A gig of two halves: The Frames and “For the Birds”
If The Frames have a spiritual home, it’s probably Dublin’s Vicar Street. While there are other capital city venues which could also lay claim to the band’s spirit – some would say the band and Whelan’s were always a perfect …
If The Frames have a spiritual home, it’s probably Dublin’s Vicar Street. While there are other capital city venues which could also lay claim to the band’s spirit – some would say the band and Whelan’s were always a perfect match – and there are other venues worldwide which have seen a string of great shows from the band, the Thomas Street hall has been there the band have always stretched themselves to the limits. During the last decade, it was the place where the band played some astonishing shows as they became the band they always were capable of becoming. On that stage over the years, the scrappy, ramshackle street warriors turned into craftsmen.
Thus the Frames playing “For the Birds” in full at Vicar Street last night was always going to be a red letter day for many who believe that the band’s fourth album, released in 2001, remains the pinnacle of their career. Nothing the band had done before that album had resounded with such beautiful, subtle, exciting grace. And, indeed, while they were hugely successful afterwards (especially with Glen Hansard’s ongoing Swell Season affair), “For the Birds” still occupies the throne in their back-catalogue. It is, as violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire says in this recent piece about the album’s 10th anniversary, one of the band’s favourite albums too.
It was a sublime performance, every track taking you back a decade to when that album was first released and the growing realisation that Hansard and friends had become a very serious concern as a band. A friend of mine has a theory that most Irish music fans go through an 18 month period of infatuation with The Frames and mine was certainly around “For the Birds”. While I’d known the band from the early days, I hadn’t really paid much attention to them between their first and fourth albums. I remember seeing them for the first time in years in early 2001 at the tribute show in the Olympia for the late, great Uaneen Fitzsimons and being totally blown away by how much had changed during their first decade as a band. When “For the Birds” came out, I was ready to be hugely smitten.
Last night’s performance, though, wasn’t just about nostalgia. Sure, shivers ran up and down spines as “In the Deep Shade” began its slow, shy, tender entrance and you remembered how many times it had cast its spell on you. But the musicians hadn’t turned into their younger selves for the evening. They were approaching last night’s show with the experience and steel of a band who’ve been through some huge occasions in the last 10 years. This was about looking back alright, but looking back with hindsight on how “For the Birds” saw them turn a corner and pushed them down a new road on which they’re still trucking.
As they freshly unpicked every track, there were both familiar and unfamiliar discoveries in tracks like “Headlong” and “Fighting On the Stairs”. Both “Santa Maria” and “Disappointed” were mighty in scope and execution, while “Early Bird” still signposts how the band had worked out a new way of going forward. What made the gig all the more special was the superb playing throughout, especially from Colm Mac Con Iomaire and the re-Framed Dave Odlum. Here was a band responding to the occasion by playing out of their skins. They were majestic, magisterial and stately, a Wilco-esque performance in this room which has seen many great performances from this bunch of musicians.
Really, the night could have been – and should have been – left at that and we’d all have gone home happy. But there was more to come.
The second half of the show began with great promise with Roddy Doyle reading his very funny short story “Blood” and the band working their way through golden age classics like “God Bless Mom” and “Revelate”. Inevitably, more guests started arriving. Damien Rice rambled onstage looking for all the world like a man who’d gone out to the shops to buy an organic turnip and ended up at Vicar Street. Mercifully, he played just one song and wandered off again. Bronagh Gallagher and guitarist Conor Brady turned The Frames into a southern soul ensemble for a tune, which was sweet and definitely worthy of more time. Support act Interference came on for a song which reminded you once again that Fergus O’Farrell’s voice is one of our musical nation’s most unheralded assets. And then, Liam O’Maonlai arrived. I think O’Maonlai deserves a paragraph of his own.
For some reason, the unbilled O’Maonlai took over proceedings as if he was the main attraction. While the other guests had realised the audience had come to see a band and quickly vacated the stage after one song, O’Maonlai didn’t have the sense, gumption or grace to recognise this state of affairs. Instead, this inveterate attention-seeker rambled for over 20 minutes through three songs. It was a car crash performance, one you really didn’t want to watch, but you didn’t dare avert your eyes for fear of missing what the man on the stage with the red underpants (clearly to be seen, unfortunately) was going to do next.
On and on O’Maonlai went, whooping, hollering and dancing like Pappy O’Daniel in O Brother, Where Art Thou? as he kept that painful south county Dublin bogman schtick going for as long as he could get away with it. He led a self-indulgent version of “Seeline Woman” which could still be going on were it not for some of the musicians onstage deciding it was time to draw the charade to a close. It was one of the most excruciating, embarrasing, foolish and unintentionally hillarious things I’ve ever seen in all my years going to gigs. It also drew shouts of “fuck off Liam” and “piss off” from an audience who weren’t quite sure whether to laugh or cry.
The show closed with “Heyday” and a reminder that one guest was sadly absent. But, in truth, the gig had lost its sizzle some time before that due to O’Maonlai’s antics. The first half was sublime, the second half (thanks to that Hothouse Flower) was verging on the ridiculous. Truly, a gig of two halves.