Sunday 21 April 2019

Féile Classical - Brewing up a perfect storm of homegrown hits

Global fame may have eluded many Irish bands but they can still rock the stadium, says Tony Clayton-Lea

The Stunning (main) who will play at the Féile reboot. Picture: Kathrin Baumbach
The Stunning (main) who will play at the Féile reboot. Picture: Kathrin Baumbach
Liam Ó Maonlaí of the Hot House Flowers. Picture: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

Billed as Féile Classical, the 'Trip to Tipp' returns to Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co Tipperary, on Friday September 21 and Saturday September 22. The two-day event, however, is in a completely different league from its heyday of 1990-1994.

Back in those pre-internet/smartphone/social media days, all you had for festival fare were ham 'n' cheese sandwiches, crates of beer, flasks of tea, flimsy tents, burger 'n' chips, and toilets so basic you had to hover over the seats. Féile was a no-frills festival, but it didn't matter because you knew no different. There were no parents around, and you were going to see a rake of rock bands, one after the other. For three whole days.

Féile Classical is the upgrade we knew would eventually arrive in the era of comfort and cosseting: watching several of the original Trip to Tipp bands perform alongside the Irish Chamber Orchestra (on an oyster-shaped stage, no less) in a fully seated stadium, which will be garlanded with a wide range of food stalls and drinks bars. Glamping, not camping, will be available for those that aren't staying in nearby hotels. As for the toilets? They flush!

The Stunning

Formed in Galway in 1987, between 1988-1990 The Stunning released four singles ('Got To Get Away', 'Half Past Two', 'Romeo's On Fire', 'Brewing Up A Storm') that quickly established the band as one of the best in Ireland. Two albums followed - Paradise In The Picturehouse (1990) and Once Around The World (1992). With widespread radio play and a reputation for delivering fiery live shows, it was little surprise that the band - fronted by Steve Wall and his brother, Joe - proved such a success at Féile. The Stunning played the festival in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 (as the 'surprise' act) and 1994. As one of only several Irish acts to have become intrinsically linked not only with the festival but the touring landscape of Ireland back then, it is not an exaggeration to say The Stunning provided the soundtrack to Irish teenagers negotiating their way through the early-mid 90s.

What Happened Next: The Stunning split up in 1994. In March of this year, they re-recorded their second album, Once Around The World (releasing it as Twice Around The World), and continue to perform and sell out shows.

Something Happens

Formed over 30 years ago, Something Happens (who played a few Trip to Tipp Féile events) signed with Virgin Records and released their debut album, Been There, Seen That, Done That in 1988. Two years later, their follow-up album Stuck Together With God's Glue (regarded as one of the best Irish albums of the past 30 years) sealed the band's pop/rock appeal with succinct, radio-friendly songs. Always a pleasure in a live setting, where the melody-flavoured material receives additional grit, an advanced level of commercial success eluded them. A third album, Bedlam-A-Go-Go, was released in 1992, but they were dropped by Virgin shortly after. A final studio album, Planet Fabulous, was issued in 1994. There has been no new material since.

What Happened Next: Something Happens never officially split up, and the members occasionally take time out of their day jobs (in various areas of music, soundtrack, radio, television) to play always well-received shows. Lead singer, Tom Dunne, is an acclaimed radio presenter, and is the curator/host of Féile Classical. The circle is complete!

An Emotional Fish

Formed in 1988, Dublin band An Emotional Fish signed to Mother Records a year later, releasing their self-titled debut album. The album's first single, 'Grey Matter', achieved moderate success, but the follow-up, 'Celebrate', nudged its way into the Irish Top 10. Ably assisted by live performances that showcased not only the band's frenetic display of musicianship but also the frontman that used to be known as Gerry Whelan, 'Celebrate' infiltrated the UK Top 50. Its progress in the UK charts stalled, but US college radio picked up on it, bumping up its appeal to the point where the band signed a deal with Atlantic Records. In 1990, the US label re-released the debut album internationally, but that and the follow-up, 1993's Junk Puppets (as well as a third album, Sloper) failed to meet commercial expectations, causing the band to split. An Emotional Fish played Féile twice, and while the majority of their material may be unfamiliar to all but the avid fan, 'Celebrate' is an evergreen call to arms, legs, heads and feet.

