We are at the Iveagh Gardens and James Vincent McMorrow and his band are about to play a gig. This is Ireland’s return to live music – a pilot event to test the viability of outdoor performance in the age of Covid.
On the way into the venue two young women are helping each other with their wrist bands. “You forget how to do it,” says Sarah McNamee.
"All we do is go to gigs normally," says her friend Saoirse Raleigh, who bonded with her originally over gig-going. "I honestly cried on the Luas on the way in… We said if we got tickets, we'd get matching tattoos."
They thought maybe a tattoo of a knife and fork to symbolise their favourite James Vincent McMorrow song, We Don’t Eat.
“We’re chickening out now a bit,” says Raleigh.
“No we’re not!” says McNamee.
It turns out it’s hard to review this evening’s gig without making it a review of human beings and being in their company. I give that five stars. Other people are great. We’re all in “pods” clearly marked and socially distanced from one another but those pods collectively amount to 500 people and, frankly, I forgot that that many people existed.
Emily Coss has come up from Galway for this. She has already booked six gigs for this summer. She even likes going to gigs alone, she says. "I'll stand away from you so," jokes her friend Ailbhe Hickey.
Hickey says that “apart from seeing friends and family” live music has been the thing she’s missed most. Are they looking forward to any song in particular? “Me and My Friends,” says Coss. “Because it’s lovely to be here with my friend. We haven’t got to see each other much.”
At 7pm, Sorcha Richardson takes to the stage to play her bittersweet but groovy pop songs, and it's the first live music most of us have heard in a year. It's real people strumming strings and hitting things with sticks so that the air vibrates completely unmediated by laptop speakers. "F***ing hell we haven't done this in a while," Richardson says.
People dance in their roped-off pods. Richardson leads the crowd in a verse of Happy Birthday for her drummer. At the end of the set she congratulates everyone for winning “the hunger games” and getting tickets.
Three Dubliners and a Westport man are smiling so hard as they enter the venue you can see it through their masks. "I tried a few online gigs, but it wasn't the same," says Thomas Cannon. "You want to feel the bass in your chest."
"There might be crying," says Ethan Tulley.
"It's surreal but weirdly normal," says Paul Long.
“Like coming back from a holiday,” says Cannon.
“Or visiting an aunty you haven’t seen in ages and she still has the biscuits you like,” says Tulley.
I meet two other gig-goers, James and Maeve, as they come into the venue early in the night. “We’re actually James’s parents,” says Maeve.
They had no real idea of his talent when he was younger, she says. “He worked away quietly.”
They’re very proud of him. “It’s an emotional day,” says James.
At 8pm, a brass section plays the motif of Me and My Friends, and McMorrow is suddenly onstage. In many ways he’s the perfect person to oversee the return of live music. His music is wistfully melancholic and euphorically danceable at the same time. Only after the dramatic piano-led We Don’t Eat does he speak: “I don’t want to talk too much because it’s been a long time since anyone’s heard songs in a field.”
He plays Steve Winwood’s Higher Love, and his rich vulnerable falsetto soars above the simple piano through the trees. He plays Get Low with added guitar squall followed by a soulful thumping version of Rising Water and then the pastoral throwback This Old Dark Machine.
He sings Waiting from his forthcoming album Grapefruit Season. “I wrote that during lockdown,” he says afterwards. “It feels weirdly emotional singing that.”
Over Red Dust’s gospely chords his voice attains unbelievably high notes. Over Gone’s sloping groove he sings about how he “gives less f***s than I used to, still give a lot of f***s”. I think he sings that for us all at this stage in the pandemic.
People dance. People sing along. He gets everyone to wave for RTÉ news. He encores. He takes a photo of the crowd. As the fading sun illuminates the trees of the Iveagh Gardens live music is back. I'll leave the last words to McMorrow: "I didn't realise how much I needed all this until it gets taken away... This feels like a small window into the future and it is f***ing brilliant."