The day my flight was delayed (aka Ryan Adams @ O2 Apollo, Manchester)

I had done everything right in my preparation for flying out of Dublin on Thursday afternoon.  Following on from my security faux pas when travelling to the north of Ireland the previous week I ensured that my socks were fully functional in keeping my toes covered and that I removed all illicit items from my possession prior to going through security.  I timed my departure so that I would reach the airport just short of the two hours they recommend, because nobody ever truly needs two hours in an airport lounge.  I was cleared through security leaving exactly the right amount of time to order a Guinness at the bar.  I wasn’t drinking Guinness out of any great love for the beer – though it is abundantly true that it tastes superior in Ireland – but moreso because I knew that it would take longer for the barman to pour and so would assist me in wasting a little more time before boarding my flight.  Everything was going as smoothly as the rich, creamy head which had settled on the peak of my pint.  There was even a surprising and pleasing absence of a hangover from the previous night.

My last night in Dublin felt like an exercise in solitude.  There was no Ryan Adams gig after his two exemplary nights at the Olympia Theatre and as a result I found myself chasing the ghosts of past experiences and emotions.  I booked myself onto the literary pub crawl I had so enjoyed the last time I was in Dublin, partly because I had ended up so drunk on that occasion that I couldn’t remember much of what was discussed, but mainly because I ended that night in the company of three women from Boston and I was hoping that my luck would repeat itself – and indeed better itself –  this time around.  I spent a considerable part of Wednesday afternoon revisiting some of my favourite bars in the city, in complete contradiction of my vow to not drink before four o’clock.  Though I felt greatly vindicated by this decision when a tremendous rain shower pounded the streets no later than around three o’clock, a sight which I enjoyed with smug interest from a barstool in Brew Dock as hapless pedestrians sprinted by seeking shelter, like the Rolling Stones song.

The rain subsided and I sauntered along to the Black Sheep on Capel Street, where my confident attempt at ordering my favourite IPA on this trip – Full Sail by Galway Bay Brewery – was halted by me both forgetting its name and having my attention stolen mid-sentence by a glimpse of a grisly feature on the ceiling above the bar.  How many flies are up there?  I pondered as the barmaid presumably began to consider that I might be some sort of incompetent.  I didn’t know they still made flypaper.  What kind of fly would choose the sweet fragrance of sticky killer paper over the sweet intoxication of the killer drip tray under the beer taps?  The barmaid looked at me as though I was someone who had completely forgotten why I was there; which I was.  What’s the name of that IPA?  I eventually asked as I looked down and to my right and saw it looking back at me.  She poured me a pint of Full Sail and I considered whether or not it would be appropriate to ask her about the fly paper.  It almost certainly could not be translated as being some kind of a crude pick-up line and she would surely see it as the genuine human curiosity that it is.  I settled into my barstool as she continued her duties and I stared up at the fly cemetery which was not entirely dissimilar to some of the exhibits I had seen at the Museum of Archaeology the other day.  I’ve heard about flies on sheep, but flies in the Black Sheep?  I began to count the number of flies on the paper and the barmaid cannot fail to have noticed my interest in the ceiling.  Eighteen, I counted.  Though some of them are quite close together.  It could be twenty.  I glanced around the bar to ascertain whether anybody else had taken such a morbid interest in this memorial.  It was just me.  How many flies do they want to catch before somebody takes it down?  Is it there as a warning to other flies?  I decided that the barmaid wouldn’t have any interest in answering these questions and so finished my pint and left.

Suitably lubricated, I went to the Duke Pub for the literary pub crawl in good spirits and with high hopes.  The tour was busier, perhaps even busier than when I first went on the crawl seven weeks earlier.  There were various different groups of people swarming around the tables and none of them immediately offered any encouragement that the wonderful night I previously enjoyed would be repeated.  There were Americans, of course, but they were older and much too dignified to enjoy the drinking aspect of a literary pub crawl.  And there were Germans who appeared intelligent enough to recognise that talking to me would only result in awkward issues of translation – them speaking fluent English and me talking some drunken, mangled form of English.  I drank alone for the duration of the tour, learning far more about Irish literature than I could ever care to know whilst indulging in my own self-defeat.  At one bar I ordered a single Jameson as I sought to rekindle some of the memories of that last night.  I handed over €4, believing that  to be what the barman asked for.  “You’ve only given me €4,” he noted.  “How much is it?” I asked with some trepidation.  “€8.50,” came the response.  I wondered how much I had spent drinking doubles in July.

