Phil Chevron Testimonial, Olympia Theatre, August 24, 2013
Chevron reminding us of the celebration that life is never what we expected. And always worth embracing.
What Irish artist of our generation chronicled more accurately that twilight world between despair and hope? Who gave voices to the margins? Who sliced through the haze obscuring chances and chancers, resources and fairness?
There are really only two types of people these days; the one who leave and the ones who get left behind. And it was to the intersection between these two tribes that Chevron’s pen sliced with the care and skill of a surgeon’s knife.
The two Radiator’s albums are steeped in loneliness and camaraderie. What other Irish band of the era left behind such an incendiary pair of documents scrutinising Irish life and the lives of the Irish at home and abroad?
And tonight we honour Philip Chevron. I don’t know the man. I may have shaken his hand once or twice over the years. Yet his work, his worldview, his artistry changed my life. He sang and wrote about places I knew. Places I had been. And recently he had helped me massively with a book I am doing about the music industry. He gave his time to answer questions from a virtual stranger. Not only did he give his time, he provided me with pages of his recollections about his early life, career and influences. I was already in his debt. I had enjoyed the Radiators deeply and during times in my life over and over.
The Radiators have forever reminded me that you can combine the music and literature of the world with the poetic musings of contemporary life.
In every sense of the word, tonight was A Variety Show. An idea surely that would have pleased Phil. The music testified to a wide range of musical tastes and proved how Chevron could unite so many disparate tribes. Represented on stage we had traditional Irish music, German cabaret, Brill building pop, folk, and rock.
Camille O’Sullivan was a new to me. She was a name I knew of, whose music I had never heard. Somewhere in my mind the word ‘cabaret’ was assigned to her; and that is not always a great box to live in, with its connotations of amateur dramatics and bludgeoned clichés.
Her interpretation of Nick Cave’s ‘The Ship Song’ was a dangerous move. So closely bound up with Cave’s swagger and machismo; in anyone else’s hands it can sound like a parody. Yet O’Sullivan invested it with a deft energy and lightness of touch, she infused it with a burning sweetness. An accomplished performer, she delivered the song with a mesmerising performance. It seemed unlikely that she could top that until she launched into a sensational version of Chevron’s Pogue song ‘Lorelei’. The lyrics, with their mythical tale of longing, complicated love, and fate were heightened by O’Sullivan. Her stagecraft was captivating and shone a light on Chevron’s accomplishments. He was a consummate wordsmith.
This afternoon I was ignorant of Camille O’Sullivan. Tonight, and forever, I’m a fan.
Another unanticipated highlight for me was Patrick McCabe. If O’Sullivan brought Chevron’s words to life, McCabe did the same for Chevron’s Dublin. His reading of John McGahern’s work (I’m not sure what book it was) conjured up the perplexing evenings of Dublin and the torturous emotional landscape between sensuousness and seriousness. The frantic search for the lover in the streets of the capital city, the hope that the woman in the cheap dresses that were popular that summer would be her, were read with perfect inflection by McCabe. The reading placed the walks taken by the inhabitants of Chevron’s songs in the context of writers like McGahern. It is worth remembering that while the Irish authorities were banning The Life of Brian, the South African government was doing likewise to McGahern.
Roddy Doyle later reads a specially written piece. It is moving and funny and poignant, speaking to humanity and mundane life. It is the type of eye-for-detail that makes Doyle outstanding. Tonight he shows his respect for Philip and the rest of us gathered here by putting the people we knew into the story. The young men and women watching the Blades and the Atrix in dank venues, worried about what life in Dublin was going to bring to us, yet knowing three minute slabs of pop could take us somewhere else.
If there were unknown pleasures on the bill tonight, the act I was most looking forward to seeing, The Radiators surpassed my every expectation. This was how the youth of my generation, who sought meaning in music, were introduced to Chevron. There is something so exciting about your hometown producing a band you know are as good as anyone in the world. As the evening rolled into the night, the band performed a stormer of a set, reminding us that Chevron’s accomplices in the band possessed energy, creativity and skill.
They demonstrated how they had the dynamics to bridge the best of 1970s original rock in Ireland with the passion of the next wave. With guest vocalist Brush Shields, they opened the can of hidden delights they polished up for last year’s essential album Sound City Beat. It was a powerful honouring of the ancestor spirits.
