I go to a lot of gigs, and while waiting for last night’s show I got chatting to another concert goer about some of the best we’d ever been to. My very first was Prince, hers had been Tears for Fears, I’ve seen Bowie, she’d seen Michael Jackson – little did we know as we chatted that we were about to see something that would near the top of that best ever gigs list.
It’s no secret that Christy Dignam has been ill, his battle with amyloidosis has been widely reported, and as I write this today I read that he has revealed to an Irish newspaper this morning that he received worrying results from a routine blood test just this week. Knowing that now adds poignancy to the very emotive performance that we witnessed last night. Still sounding in fine voice, Christy puts his heart and soul into every lyric. It’s sad to think of the difficult news he must have been struggling with which adds unwelcome weight to the opening lyrics of the first song of the night, Gotta Make It; “You really fucked up this head of mine”.
In fact, many Aslan lyrics seem to denote more than usual just now. Chains was next, where he sings, “Oh what a waste, and time’s still ticking away”, then Pretty Thing with the lyrics, “Why, please tell me why, is all this sorrow and suffering still going on”. But don’t misunderstand, this was not a solemn occasion; the band were tight, the crowd was fanatical, it was a crazy good gig and I got to witness first hand Christy’s signature move, that flick of the microphone lead over his head.
After telling us that he was “roasting” and stripping off his jacket, he got down to business and launched into to a song that he said they hadn’t played live in a long time, Hurt Sometimes. Then it was the colossal hit Crazy World. I could sense a real outpouring of love for Christy and everybody there knew every last lyric of this one. He connects with his audience throughout, anointing the faithful in the front row with his mic. When he turned it on the audience and said it was our turn, the swell of voices nearly lifted the roof off.
Aslan don’t do a lot of covers, but when they do, they pick corkers and they gave us two of their best next. The Rolling Stones’ Angie is Christy has said, one of the reasons he wanted to become a singer in the first place and they’ve been doing a beautiful cover of this for years. That was followed Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Christy then took a moment to thank their support act, local singer-songwriter Daragh McSloy whom he called “brilliant”.
Lucy Jones Part 1 was next; it’s a really lively track. It’s always sounded to me like it wouldn’t be out of place on an Oasis album but with the distinctly Irish lyrics, “Got to go to church on Sunday morning”. The band has such a great rapport with the fans and they really seem to have a laugh playing this one. A few camera phones were out and Billy McGuinness leaned in for close-ups and reached out to individual phones to give the giant hand effect. Billy’s harmonica playing was showcased during the next song, This Time.
Christy’s version of The Green Fields of France has received a lot of attention lately following his stunning performance with Finbar Furey on RTE’s Late Late Show earlier this year. Tonight, he performed the song acapella and this was when all the camera phones in the crowd came out and the previously very boisterous audience were suddenly silently spellbound.
Aslan have consistently been considered to be vastly underrated. They are huge in Ireland, but fans who reckon they are far superior to U2 can’t understand why they haven’t achieved a similar level of worldwide success to Bono and the boys. I have to admit that songs of the calibre of Too Late for Hallelujah do make me question it too. This song could be a massive stadium filling anthem on a par with Muse or Aslan’s contemporaries, Oasis. It’s simply a great song and an illustration that their material is worthy of far greater recognition than it has received on the world stage.
Down on Me was next, with the longest guitar solo of the night. And then, it was the song we were all waiting for, This Is. Christy’s customary sequence of gestures to accompany the words was in place. He had to have been tiring by this stage, but he kept the energy going right to the end of the set. It’s such an emotive song and hearing it live was a thrill.
Before the night came to an end they gave us Crazy World again! Support act Daragh McSloy was rocking out in the front row and it must have been a real kick for him when Christy called him up to join them on stage. He shared microphone and vocals with the legendary frontman, urging the crowd to join in. Then with a peace sign Christy took his leave, and he was soon followed by most of the band, until it was just McSloy and drummer Alan Downey left on stage repeating the iconic chorus. I’ll bet that is a night that young performer will remember for a long time.
I had a quick interview with Daragh McSloy after the gig. Perched on some stairs off the back of the kitchen he told me all about his youtube video which went viral last year. In Matchetts Music shop in Belfast he played piano by ear, playing whatever songs were randomly selected by his friend’s ipod on shuffle. The video currently has in excess of 80,000 views. He told me that he’s been playing piano since the age of six or seven, but he’s also an accomplished guitarist and a pretty impressive songwriter, being as he is still only seventeen. While he writes much of his own material, he also includes some covers in his set and he reached eye wateringly high notes in Purple Rain tonight. He cites Thom Yorke among his main influences. The venue manager at that point chipped in to tell me that Daragh has played the Skylite Room several times and always gets a great reaction from the crowd. He rates him as a really talented artist and tells me he expects great things from him in the future.
Never one to miss an opportunity, I chanced my arm and asked the manager if he could sneak me upstairs to meet the band. He promised to try, but minutes later when Billy McGuinness passed me on the stairs, I took a shot and asked, and sure enough he told me to follow him up. I couldn’t believe I’d blagged it! By that stage Christy had already gone, exhausted no doubt, but I got to meet Billy and Alan, I got handed a beer and the chance to ask a couple of questions. And my first question just had to be, “How’s Christy?” Billy assured me that he’s doing okay, that he gets tired and that he plays every gig like it’s his last, but that he’s still enjoying it and he’s feeling pretty good. I remarked on the love that was so evident for Christy and for the band in that room tonight, but he told me that if I want to see real love I should come to a Dublin gig. It’s true I know that they are idolised in their home town, but the good people of Warrenpoint too, showed affection last night that was palpable.
I was excited to learn that they are currently filming a new documentary about the band, some eighteen years after the last one, Made in Dublin. The film crew have followed them closely for the last few months and it promises to be an intimate account, even following Christy to hospital appointments. They aim to wind up filming at their Iveagh Gardens gig next month and the documentary will be released soon after. Damien Dempsey is involved in the project following his collaboration with them on the track Bullets and Diamonds.
Tonight’s gig was unforgettable. Seeing Christy Dignam do his thing in a venue of this size felt like a privilege, he is a phenomenal, charismatic performer. If it hadn’t been for the stool that he sat on intermittently, he would have given away little sign that his energy was flagging, which by the end of the night it must have been. Here’s hoping that he’ll be around for a long time to come because his army of fans adore him and I’d love any chance to see them in concert again.