Monday 19 November 2018

The stage that rocked

As it celebrates its 20th anniversary, Ed Power looks back at the highs and lows of Ireland's favourite music venue -- Whelan's

King of Whelan's: Oscar winner Glen Hansard is inextricably linked with the venue
King of Whelan's: Oscar winner Glen Hansard is inextricably linked with the venue
Ed Power

Ed Power

On an otherwise unremarkable April night 20 years ago, a new live music venue opened its doors in Dublin for the first time. Two decades on, Whelan's can lay justifiable claim to the title of Ireland's favourite concert space.

In the realm of alternative rock, almost every artist of note has graced its cosy stage: from a then-unknown Arctic Monkeys, to a soon-to-be-canonised Jeff Buckley to a perma-scowling Bonnie "Prince" Billy (the bearded godfather of left-field country is rumoured to have hung around for the disco afterwards). Lloyd Cole loves the place so much he even recorded a live album there.

Almost as importantly, Whelan's has functioned as a nursery for two generations of Irish musicians. What local artist hasn't taken their first fitful steps into the limelight via a Whelan's slot? Glen Hansard, Damien Rice, Lisa Hannigan, Bell X1, Snow Patrol -- Whelan's veterans every last one. If U2 had arrived a decade later, this would probably have been their spiritual home.

Not that this Wexford Street institution is exactly without blemish. On a busy night, sight-lines can be less than perfect -- especially if you're crammed into the back of the room, by the bar.

Worse again, stand behind someone taller than you and chances are you'll spend the evening glaring at the back of their neck.

A 2007 re-fit increased capacity but, went the complaint, deprived the venue of some of its intimacy (still, at least that awful Book Of Kells motif above the stage was removed).

Then again, as anyone who ever stepped inside the sticky-matted, graffiti-encrusted toilet that was New York's CBGBs will attest, imperfection is part of what makes a great concert space . . . well, perfect. Performers and audiences hold Whelan's in high esteem because, for all its warts and wrinkles, when it all comes together and the queue at the bar isn't too deep, it feels like the best venue on the planet. Or, at any rate, the best venue in Dublin.

The best...

Jeff Buckley, 1994

Buckley's masterpiece, Grace, hadn't even been released when he played Whelan's for the first time in spring of 1994. Still, the unfamiliarity of the material didn't detract from the aura of his performance.

Since his death by drowning in 1997, Buckley has come to be seen as something of a sainted soul, not long for this world. What's forgotten is that, when he wasn't delivering tingle-inducing re-imaginings of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah', he could rock with ferocious zeal. When he played Whelan's again later that year, it was hard not to feel that he had, in some sense, anointed the venue.

British Sea Power, 2003

Sorry to go all indie-schmindie on you but British Sea Power's first ever show in Dublin was perhaps both the weirdest and most thrilling pop turn of the year. Arriving dressed in vintage camouflage gear, flanked by stuffed animals and plastic shrubbery, the Brighton quartet blazed through 35 minutes of frantic Joy Division-tinged angst-pop, looking like they might collapse in a heap at any moment.

Since then, they've won a more mainstream audience, bagged a Mercury Music prize nomination and made a play for the Gaelgeoir demographic by composing a new soundtrack for Robert J Flaherty's grainy 1934 documentary Man of Aran. But they are unlikely to ever match the ferocity of that debut.

Arctic Monkeys, 2005

"What kind of stupid name is that?" one journalist was heard to utter when it was announced that four spotty newcomers from Sheffield were to make their Irish debut at Whelan's.

Still, not everybody was so out of touch -- the venue was crammed as Alex Turner and his three scrawny companions dispatched a 40-minute set, which included catchy new single 'I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor'. Two years later, they were headlining Malahide Castle and the profoundly unglamorous Turner was dating a model.

It wasn't the first time a band had broken huge mere weeks after popping their Whelan's cherry -- London new-wave band Bloc Party and Editors had both done likewise earlier in 2005.

Robyn Hitchcock, 2007

Greying British psychedelic warrior Robyn Hitchcock has devoted his career to channelling Victorian whimsy through a barrage of '60s garage rock. But his 2007 tour was memorable for another reason: accompanying him on guitar was REM's Peter Buck, taking time out from being one third of the world's biggest indie rock band to play second banana to Hitchcock.

He wasn't simply play-acting at being a bottom-rung musician either. The band travelled from the UK on a ferry rather than REM's usual mode of transport -- the private jet -- and prior to going on stage, had eaten at a cheap local Indian.

Fleet Foxes, 2008

Soon to be seen headlining Electric Picnic 2009, beardy folk revivalists Fleet Foxes won the hearts of the Irish indie pop nation with a wistful and eerie Whelan's turn early last year.

It didn't take long for word of mouth to spread -- when they came back a few months later, they sold out the 1,500-capacity Vicar Street in a heartbeat.

Still, there's a downside to their rapid rise.

Inspired by FF frontman Robin Pecknold, a generation of 20-something hipsters have taken to sporting plaid shirts and icky facial fuzz.

The worst...

Cat Power, 2003

Chan Marshall -- the smoky-voiced Atlanta, Georgia singer who trades as Cat Power -- already had a reputation for erratic live behaviour by the time she put in a car-crash turn at Whelan's in 2004. Stepping woozily on stage, she started to slowly strum her guitar and share a tale -- apocryphal, we hope -- about banging her head while playing in London, forcing her to load up on prescription drugs.

When someone complained that they couldn't make out her words, she demanded honey "for her throat" and instructed everybody to sit on a floor rendered sticky by 15 years of spilled beer. By the time she got around to actually delivering a song, a fair chunk of the crowd had already departed.

Stereophonics, 2005

Nothing wrong with the performance -- but does anything chill the blood quite like the prospect of an 'intimate' evening with lumpen Britrockers The Stereophonics? Watched on by a mixture of delighted competition winners and listless journalists, the band dutifully plodded through their songbook.

Damon and Naomi, 2007

A rare Irish turn by this haunting husband-and-wife duo, should have been an evening to savour. But little more than a handful of punters showed up, with the result that those who actually were there were too busy feeling embarrassed at the paltry turn-out to enjoy what was a wonderful evening.

If you didn't know better you might have thought you had bumbled upon an open-mic night to which only the performers' immediate family had bothered to come.

Be Your Own Pet, 2008

Flat sales for their second album coupled with dwindling media interest suggested the end was imminent for Nashville punk-popsters when they arrived at Whelan's in mid-2008. They hardly helped matters by telling the paltry crowd that it was fantastic to be "back in the UK".

What followed was 40 minutes of disjointed and forgettable garage rock. At the end of the year, they announced they were disbanding -- by then, we'd forgotten about them anyway.

Animal Collective, 2008

Again nothing wrong with the show -- however, this midnight performance by cult Maryland electro act Animal Collective was put on at the last minute after they missed their ferry from Britain and had to cancel an earlier scheduled concert at the much larger Tripod venue.

Advertised by text message, the alternative gig went on until after 1 am -- good news for anyone living locally, a pain in the neck for those who had a last bus to catch. Still, Animal Collective made amends a few weeks ago when they finally played a proper concert at Tripod and were off stage by a commuter-friendly 11pm.

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