired classics like 'I Know It's Over', which reduced grown men around me to tears.
4. Sun Kil Moon
St Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny
Proving that live music really is a sacred art, Mark Kozelek sat on the altar of this awe-inspiring medieval cathedral and quietly blew our minds with his brooding mini-masterpieces and eye-popping virtuoso guitar playing. What his records don't show, though, is just how funny he can be on stage. No, really.
5. Paul Simon
Vicar St, Dublin
Approaching his 70th birthday, the poet laureate of literate singer/songwriters showed the breadth and depth of his amazing body of work with this deeply absorbing show in Vicar St. The musical prowess of his band was startling, but what lingered most was his riveting version of 'The Sounds of Silence'.
6. Bob Dylan
The O2, Dublin
Anyone who thought Dylan was a busted flush as a live performer was given a pleasant surprise at The O2 as the nattily dressed legend commanded his amazing band like a benign ringmaster, smiling and shuffling his feet as he went, looking suspiciously like he was having the time of his life. And if there's a cooler six-string shooter than Charlie Sexton, I'd like to see him.
7. Gillian Welch
Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin
The musical chemistry between Gillian and her partner David Rawlings had to be seen to be believed. What superlatives could possibly sum up his epic guitar solo on 'Time (The Revelator)'? And what a fine venue the soon-to-be-re-named Grand Canal Theatre is to see such a brilliant duo in.
8. Steve Earle & The Dukes
An epic three-hour set from the man who increasingly seems like the conscience of America. Driving guitar anthems, lovelorn pedal-steel ballads, political rallying cries -- and a versatile band who nailed them all. This show had it all.
9. Peter Hook & The Light
I was secretly dreading how this show might go, Joy Division being a touchstone during my formative years. But I could never have predicted how exhilarating hearing the whole of Unknown Pleasures played live with a young, shit-hot band would be.
10. Richmond Fontaine
Workman's Club, Dublin
The snug surroundings of the Workman's was the ideal place to hear Willy Vlautin and his band perform their gripping, ambitious song-novel 'The High Country'. Special guest vocalist Amy Boone from The Damnations TX added greatly to the intriguing dynamic at play.