There was little evidence of a hangover as I approached the gate for my 13.50 flight to Manchester.  I had finally mastered the timing of travelling by air.  I began to consider all the things I would do with my time when I arrived in Manchester when it was announced that the flight would be delayed by an hour.  I stared at my shoes for a while and then back up at the board, hoping that they might have realised that they had made a mistake and removed the red text stating that the plane would be “delayed until 14.50.”  They hadn’t.  People began to leave the boarding line in search of food or simply a more comfortable place to wait for an hour.  I was reluctant and unwilling to give up what I felt was a pretty good spot in the queue, knowing that I could get on board early enough to fit my bag into the overhead locker and be able to reach my window seat without having to suffer those arduous few moments waiting for the two people already sitting there to puff their cheeks and stand up to allow me in.

I glanced around the gate and considered whether it would be worthwhile giving up my fortuitous position in the boarding queue to go and sit next to a young lady who appeared both alone and alluring.  I thought about how I struggle to even start a conversation with the person next to me on the plane and imagined it would be significantly more awkward if I ignored scores of empty seats around the lounge to sit beside this sultry solo traveller.  How does THAT conversation start??  I concluded that with the enhanced security around airports these days it would be preferable for me not to be the source of some tense scene, and I realised that I was leaving Dublin without having talked to a single person.

My flight eventually arrived into Manchester approximately 102 minutes later than scheduled and I decided to forgo styling my hair into an acceptable appearance in favour heading to the bar closest to my hotel near Piccadilly Station.  It was here that I encountered further farce with my currency as the more familiar Sterling coins became mixed with some rogue Euros which I had forgotten were still in my wallet.  I fumbled blindly with my fingers and hoped for the best, the coins being offered an insight into my romantic techniques, until I was finally successful in paying for my beer.  This scene would be repeated often over the course of three hours, even when my favoured Shindigger IPA ran dry and I was forced to scramble for an alternative.  What would you recommend?  I asked the barmaid, more in the manner of hoping to appease her disappointment at disappointing me than anything else, because no matter what else you drink it is never the same as the beer you really wanted.  

Even with the curtailed drinking hours prior to the gig I felt myself a little unsure of which way I should be walking when I left the O2 Apollo afterwards.  I knew it wasn’t a particularly challenging route and that the venue wasn’t far from my hotel, because I had walked it without hesitation no more than two hours earlier, but I felt uncertainty as I surveyed Stockport Road.  After some hesitation I decided that I would  simply follow the cars travelling in the direction away from the venue, because surely they must know where they’re going.  It proved to be a logical logistical solution and within fifteen minutes I was standing at the hotel bar wondering why, in a certain light, the boots I believed to be black now appear to be blue.  Maybe blue or navy blue?  I pondered this over an expensively poured Jameson and wondered how this establishment deals with their flies.


Bars visited:
The Duke – 9 Duke Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
O’Neill’s – 2 Suffolk Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
The International Bar – 23 Wicklow Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
Davy Byrnes – 21 Duke Street (Dublin Literary Pub Crawl)
Piccadilly Tap – Piccadilly Station approach
Motel One – hotel bar

Next stop:
Usher Hall, Edinburgh – tonight

A night in the church (aka Conor Oberst @ Albert Hall, Manchester)

Manchester has a great history of producing legendary musical acts, from The Smiths to Oasis and Joy Division to James and New Order.  The list isn’t endless, but it is substantial.  So it seemed only fitting that I should see one of my personal Gods of emotionally tinged sad music, Conor Oberst, at a converted church in this city.

The Albert Hall was originally built as the Methodist Central Hall in 1908 and was designed with Baroque and Gothic elements.  Its Chapel Hall was unused from 1969 until its renovation as a concert venue in 2012-13.  That’s more or less all Wikipedia tells us about the building, which is a quite beautiful and atmospheric venue, ideal for a gig like this.

