Live Reviews - Reviews

In Review: Choice Music Prize 2014


Now in its ninth year, perhaps the most pleasing thing about the Choice Music Prize – the undoubted impact of ten grand in a talented act’s bank account aside – is the chance to slow the pace and take a languid gander at just how much is good about the modern Irish music scene. The annual debate on those who lost out highlights encouraging depth (see Enemies, Nanu Nanu, Axis Of and God Is An Astronaut this year), and – as smaller past winners Julie Feeney, Super Extra Bonus Party, Jape and Adrian Crowley can attest – the award does seem to have a marked effect on career trajectories.

That’s not to say it necessarily makes for a great live event. At two to three songs per artist, certain ‘atmospheric’ acts simply aren’t suited to the environs, and while extended breaks do feature some insightful on-screen interviews, others are mumbled and overpowered by parallel sound checks. 2FM DJ Paul McLoone’s banter between acts, meanwhile, varies from mediocre charm to downright ill-informed. Then again, nights like this are as much about celebration as actually showcasing quality. Such are reward shows.


Of course, for the less-pervasive acts on the bill – and there are at least a couple – this is a chance to attract an influential audience. Girls Names (frontman Cathal Cully, above) get the difficult opening slot, and offer up a Joy Division aping wall of sound that doesn’t have the chance to reach the swirling, hypnotizing highs of their more extended show. They shine nevertheless, closing with a triumphant toss of the drumsticks from Gib Cassidy and a jarring statement of a screech. The incredibly distinctive Lisa O’Neill (below) is in a similar underdog position, the quirky Cavan folkster doing herself plenty of favours in the ‘Fionn Regan’ outsider artist role. She’s memorable, with ‘Dreaming’ in particular doing second album ‘Same Cloth or Not’ justice in its appetizingly distinct nasal twang.


Third up is an aside to the ‘song of the year’ category, perhaps the oddest part of the night. While the social media/corporate angle is easy to understand given the title sponsors, the public vote on a collection of radio-friendly pop tracks sits at stark and slightly frustrating contrast to the critic-based, artistic emphasis of the album section. Original Rude Boys (below) running out as winners with an insipidly catchy ‘hip Backstreet Boys’ moment in ‘Never Gonna Walk Away’ is only surprisingly in that they beat that Hozier song to the jackpot. It’s all very tame, though the colourfully camp energy of the Dubs acceptance performance does them no harm.


Back at the main event, O Emperor (below) are the bookie’s pre-show favourites. It’s not to be their night, though the sheer sound-development on offer on ‘Vitreous’ over debut ‘Hither Tither’ deserves ample kudos. The Waterford natives rip into swirling, playful psychedelic rock-out that walks a happy line between accessible and creative, and suggests a little Grateful Dead consumption on the side.


It’s two consecutive sets in the heart of the event that are to prove the biggest talking points, however. Bell X1 (below) hold a comfortable record for the most Choice nominations without a win, and while ‘Chop Chop’ might not be their finest entrant, they’ve certainly learnt how to entertain in a limited time period. Paul Noonan leads the trio in gathering their acoustic guitar set up around a single microphone, offering playful renditions of ‘Careful What You Wish For’ and ‘The End Is Nigh’. There’s the humour and depth of a good open-mic act, as well as the class of a creative force that comes strongly to the fore in the single verse of ‘full band’ set up at the end. It’s both infectious and nuanced, and easily the stand out performance of the night.


Little Green Cars are memorable for different reasons. Immaculate sounding as ever – the harmonies are particularly tight – the youngsters pick out ‘Harper Lee’ and the leftfield ‘My Love Took Me Down To The River To Silence Me’ to showcase their unexpected 2013 highlight ‘Absolute Zero’. They end up having to muddle messily though, with their haunting flow interrupted first by a fire alarm, and second by bassist Donagh O’Leary’s axe-strap breaking mid-song. The latter forces an unintended rock-out track during which O’Leary struts about trying to balance his instrument on his leg. That they still sound so great in amongst it all is a feat.


Then there’s rank outsider Mano Le Tough (a.k.a Niall Brennan, below), a Berlin-based house DJ of undeniable repute who simply doesn’t fit the Choice mould. He feels like a token dance act, and knocks out a ten minute set that – while toned down – would still work better accompanied by a laser show and sticky dance floor. Still, as a relative unknown in his own country, his technical aptitude and lofty beats will have won plenty of friends tonight.


Three shortlisted nominees, Belfast heroes And So I Watch You From Afar (ripping it up in Singapore), new stadium stars Kodaline (toning it down in L.A.) and long-absent locals My Bloody Valentine (Kevin Shields is to be found chilling in a quiet corner of Vicar Street, once someone deems him worthy of a seat) are to appear by pre-recorded video only. Should they all have made the stage, the already notable demonstration of quality on show would have been nothing short of quick-fire sensational.


As it is, arguably the biggest act in the building is left to close. Villagers{Awayland} shows the same kind of emotional development fans dream of when worrying about that clichéd second album. The talented collective ooze class behind the puppet-white make up of front man Conor O’Brien (above); offering the kind of polished performance that the likes of the inconsistently sensational Little Green Cars might one day achieve. ‘Nothing Arrived’ is the height of O’Brien’s introvert desolation, while ‘The Waves’ offers a more leftfield, peaky close. They needn’t have bothered leaving the stage, with their victory announced shortly afterwards.

Include O’Brien’s first band The Immediate, and tonight is the Villagers icon’s third nomination for Choice, and that he hasn’t won it before, given the joyous progression of his songwriting, is perhaps more surprising than tonight’s bull’s-eye. Happy, but perhaps not all that surprised, O’Brien and co offer a smiling but perfunctory thank you to supporters and sponsors, and trot off for champagne. As showcases go, there’s been plenty of all-too-quickfire class, and next to the usual post-ceremony debates, the winner seems to sit well. If there’s a single flag being flown for Irish musical artistry right now, O’Brien’s poetic world view surely has a palm on the pole. James Hendicott


Check out Shaun Neary’s full photo set from the night here.

James stumbled into music journalism into 2007, when he attended a Seoul pop festival, mentioned his travel writing background to a local magazine editor and found himself interviewing Muse at ten minutes’ notice. He’d always been a music addict, mind, diverging from a rural punk scene to his current love of hardened beats, dance punk, bling-free hip-hop and the occasional bit of socially unacceptable cheese. He once wrote for Lonely Planet, interviewed Yoko Ono and asked a member of Mumford & Sons awkward questions about brain surgery. These days, James spends far too much of his time mourning the lost brilliance of Dublin record label The Richter Collective. But life goes on…