Sultans of Ping and the Absurdity of the Mundane

“You are not as attractive as they are, but you can overcome your ugliness with your wit and intelligent conversation”

If you ever become a rock star and escape with berating the audience  for their ugliness, then you know you are both loved and a master of stage craft. What is more, if you become the lead singer of a post-punk ska influenced indie rock band and pit one half of the audience against the considerably less attractive other half, and that audience screams louder, then you know you have a license to revel in the mundane. Neil O’ Flaherty, lead singer of the Sultans of Ping, has already arrived at this point relieving us of the pressure to fill any gap in the indie rock tongue-in-cheek market. However, for lessons in the celebration and jovial insulting of the ordinary, Neil is your go-to man.

The Sultans of Ping on Stage in Cork 2014

The Sultans of Ping on Stage in Cork 2014

Blending irony and  exaggerated performance, this 1990s band  has weathered the twisting, turning tastes of popular culture to continue wooing contemporary 21st century crowds. Hailing from Cork, their first album, Casual Sex in the Cineplex,  is now over 20 years old.  In camping up the mundane, O’ Flaherty and his intrepid Sultans have  produced classics such as “Where’s me jumper?”, “Give him a Ball (and a yard of grass)”, “You talk too much” and “Let’s go Shopping”. Drawing on the everyday and engagements with the transitional maturation of  teenagers and early twenty somethings, the Sultans of Ping challenge the serious  face of punk rock, ska and the romance of 1980s soft rock.

In “Where’s me Jumper?” the Sultans immortalise the intellectual hippy claiming to be Karl Marx “eating mushrooms in the People’s Park” and an awkward nightclub moment when the potential  dancing presents is dashed by the loss of a jumper. “Where’s me Jumper?” chronicles an identity crisis marked by a lapse into disappointment and the quashing of titillation  “dancing bumper to bumper” initiates. The connection audiences at the recent Indiependence festival in Cork made with O’ Flaherty during the rendition of this classic reflects the continuing love and enthusiasm for these absurd chronicles of the mundane. O’ Flaherty’s provocative performance and  emphasis on broad ‘a’ sounds and screechy ‘e’s teases the audience into chaotic shapes vaguely resembling dancing. The Sultans of Ping are, in short, tremendous fun!

Indiependence Cork

Indiependence Cork  

Where The Streets of the early noughties wallow in the emotional upset caused by the everyman break up of romantic relationships, the Sultans luxuriate in a camp parody of laddish culture and relationships more tender boring moments. Admitting to liking Veronica, that two pints makes a great night  out  and that a couple, no longer able to endure the drug fuelled chaos of their youth, should put on their flip flops and  just “go shopping” together “dear”, foregrounds the ordinary in jilting melodies familiar to us all. Presenting the mundane in the new clothes of ironic wit does not change it, but when O’ Flaherty  strides with Mick Jagger confidence in white faux fur, the cathartic celebration of the ordinary lets us laugh in the face of it . Our subjection to it’s perfunctory pedestrianization becomes an hilarious moment. Next time you need to be cheered up try revisiting the Sultans, and if O’ Flaherty takes liberties by describing your half of the audience as noticeably less attractive than the other half, forgive his arrogance. The smile he will leave on your face will be worth it!

Roddy Doyle is my stalker…

Roddy Doyle is my stalker. Or at least at a certain point frequent path crossings convinced me of this status. Clearly, this recognition works two ways but for a period Roddy Doyle was everywhere. Near me in ques, in cafes, on public transport and at concerts. At times  it seemed there was certainly more than one Roddy. Not quite omnipresent, Roddy moved around Dublin and the midlands at pace ensuring a fairly persistent presence. When does he write books I wondered?