Getting there was somewhat less beautiful, however.  Ordinarily any day which begins with your weak and weary eyes taking in the surroundings of the easyhotel in Glasgow can surely only get better, but the cold which made the football barely tolerable the night before was in no mood to let me cling to that hope.  A three-hour train journey to Manchester seemed as palatable to me as the beef and ale pie I would later attempt to consume at a Wetherspoons on Oxford Street.

As I sat in my seat on the train awaiting its departure and listening to my playlist of sad emo songs by Conor Oberst in an attempt to brighten my outlook, a large older gentleman hobbled slowly towards the seats at the opposite side of the table from me.  He spilled into both of them in the manner I’d imagine a bowl of jelly might and it became clear that he had purchased two tickets for them.  I observed him as he emptied his bag of shortbread and chocolate and his wallet and a diary and various other items, before proceeding to tear up several sheets from his sticky pad and attach the pieces to his belongings.  It was a curious thing to witness, and sadly the most interesting sight of the entire journey.

Things would get better, eventually, with a beer.  Don’t they always?  Fortunately there is a BrewDog bar adjacent to the Albert Hall where I could enjoy pints of Dead Pony Club in the company of several other flannel clad fans of misery.  On the downside I was only capable of drinking three beers, which was due to either the man flu sweeping my body or the fear of missing the 7.19 train back to Glasgow the next morning.  Whatever it was, this was the most sober gig I’ve been to in some time.

There is something inherent about a church, I feel, that makes a person cough.  That was one facet of my cold that was missing, right up until I entered the Albert Hall.  Then I found myself clearing my throat and coughing incessantly, and I wasn’t alone.  The difficult part was trying to find an appropriate point during these poignant acoustic songs at which to let them out.  It felt like being nine-years-old again and at mass on a Sunday morning trying to stifle a cough – usually brought on by the incense – because the priest was still delivering his important reading,

This venue still looks much like a place of religious gathering, with its stained glass windows and beautiful terracotta decor, the organ resplendent at the back of what would once have been the altar and is now a stage.  Its acoustics capture wonderfully the emotion in Conor Oberst’s voice; the sharp sorrow of his harmonica.  The show leans heavily on his most recent release, Ruminations, which was recorded over three days in New York City with little more than the equipment seen on stage last night, making this feel as though we were being brought right into the album.  You could almost taste the liquor on Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out, a song about the NYC bar “that saved my life.”

Uncanny was preceded by an apology for America and “the orange rat” and an impassioned plea for human beings to stick together.  We’re probably going to hear a lot more of this at gigs over the next four years, or until Trump is impeached, whichever comes first.

The triumvirate of Bright Eyes songs that closed out the night were the undoubted highlight, with Phoebe Bridges almost stealing the show on Lua; her voice was flawless and haunting.  At The Bottom of Everything was a lively, foot-stomping finale, with its final line stating that “I’m happy just because I found that I am truly no-one” seeming somehow fitting.

Ryan Adams @ Albert Hall, Manchester/Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

You might think that after 11 years spent travelling up and down the country seeing this guy play fifteen times Ryan Adams wouldn’t have any more surprises in his guitar case, but two nights in Manchester and Glasgow this week thoroughly disproved any such thoughts.

Touring with a band for the first time in over five years clearly gives him a lot more leverage in the scope of his setlist, and the spreading of the burden with four others on stage had Ryan at his most visibly relaxed in years.  These were two excellent shows powered by a phenomenal energy – both on stage and off – and some big ass amps.  This was Ryan at his loudest and most confident.

As expected, the set list followed the same pattern as three previous shows in London, with its foundation built largely on his strong recent self-titled release.  Gimme Something Good has an almost grungey feel to it and works as a fine opener, Fix It has been reinvented with a brilliant bluesy sound, while Let It Ride has always been a superb live hit.  But it was the surprise introductions of songs long not heard at a Ryan Adams gig which really made these nights special.

When Ryan began tuning his guitar under the gaze of a gigantic organ in what was once a Methodist church in Manchester, telling the audience that he was going to play a song he hadn’t played in years, little would anyone have guessed he and his band were going to dust off Rock N Roll’s Anybody Wanna Take Me Home?, a song not played since 2006.  It was a revelation, perfectly suited to the occasion and a performance which ranked as a true highlight from the two nights.

