Tuesday 18 June 2019

When Highway 61 led to Vicar Street

Harry Crosbie and Peter Aiken were responsible for the best and brightest performing in the capital, writes Barry Egan

BARRY EGAN

AND in the seats next to mine were Bono, Elvis Costello, Bob Geldof, Guggi, Christy Moore, Michael Stipe, Patrick Bergin, Michael Colgan and Gerry Ryan...

They were all there, like me, to genuflect at the altar of Bob Dylan that night in Vicar Street. Mid-September, 1999. A Wednesday night like no other perhaps; certainly, one of the greatest gigs I ever saw. I know people who still talk about this show, who believe it changed their lives. I know someone, a venerable photographer, who rang someone, who couldn't get tickets for the show, to play them 30 minutes of the concert on their mobile phone.

The rumour on the night was that Robert Zimmerman from Duluth, Minnesota, would play an acoustic set or else a full-blown unplugged session with U2 and possibly Lou Reed. Or a back-to-basics solo set for 45 minutes without a band of any description: just three chords and the truth. I heard years after the show another rumour: that Bono wanted to join him on stage but Dylan -- the mysterious Rosebud of popular culture -- nixed the idea, possibly fearful of the U2 icon stealing the show in his hometown.

He took to the stage a little after 9pm (Bono et al had been sitting around anxiously waiting since 8.15pm expecting him to go on at any minute.) The roar from the crowd threatened to lift the roof of the venue in Dublin's inner city as the legendary poet took the stage in a blur of spindly limbs and spats possibly made of Spanish leather.

Almost JD Salinger-shy he didn't speak to the crowd, however illustrious, at all. After years of deity-like devotion, Dylan could doubtless sense that they were there to hang on his every word as if it were a sign from God.

He tore through Maggie's Farm making it sound more like T-Rex's Jeepster, and his re-worked Blowin' in the Wind was unrecognisable. In hindsight, having been to dozens of Dylan gigs since, we were lucky to hear it at all. Elvis Costello bopped in his seat like a 14-year-old during Like A Rolling Stone, as did Bono.

The crowd of 950 lucky souls were in hushed reverence throughout. They'd found heaven in Vicar Street.

Harry Crosbie and Peter Aiken's venue celebrates its 10th anniversary next month. Two nicer guys in the cut-throat world of the music business you couldn't hope to meet. In those 10 years, Vicar Street has played host to some of the greatest shows in the Irish capital. It has become a part of Dublin that will now be forever associated with good, sometimes great, music.

Soul-stealing chanteuses like Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Tori Amos, Debbie Harry (November 2003), Chaka Khan (June 2004) and Sinead O'Connor (October, 2002, if memory serves); we'll draw a veil over Alanis Morissette in June 2001. The Reverend Al Green played a spiritualised show in 2000 and again 2005 (and he's back again this October).

Neil Young played three astonishing performances in early May 2003. Nick Cave had obviously made a Robert Johnson-like pact with the Devil to be able to perform like he did that night in October 2003. It was the old black magic from the Australian bad seed. There was plenty of black magic and black power from James Brown throughout his two nights in Vicar Street on August 31 and September 1, 2004.

Then there was Motorhead in May 2001, Erasure in February 2005 and The Flaming Lips in November 2000.

This is not even to mention the pleasure brought by the passionate, out-of-kilter performances of Henry Rollins, John Cale, Spiritualized, Randy Newman, The Frames, Frank Black, Angie Stone and Christy Moore, to name but a few.

I stood next to a zit-faced Cameron Diaz at her then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake's late night show on December 20, 2003. With the spotlight following him like a radar, Justin danced onstage with the choreographed physical wonder (a drag of the foot here, a toe-tap or a spin there) that Michael Jackson had in his prime. The most famous white singer to come out of Memphis since Elvis, Justin filled the southside venue with Southern charm.

I remember chatting to Harry Crosbie after the show in his backstage bar, Harry's Bar, about music, and realising that Harry had a deep-seated love for music and it wasn't just about the money.

I had an inkling of this a few years ago, however. I bumped into Harry in 2000 and during the course of a chat told him I was off to New York to interview Yoko Ono.

He said he was a lifelong John Lennon fan and if he gave me the Imagine album would I ask Yoko to sign it. The signed record is now framed proudly on the wall of the bar of Vicar Street.

Birthday boys Harry and Peter Aiken will be putting on a series of high-profile gigs in the autumn to celebrate Vicar Street's decade.

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