Vaguely chuffed at first noticing Roddy at a belting performance by The Return of British Sea Power in the midlands, I nudged my companion. Agreeing that Roddy was gathering material for a novel, we also hoped he recognised the strengths of British Sea Power from an early stage in their development. This, in the book of any half discerning indie music lover, is enough to earn the schreibmaster significant kudos. At the time, Sea Power were predicted to rise to heights now occupied by the likes of magnolia music makers, Elbow and chief churners of bland, Coldplay. Unfortunately, The Return of British Sea Power are continually eclipsed by easy sales, and as far as I am aware Roddy Doyle has yet to mention them in any of his novels. At this stage they could probably do with the boost Roddy!

Penning novels seemed to have been shelved at that stage however, as Roddy was seen shortly afterwards rocking out to the repertoire of the cult classic band Mercury Rev at Vicar Street. His penchant for indie rock was becoming increasingly apparent. Sporting spectacles only a novelist of substance can get away with, Roddy seemed to know his music prompting a mental note to read  his anticipated next novel on the music scene. Mental notes are sometimes interrupted at gigs by music and the outbursts of  other revellers. Both factors turned my attention to the hazy lights, the rock star profiles of a band putting their all into  Darkness Rising, and the torrent of beer the nearest hispter saw fit to pour down my jeaned leg. Lucky Roddy escaped this!

There was no escaping Roddy though! Twinges of suspicion began to grow when I saw Roddy on a bus in Dublin less than a week later. Coincidence is strong however, and Ireland is tiny so shoving twinges aside, I assigned the crossing of our paths to serendipity. The fact that he was sitting across from me on the Luas less than a week later was simply uncanny. However, when we both alighted at the National Museum I realised that Dublin’s matrix was closing in on me. Being Irish, I expected to find out any day that Roddy Doyle was in fact the third cousin of my neighbour’s wife. This didn’t happen. But what happened next confirmed my suspicions that Roddy Doyle was neglecting his writing to rush around in my path.

Settling into a cafe in the Italian quarter in Dublin,  I set up my notebook to do a bit of typing. Being in a tiny cafe where Italian waiters encourage you to indulge in little chocolate luxuries and relishing a cappuccino, I felt pretty relaxed. Relaxed enough to ask the woman on the bench next to me to watch my belongings while I used the ladies. “No problem”, she said, “I am just waiting for a friend” and that has since become one of the most ominous sentences ever uttered. “I am just waiting for a friend”. The  explanation was needless and, yet, when I returned it made sense. Sitting across from her was her friend and, of course, it was Roddy Doyle. Who else could her friend possibly have been? At this point Roddy Doyle was not just recognising me but clearly  jokes I made to  friends about our frequent meetings were becoming reality. Roddy Doyle was my stalker.

Realisations have consequences and this one snowballed quickly. Becoming preoccupied with the perceived  fact of having a stalker, I began to revel in it. I gobbled up Doyle’s novels. Revisiting Paula who walked into doors was excruciating and following the movements of Henry back and forth through war torn Ireland into the under worlds of Dublin was thrilling. However, getting to know Jimmy  Rabbit again was easily the most enjoyable revisitation. Jimmy Rabbit, the protagonist of Doyle’s early novel The Commitments, is a dreamer seeking to over come the obstacles working class Dublin puts between him, soul music and managing a motley crew of musicians and fractured individuals into global stardom.

Regularly imagining interviews with Terry Wogan during which he modestly bats Terry’s praise of his imagined success aside, Jimmy’s wanderings act as a literary device filling the reader in on the future possible directions of the plot. Jimmy loves music, champions popular culture as politicised action and dreams of bringing a white soul band to the heady heights of Stacks and Motown. Aspirational this may seem but for one single beautiful moment, stardom is almost possible. Jimmy’s band misses success by the grace or gracelessness of  accident. His imagined interviews come to nothing and we are left witnessing Rabbit’s gracious acceptance of chance and what never came to be.