But even that was nothing when compared to what would come the following night.  I’ve long suspected that Ryan Adams saves his best performances for Glasgow – the city has almost always provided the best night on his UK tours.  His statement of love for the city on Thursday night is one he doesn’t make often – if at all.  It felt genuine, and he followed it with a song he claimed the band had been working on all day specially for the occasion – a glorious harmonica-driven version of New York, New York.  It was breathtaking; a truly spine-tingling moment.  This is the this different version of this song I’ve heard Ryan play, and it may have been the best.  To then come up with La Cienega Just Smiled later in the set, one of the most bitter and beautiful songs in his extensive back catalogue and another rarely played, was almost overwhelming.  It was a very fine point in as close to a flawless performance as you could imagine.  His appreciation of Glasgow even extended to affording us the opportunity to select the “encore” song (after a long fake encore which concluded with the audience singing the same not) – it was a decision almost as contentious as the referendum, with Come Pick Me Up gaining a louder applause than Political Scientist.  I voted for both.

These two nights offered everything you’ve come to expect from a Ryan Adams gig over the last 11 years – and just a little bit more:  The hilarious improvised song in Glasgow about “Mr Stage Secrity Right” – who Ryan had earlier berated for shining a torch in his direction, an act which he later felt so bad about that he composed an off-the-cuff song as way of apology; the frequent Star Wars references; the tight, almost perfectly selected set lists; the voice which seems to get better with age; complaints about sound quality in Manchester (he still seemed pissed about this the next night).  It was all here – with a couple of phenomenal surprises on top.

The Gaslight Anthem @ O2 Apollo, Manchester

The Manchester Apollo originally served as a cinema following its construction in 1938 before the demands of the 1970’s called on it to focus its resources on the increasing desire for variety shows and music concerts.  The new millennium has seen the venue rebranded under the O2 name, like many iconic venues of the era.

The Gaslight Anthem have drawn their influences from the silver screen greats of the 30’s and 40’s, referencing Judy Garland and the Wizard of Oz in several songs, as well as the music of 70’s and 80’s rock stars such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Jon Bon Jovi.  Their recent album Handwritten was the first to be released under their deal with record label conglomerate Mercury.

With that historical backdrop it was fitting that The Gaslight Anthem should play the O2 Apollo Manchester, with its red walls and flooring still distinctive of the days as a variety hall.  The band’s performance on the stage too echoed memories of a distant era as they produce an all-out rock show the likes of which are hard to find in 2012.

That new Mercury released record Handwritten formed the core of the show, with at least eight of the nights twenty-two songs coming from it.  Mae was a gentle opener into a gig which would become much louder, recent singles Here Comes My Man and Handwritten pleased any newcomers to the band while Biloxi Parish and Mulholland Drive were raw and edgy, the latter packing a particular punch.

Handwritten may be the band’s best selling album, but The ‘59 Sound still provides the best live material.  Great Expectations brought the main set to a racing, raging climax while The Backseat proved a popular number to end the encore.

This is a band that wears its influences on its sleeves. Tom Petty is at the centre of young romance in Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, which also namechecks many Springsteen characters, and Dylan’s Changing Of The Guards was given a makeover in the encore.  The influence and importance of the radio, which is present in so many Gaslight songs, was highlighted by Brian Fallon before ’45’ as he thanked Radio 1, XFM and the audience for ensuring that it was the band’s first song to receive prolonged airplay.  It’s clearly something he’s proud of, and you can feel it in the gusto of his performance.

Charismatic frontman Brian Fallon claimed in the encore that he sometimes doesn’t know how to handle the recognition which is now being given to the band, but their confident performance belies that humbleness.  His statement here was one of few pauses for conversation; this is a relentless rock show where three, sometimes four, songs follow one after the other like a torrent of punches.

The Gaslight Anthem strive to offer something different, promising not to fall into the trap of other established acts who play “the same old shit every night”.  Times have changed and while the world is now a place where O2 and Mercury are king, The Gaslight Anthem are also throwback to the sweat and beer soaked variety hall of the 1970’s.