Friday 24 November 2017

Nightwatch: Singing the praises

Ailbhe Malone

I am a bad person. Well, actually, scratch that, I'm not kitten-killer bad. I'm alright, but I am a judgmental person. There's nothing I like better than a good judge (with or without a wig and gavel). It's not my fault, it's in my blood.

Every Thursday since time immemorial, my granny, auntie and mum have met up for coffee and, in the process, dissected the world's wrongs. I've been brought up in this tradition, so it's no wonder that I sometimes have to learn how to keep my tongue to myself.

I have a friend who is continually "in a band" or "working on a project". Ever since we were in secondary school, he has been connecting with his, ahem, "muse".

Picture the scene: we are 13, and he is in a dodgy, grungy band that seem to be more focused on wearing the right type of plaid shirt than on the actual music they are making. We are 15, and his muse carries him to the altar of Alex Kapranos, and the checked shirts are ditched in favour of skinny ties and spiky guitar hooks. We are 17, he decides that he doesn't care about his image, and wants to write meaningful folk ballads. And on it goes. Let me make one thing patently clear: this pal has never been particularly musical. Nonetheless, I am a supportive friend -- to a degree.

It's 2000, and his first ever gig. It's being held in the local underage club, and I am wearing my coolest baggy flares. He's backstage, warming up. I'm excited. I've not heard any of his new material yet, although, from the intricate details that I've been told, it's "a cross between Nirvana and Blink 182, with a Black Sabbath influence". This could be interesting. But interesting it isn't.

I am fighting to stay alert. Must. Find. Something. To. Compliment. Frantically, I scan the stage. There is a large balloon floating about. I am captivated. Who does it belong to? Is it a prop? As I am caught in this reverie, he finishes his set and walks towards me. "What did you think of the show, Ailbhe?" he asks. "Oh... well... I really liked the balloon. It really added to your stage presence." I answer weakly. "The Burger King balloon that flew in off the street?" he queries. "Yes, that was great." I respond. Oh dear.

It's now 2010, and I am a seasoned pro. Before heading to any of his shows, I mentally prepare a compliment that is vague, yet encouraging. Samples include "you've really updated your sound!" Yes, I know, faint praise is no praise, but surely this is the best way not to hurt his feelings? He sends me an email with a link to his new band's MySpace page. I take one look at the influences section, and cringe. "Baudelaire, absinthe and Morocco." Oh good Lord.

I ring him on the morning of the gig, feigning a cough. "Urgh, I can't make it tonight. I don't feel very well."

"Oh, but it'll be a really good vibe. I'll keep you a seat, so you won't have to stand. I think it's going to be quite a special evening," he counters.

What the heck. I've been to all his other shows, why shouldn't I go to this one? I hang up, and begin to think of something pleasant that I can say.

I reach the venue and he's right, there is a really good vibe. He's even kept me a seat! Well, it's a place on a bench covered with coats. They come on stage, set up, and, oh God, there's a harmonica. I wasn't prepared for a harmonica. Except, as they begin to play, I'm transported to a different place. It's almost transcendental. I'm in an entirely different realm, floating along a guitar riff.

As if. They're woeful. The entire gig is a shambles. But that's not the point. He bumbles offstage, elated from playing. "So, Ailbhe, what did you think?" I pause, searching for the right phrase. He looks at me, eagerly, anticipating my reply. I put my arm around his shoulder and declare: "It was marvellous, dear. Absolutely unique." A white lie here and there never hurt anybody, eh?

Irish Independent

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