The grace of acceptance  Rabbit demonstrates is admirable. However, such grace can only work when followed by the enthusiasm to tackle aspirations from another angle all over again. Recently, when bombing down the M7 towards Limerick, the shock of seeing giant white star fish suspended and turning  above a valley jolted me out of  a day dream. Drawing closer to the wind turbines, my internal conversation with Tom Dunne, radio talk show host and former lead singer of the 90s band Something Happens, in which we were discussing my blogging joy ended. Conversations with Tom Dunne? Giant suspended star fish in the midlands? Clearly I have turned into the female version of Jimmy Rabbit. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it is certainly not a good thing.  Admittedly, internal conversations with Tom Dunne in the car are  less embarrassing than interviews in the bath with an imaginary Terry Wogan, but they won’t  improve my writing. Work might help, but better still some tips from a former stalker would certainly be of much greater benefit. Roddy, where are you now? Your shadowing is required and there could be a couple of mixed tapes in it for you.

On being a nationalist #ntl

Being a nationalist in the 21st century is hardly voguish. After all nationalism implies hefty loyalty to a particular cause. It also requires a willingness to participate in events and media binding you to concepts of nation and nationality. More importantly it necessitates a profound and continuing sense of togetherness. In an age when the transience of our focus shifts from tweet to post with IMG_20140716_212508hitherto unexperienced speed, adhering to the specifics of nationalism is difficult, if not impossible. Impossible that is unless you have discovered Indie Rock band The National.  One night in a hot tent with a few thousand others in the west of Ireland in mid July listening to The National and you will be hooked. One night with The National and being a nationalist will become your new and, perhaps, your sole preoccupation. One night with The National and your love of popular culture’s mob tendencies, minus the ugliness, will be renewed.

Inflated and exaggerated these claims may seem, but having witnessed The National bring their audience on a “blood buzz” last week at the Galway Arts Festival, I am convinced of their merit  now more than ever. If this has happened to you in Galway or elsewhere then it has probably become  impossible toIMG_20140716_234430 avoid embracing nationalism. You will find yourself scrolling their Instagram posts, liking them on Facebook, waiting for notifications on Twitter and seeking out possibilities to hear them play once more. You will connect with other fans and seek out reasons to discuss the band’s  gradual yet stunning rise from the sparsity of their early albums to the beautiful craft of  Boxer and Alligator, and later to the heartbreaking layers of High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me. You can probably find little else to think about other than stunning honesty of Mr November or that suspended moment when The National yielded their acoustic offerings of Vanderlyle, Cry Baby, Cry to the audience. This is the kind of focus that makes you a new nationalist. And no, it doesn’t matter that you have already seen them play twice this year because The National provoke that kind of dedication in their fans.

But what is it about The National that prompts people to follow a band  that  in many ways are subtle, discreet and underwhelming? Perhaps it is the very honesty of their subtlety that appeals to their fans. Being a fan of The National allows you to join with others in melodic mappings of failure’s heartbreak, the vulnerability of human weakness, terrible loss and the fear of joy’s abrupt truncation. Matt Berninger and the other members touch these tender human traces  making their fan their peer and not their idoliser. The National pull the threads of pain and exhilaration out of all of us to form a binding togetherness that can only be described as being a nationalist. The loose binding of a hashtag #ntl goes deeper when you are a nationalist. Am I a fan? Just a little…

“I guess we’ll just have to adjust”: Arcade Fire and why we need to be bored by The Pixies.

Pristine skies are something of a rarity in Dublin. June 29th however, was one of those welcome occasions when the weather yielded to neither cloud nor night cool. Ham Sandwich, enthused by the showing in of their idols, were adorable. The sun shone. When night came Arcade Fire filled it with light and sound. Guitars screamed. Voices soared and crowds echoed lyrics excitedly. Indeed, on June 29th we were all excited. Well, almost all of us. The Pixies bored and looked bored with only  hard-core Pixie fans staying attentive throughout.