What Happened Next: In the early 2000s, Gerry Whelan morphed into a completely different rock 'n' roll entertainer - Jerry Fish. Equal parts showman/bon vivant, Fish/Whelan has extended his career in a clever way. No other 90s rock star (Irish or otherwise) can say they have their very own sizeable stage at Electric Picnic - the Jerry Fish Electric Sideshow. In other words - roll up, roll up!

The 4 Of Us

Newry band The 4 Of Us formed in the late 1980s, and focused on the canny songwriting talents of brothers Brendan and Declan Murphy. From the start there was a difference between the band and their contemporaries, and it wasn't just because of their comparative provincialism. Rather, the songs set them apart. Their 1989 debut album, Songs For The Tempted (which included their signature but not best song, 'Mary') may have introduced an even slinkier version of INXS to the Irish public, but it also presented a rock band with an instinctive pop sensibility. The 4 Of Us played Féile three times (1990, 1992, 1993) and went down a storm on each occasion, but it seemed they were too good for mass appeal. The 1999 album, Classified Personal, is an underrated gem and as sober confessional a collection of songs as you'll hear. By the early 2000s, major record label backing had dropped, and the band wisely looked inwards for sustenance, becoming one of the first Irish bands to sell their wares online.

What Happened Next: The 4 Of Us has never split up, and remain a valued music act. Proof of this is their most recent album, 2016's Sugar Island, which is full of perceptive, age-appropriate songs that are authentic and honest.

Hothouse Flowers

Formed in 1985, Hothouse Flowers were once a serious contender for - bar U2 - the title of Most Successful Irish Band Of The 1980s. Their 1988 debut album, People, sold extraordinarily well in Ireland, while it peaked at No 2 in the British album charts (this at a time when 100,000s of records had to be sold in order to achieve such a position). In addition to People's mainstream allure - a simmering stew of pop, soul, rock, trad - the band had a stone-cold classic in 'Don't Go', which, then and now, is guaranteed to light up a room. A second album, Home, was issued in 1990. Its release coincided with the band's first (and only) appearance at the inaugural Féile (they headlined the Saturday night). In 1994, a year after the release of their third album, Songs From The Rain, the Flowers drifted into 'official hiatus' mode, with various members working with Michelle Shocked, Tim Finn, Andy White and others.

What Happened Next: This year sees Hothouse Flowers - still with co-founding members Liam Ó Maonlaí and Fiachna Ó Braonáin at the helm - perform a series of shows celebrating the 30th anniversary of their debut album. A tour of Britain from November 5-21 is followed by a show at Dublin's Olympia Theatre on December 2.

The Frank & Walters

Formed in Bishopstown in 1989, Cork's Frank & Walters signed to London-based, Irish-affiliated record label Setanta in 1991. Their first releases for the label were records that contained songs such as 'Walter's Trip', 'Fashion Crisis Hits New York', and 'After All'. The latter two songs are, perhaps, their best known, having charted in Ireland and the UK at the time of release, but as any Frank & Walters' fan will tell you, there are plenty more where they came from. Albums released in the 90s included Trains, Boats and Planes (1992), Grand Parade (1997), and Beauty Becomes More Than Life (1999). The band played Féile just once (1993), but has remained an intrinsic part of the Irish rock/pop landscape by never disappearing and always delivering quality music.

What Happened Next: Come the 2000s, with the music industry changing so much, The Frank & Walters realised they were never going to be able to make a living out of music full-time, so 'real' jobs were taken. Song-writing remains a passion, however, and through signing with Cork-based label, FIFA, superior pop/rock albums have been released: A Renewed Interest In Happiness (2006), Greenwich Mean Time (2012), and Songs For The Walking Wounded (2016). Their 1993 hit song, 'After All', was used to inspired effect earlier this year in the final episode of the first series of The Young Offenders, showcasing them to a new, younger audience. Next year the band celebrates its 30th anniversary.

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