The O2: Welcome to the future
Recession can’t stop the music and the horrors of the Point will soon be a distant memory thanks to The O2, our state of the art new venue, writes John Meagher
It's Sunday night, November 9, and Kanye West is doing his stuff on stage at the RDS Simmonscourt, Dublin. His hit-and-miss show has only kept me captivated for so long, and now my attention has been hooked by something else: the building we're in.
I've always disliked this venue, opened in 1975. It might do for a tractor exhibition -- which is pretty much what it was built for -- but not for concerts. And not for 2008. It's an outdated, truly grim space with absolutely no redeeming features. I find I'm embarrassed that one of music's true superstars is having to play here, especially as he performed in Belfast's excellent Odyssey Arena the night before.
Since the Point shut its doors in the summer of 2007, the Simmonscourt and its marginally less useless sister, the RDS Main Hall, have been taking the lion's share of the big names. And all this serves to show is how much the country needs a purpose-built, state-of-the-art concert venue capable of hosting at least 10,000 people.
That call will be answered on December 16 when The O2 opens its doors for the first time, for the annual Childline concert. Three days later, Kings of Leon bring their sold-out tour to the venue.
For those not acquainted with the landscape of Dublin's docklands, The O2 is the new name for the Point. And other than three existing walls of the Victorian train depot, the old venue is simply unrecognisable.
Designed by HOK Sport Architecture, the new venue cuts a dash on the skyline with its translucent polycarbonate cladding extending two storeys upwards above the original building, with a built-in lighting system. This was possible because only the exterior was listed as a protected structure. From the out
side, the new building is a pleasing mix of the old walls -- dating from 1878 -- and the new, dramatic multi-colour façade and roof.
The new arena can take 9,500 people on padded seats and up to 14,000 in a different configuration, with retractable seats pulled back to make room for 8,000 standing in front of the stage, and the rest comfortably seated.
Mike Adamson of Live Nation, the global entertainment conglomerate and co-owner of the venue, says the increased capacity will ensure that the biggest names don't bypass Dublin on their European tours.
"The capacity fares very favourably with the best venues in the UK and on the continent," he says. "It's also very artist-friendly, which fantastic back-stage facilities as well as a substantial loading bay for trucks. And it's facilities like this that can decide whether or not an artist comes to Dublin. And that's ultimately a good thing for the concert-goer."
A more palpable improvement for those concert-goers is the dramatically improved sightline. The furthest seat is just 60 metres from the stage, which is a good 20 metres closer than the old venue. This has been achieved by arranging the seats around the stage in a huge 'fan' formation. The architects have likened the seating plan to the Roman Colosseum, which is a little fanciful, but it certainly marks an improvement on the more conventional amphitheatre, such as the Odyssey, built to host sporting events such as ice hockey as well as concerts. Adamson reckons there isn't a bad seat in the house, and this hard-bitten cynic can't disagree with him.
The arena has also been sound-proofed to ensure that residents in the densely populated environs are not disturbed. Acoustically, I'm told that it's in a different league to its predecessor -- this can't have been hard as the Point's sound quality was awful.
Unlike the O2 Arena in London -- housed in the former Millennium Dome, once the most despised building in the UK -- there are no corporate boxes in Dublin. This welcome move was apparently demanded by co-owner Harry Crosbie, who reckoned that separate, glassed-off sections would dampen the atmosphere. He's absolutely right. For all its obvious merits, the updated Croke Park, resplendent with corporate boxes, sometimes has an inferior atmosphere than its ramshackle previous incarnation did.
Of course, its very name suggests that there is a different commercialisation at place. Spanish cellular giant O2 has bagged the naming rights for the venue for the foreseeable future. The Irish operation is tight-lipped about the terms of the contract, but it is understood that the name will be in place for at least 15 years at a cost in excess of €1 million per annum. Naturally, this allows O2 to use its name prominently on the building -- the logo positioned on the riverfront side of the building can be seen from long distances and when concerts are happening the shell of the building can be turned corporate O2 blue.
This aspect is likely to irritate some concert-goers, but I don't think the old Point was sufficiently loved for it to cause too many sleepless nights. There would be a backlash for sure if one of the country's genuinely adored venues -- Dublin's venerable Olympia, for instance -- was re-branded in similar fashion.
And let us not forget how bad the Point was. Although it hosted plenty of memorable gigs over the years -- U2, Springsteen, Came So Far For Beauty -- I don't know anybody who had any affection for the place. The sound was never up to much and the sightlines could be abysmal. Factor in horrendously long queues for the toilets (especially for the ladies), even longer queues for the bars and the lack of any worthwhile food outlets and it's little wonder it was seen as bland and soulless. Oh, and the security checks outside often meant long queues waiting in the cold.
Happily, The O2 has several entrances so punters will be able to get in quicker. Not to mention the fact that the design includes a huge increase in the number of toilets, fast-flow beer taps to reduce queuing and the simple pleasure of taking your drink into the auditorium (which was forbidden in the Point) will help the feel-good factor.
Harry Crosbie reckons the new venue will cater for up to three million punters a year -- an ambitious target in these uncertain times.
"It's going to be a world-class rock venue and the biggest people-magnet in Ireland," he said recently.
Crosbie was the owner of the Point and long ago realised that it wasn't up to scratch for modern-day audiences. His vision for what was to become The O2 took root during the height of the Celtic Tiger, when it appeared that the good times would last forever.
Now, it opens in a year where recession has become an irritating, ever-present and all-too-real buzzword.
Thus far, though, any fears he may have about the willingness for Irish audiences to stump up for tickets are being dashed with virtually everything so far announced for The O2 selling out.
Pre-Christmas, Kings of Leon is sold out, as are the two Coldplay shows. Further ahead, there are no tickets to be had for Tina Turner's multiple-date appearance or for the debut Irish shows of 19-year-old R&B sensation Chris Brown. AC/DC, unsurprisingly, have sold out and so too has 'popera' outfit Il Divo.
The credit crunch is more likely to have an impact on fledgling acts rather than the big names, whose concerts feel like 'events' rather than a casual night out. There's already evidence of smaller names having substantial trouble shifting tickets. Some have even started giving them away for free.
But enough of the doom and gloom. The O2's first big test is just around the corner and expectations are as high as its new, shiny roof. For those weaned on the grim surrounds of the RDS and any number of makeshift marquees, its arrival can only be a good thing.