Their flawless but sultry performance suffered from a certain rheumatic aura. Hit followed hit. image-fcfe85c8173d2129325b2cc35bd0dac69aa6f6971a7bd3e966226e9d7effc87e-V-1The crowd, populated mainly, but not solely by those of a certain age, swarmed stage ward after Ham Sandwich to be met with trophy number after trophy number. “Hey” and “Where is my mind?” had us on our feet  yearning to name our own consciousness while turning from tones of milky Irish to freckly red. In between the crowd lost interest and The Pixies didn’t seem to care. Younger crowd members, there to see Ham Sandwich and Arcade Fire, were given a lesson in rock’s cool detachment. What else might you want? Engagement with the crowd? Maybe. Deviation from a jaded performance that has clearly been repeated countless times? Certainly!

The Pixies have a scant reputation in terms of  crowd interaction. They bang out song after song regardless of those listening. This is their style. Knowing that however, does little to prevent the onset of disinterest. Cooing to “Caribou” is one thing but swaying jauntily to “Here Comes Your Man” when even Frank Black has openly expressed boredom is another. Watching one of the most impacting bands of the late twentieth century churn out anthem renditions of their most influential music is a little grinding.

Still, close your eyes and you can hear their influence echo down through the past thirty years. From Nirvana and The Libertines across the spectrum to Arcade Fire where indie meets rock, bands pull their roots from The Pixies’ exploration of punk, psychedelic rock, surrealism and old fashioned rock and roll. For this reason alone,The Pixies should never stop touring.

Boring to watch they may be, but we need The Pixies. Metarock, gigs where music is mediated by our mobiles, has spoiled us. We want bands that look good in pictures and cool as hashtags. The Pixie’s exposure to crowds whose attention is split between the event, social media and the music makes their performance seem something of an historical exhibition piece. In light of movement away from pared down rock towards roller coaster concerts dishing up explorations of light and sound, modest displays where music speaks for itself are necessary. They remind us what raw brilliance sounds like by itself.

These occasions, pristine but boring are likely to become much less frequent in the future. Unlike Arcade Fire, we will Mileyandthepopenever witness The Pixies donning a Bono or  Pope head to rip up a picture of Miley Cyrus with the crowd accompanying a flat screen  Sinead O Connor singing “Nothing Compares to you”. The Pixies will never blast the stage in white light and release confetti in a million pieces into the night. The Pixies, in this respect, are a much greener band than Arcade Fire.  However,  metarock is here to stay and The Pixies have not gone away. Not yet anyway.

We now occupy an odd space where we can still remember gigs without all the tricks of  theunnamed contemporary festival. But we expect more. As crowds we expect light, sound, confetti and to be teased by both band and music. Standing between us and the band, our phones act as an immediate channel to the wonderful world of social media. Delights Arcade Fire and their ilk deliver are expected when parting with hefty admission prices. Nonetheless, The Pixies’ influence will last long after Arcade Fire’s capacity to draw huge crowds has diminished. We need The Pixies to bore us so that we know the raw enjoyment of rock before it disappears altogether. And when The Pixies are gone?  Then ” I guess we’ll just have to adjust!”


Nights like mornings

Approaching the summer solstice

Approaching the summer solstice

Mid June in Ireland offers nights like mornings. What seems like endless hours of daylight promises potential long forgotten  last winter. On nights like this, in a city like Dublin, anything is possible. Open air cinemas compete with museum hunts, late night music events and the  opportunity of a loose limbed stretch across the sands  licking Dublin Bay.

On the night before the solstice Dublin lured a friend and I away from the strand into a late evening gig at The Sugar Club on Lower Leeson street. The Fred Wesley Trio, headed by FW himself, pulled us into the intensity of their layered sound immediately. Bringing the whole audience on textured navigations of jazz solos and crescendos, FW’s sound was full of the endless return of solstice promise. Fred Wesley, we salute you!

Fred WesleyTriocrop

The Fred Wesley Trio at The Sugar Club