The gigs that made me really feel what it's like to be in presence of rock royalty
Barry Egan looks back at his top 10 concerts of the year. Prince came to the castle, Dylan left no stone unturned, Imelda paved a path to rockabilly stardom and Beyonce proved why she's untouchable
1. George Michael, 02 Arena, November 1
Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou's performance was a tale of the expected. The show was almost anti-commercial in that it wasn't an evening of happy-clappy boppy Wham! numbers.
It was, rather, an evening of predominantly slow and bluesy (ie sad songs about love gone wrong and lovers no longer with us and bad times ahead etc. Having said all that, he mesmerised the crowd with a risky performance that proved just why he has endured so many years. He has an integrity that other artists can only get their spin doctors to say they have.
Brother Can You Spare a Dime (written in 1931, going on to become one of the most popular songs of The Great Depression era) fitted right into the downbeat zeitgeist.
George has a habit of fitting right into the zeitgeist, of course. With a giant classical orchestra behind -- and sometimes around -- him, the ex- Wham! star reinterpreted some of his own material, some quirky cover versions and a lot of traditional standards. It was Tony Bennett with a different twist. He made New Order's True Faith slow and sad.
George's voice is rich and Brit-soulful, tinged with vulnerability. He turned the Terence Trent D'Arby song Let Her Down Easy into melancholic blues. Kissing A Fool and It Doesn't Really Matter were sad and heartfelt. Rufus Wainwright's Going To A Town and The Police's Roxanne were hardly up either; more Billie Holiday if anything.
But there was something about the bravery and integrity of such a famous singer doing this -- ie so many downbeat slow numbers for three hours to 26,000 people over two nights -- that was actually inspiring. His rendition of Amy Winehouse's Love Is A Losing Game -- with gargantuan images of the late singer on screens behind him -- was almost moving. His almost spoken-word final number I'll Remember You was poignant and heartbreaking on so many levels: "When my life is through and the angels ask me to recall," he half-sang to Dublin that night, "the thrill of them all then I will tell them I remember you." I wish George all the best for the holidays and hope he is well on the mend from pneumonia.
2. Prince, Malahide Castle, Dublin, July 30
"It is going to be a show of real music by real musicians," an immaculately androgynous black Narcissus himself, Prince told me in his suite in a Paris hotel referring to his long awaited show in Ireland.
"A lot of it sounds phoned in. It is all machines. You can't jam with a machine. You can put your dirty clothes in a machine but you can't jam with it. Carlos Santana, who is a real cosmic guy, told me that, we are analogue creatures. We feel music as human beings. But a lot of the new stuff lacks feel." Two weeks later in Malahide, the elfin superstar was exuding an incalculable amount of 'feel' during a three-hour concert.
From this performance, it is easy to see why Prince's impact on popular culture in the last 30 years is immense. The maverick Mozart of Minneapolis had 45,000 people in a state of grace from the first moment he came in -- All That Glitters Ain't Gold -- to the last: throughout he proved himself to be a showman of incredible versatility and James Brown-in-his-heyday energy (his dancing was breathtaking to watch -- and doubtless breathtaking to execute for three hours in those heels).
He did everything we wanted to hear -- Nothing Compares 2 U, Raspberry Beret, Let's Go Crazy, Purple Rain, Little Red Corvette, Cream, and Kiss among them "You don't have to be beautiful to turn me on," the 53-year-old sang. It became the mantra for the night. Miles Davis once said that Prince was a mix of "James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye ... and Charlie Chaplin. How can you miss with that?" How indeed? Prince's show at Malahide Castle was a night of authentically exhilarating soul and -- plus ca change -- feel..
3. Bob Dylan, the 02 Arena, Dublin, October 6
Perhaps the greatest poet since Yeats, Wordsworth, Byron or The Bard of Avon, Mr Robert Allen Zimmerman, the Bard of Hibbing, gave perhaps one of his best and most existential shows on Irish soil ever. It was great to see a man who has so clearly found eclectic redemption -- artistic and otherwise -- in the American songbook of Twenties country music, Thirties blues and Fifties rock 'n' roll look so content with himself and his band. He opened up with a blistering re-reading of Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat. He hardly took breath before he was off into Don't Think Twice, It's All Right and then Things Have Changed.
And things had changed. Dylan, who I was told was boxing before the gig to warm up, was a different man that night. His voice was better than in a long time. He smiled a lot. He played the guitar like a ring in the bell, as Chuck Berry would have said; Dylan's typically idiosyncratic version of Highway 61 Revisited was unforgettable.
To paraphrase one of his most famous songs, Dylan is far from blown out on the trail now. He may be 70 -- or at least a little bit less forever young -- but there's no stopping The Bob on this evidence.
4. Imelda May, the 02 Arena, Dublin, December 16 and 17
Bono popped up on the first night (Mary Black too) performing Desire; Paul Brady made a guest appearance on the second night too. He did The World Is What You Make It with Imelda; the crowd and Imelda was so bowled over by Brady's performance that they insisted he perform the song again. Which he did. Two great shows by the Irish star very much in the ascendant. Expect to see Imelda bringing her brand of alt rockabilly to Madison Square Gardens and beyond next year.
5. Gavin Friday, The Olympia Theatre, Dublin, November 23
Gavin is one of the most innovative and enigmatic musicians of his generation -- Ireland's David Bowie, if you will.
That night, the baldy boulevardier was inspired and inspiring, raw and visionary -- on one moment he sings as though dragging his words through brambles, and the next like he is getting off with an angel.
6. PJ Harvey, Stradbally Hall Co Laois, The Electric Picnic, September 2
A wild, windy, rainy, muddy field seemed like a suitable setting for Polly Jean Harvey to sing the songs from her war album, Let England Shake. "Pack up your troubles, let's head out to the fountain of death and splash about, swim back and forth," she sang, looking like the black swan herself from the Darren Aronofsky movie in her black and funky rigout.
7. Noel Gallagher, Olympia Theatre, Dublin, October 23
The Victor Meldrew of his era opened up with It's Good To Be Free. It was a symbol of intent from the former Oasis man. It was also the start of an incredible show, with a beautiful acoustic version of Don't Look Back In Anger near the end.
8. Usher, the 02 Arena, Dublin, February 26
Easy to see why James Brown once dubbed Usher "the godson of soul" after they performed together onstage at the Grammys in 2005.
Usher's high-octane choreography is old school r'n'b dance and even older school than that at times. Great show.
9. Beady Eye, Olympia Theatre, Dublin April 14
Despite what his detractors say, Liam Gallagher is always great to watch onstage. Profligate with his raw honesty and passion, he rarely disappoints.
10. Beyonce, Punchestown, Co Kildare, Oxegen, July 10
Crazy In Love, Single Ladies, Halo, Irreplaceable and Baby Boy had the crowd dancing like this wasn't the worst year for this country's economy that most of them could remember.
They danced the recession away for over an hour, courtesy of the hottest female soul singer on the planet bar none.