Even more visceral: the Radiators with Gavin Friday. He swaggered and strutted, channelling the aggressiveness of the boot-boys who happily intimidated him and his ilk in late 70s Dublin. These hard lads were a constant reminder of the ugly frustrations of daily life. The corner boys from the mean streets whose gauntlet had to be run if you wanted to see bands in Pearse Street or Cabra.
And we are treated to a reworked ‘Johnny Jukebox’. It serves to show how skilled the Radiators are. Instead of playing it safe and giving the audience what we want, they twist the original into something even more original. As a non-musician I can only imagine the work that goes into a process like that. It warms my heart and fills me with admiration. Friday is fantastic and then brings his dark art to Weill’s ‘Alabama Song’ ably backed by the current Radiators and future Trouble Pilgrims.
The Radiators are more than capable of backing the best up as well as fronting up themselves. ‘Enemies’ proves Holidai’s current credentials as a worthy focus. In some ways it is the greatest song of the band’s first era, a blistering clarion call for unity and understanding. It stands up with the best punk songs of any circa ’77 act. Rapid on keyboards is the rockin’ vicar, the shaman of circuitry, wriggling with the same voltage as Iggy, Ian Curtis or Jerry Lee Lewis.
Bass player, Paddy Goodwin appears during the night with other leading lights and acquits himself well. With the ever-solid Johnny Bonnie on drums, he forms a strong rhythm for Holidai and Rapid to experiment and soar. ‘Sunday World’ is also strong tonight with its comment on media manipulation. There is never a bad time to witness the Radiators. Tonight, with their band-mate Philip watching, it is particularly special.
Paul Cleary is the first man onstage alone. He doesn’t need any accompaniment. The mainstay of Dublin sharp pop-combo the Blades, Cleary build up a following in ‘80s Dublin with tight shows, minimal fuss and good tunes. Tonight he reinvents the Radiators’ ‘Enemies’, a one-man-band stripping the song down, rendering it more poignant and plaintiff. He follows this with his own ‘Downmarket’, a song about dwindling prospects and scarce resources. Could any Irish writer of songs in that eighties era have honestly written a song called ‘Upmarket’? Probably not. And Cleary captured the mood with this piece about “living from day to day”.
I also thoroughly enjoyed both Damien Dempsey and Declan O’Rourke, my first time seeing either of them live. Duke Special can command most audiences and his two song set of Kurt Weill’s ‘Applejack’ and his own outstanding ‘Condition’ transcended even the drunken lout who decided that the spirit of charity shouldn’t preclude him yelling his invectives. It was good to see three Pogues there for their bandmate too. And Shane Mc delivered a credit-worthy performance looking battered, bewildered and ravaged. He performed Chevon’s ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ and reminded us what a precarious place immigrants and emigrants hold in history. It was to these travelling souls that the Pogues spoke with greatest resonance. The O’Connor family who had performed earlier had turned in a great ensemble performance with vigour. Irish traditional music deserved and enjoyed its place in Chevron’s appreciation.
Despite owning some of their albums, I had never seen Horslips with their dramatic fusion of traditional music and rock. And tonight was the tonight. And they were a treat. They reminded me what good musicians can achieve with imagination and dedication. Their sound blossomed with the addition of a brass section and a trio of backing vocalists. They still have it; that is for sure.
It was a night for reflection. My mind marvelled at how people like Billy McGrath, Ian Wilson, Ted Carroll, Pat Egan, Elvera Butler, John Fisher, Kieran Owens, Mick McCaughan (who brought the Pogues over for their first headlining tour of the country), the dedicated Ents Officers of educational establishments and countless others laboured with tenacity and entrepreneurial audacity to hand-make an original music scene in Dublin. I have never met most of those people, yet know I have them to thank for making the Dublin I grew up in more wonderful than it would have been.
It is a night for thinking. Thinking of ordinary men and women as well as heroes. I muse on some of my heroes through the years. Tonight the starting line-up would be: Strummer, Connolly, Lydon, O’Connell, Friday, the Suffragettes (I know that’s against the rules), Marx, Bowie, Holidai and Rapid. And naturally Chevron, the Captain and the King.
Here’s to the Captain and the King.