What an emotional day. As I made my way toward Mainguard Street, to witness the announcement of the European Capital of Culture for 2020, I began to get a bit nervous. Until then I had been completely confident in Galway’s bid. I mean, how could Galway lose? It is said to be the Capital of the Arts in Ireland and is often referred to as ‘The Graveyard of Ambition’ thanks to its ability to grab passers-by and engross them so completely that they find it impossible to leave. But what if we lost? Regardless of the result, we would have been proud of the work the team had put in and we could be relatively confident that some of the projects being proposed would still be fulfilled. Yet, that would be no consolation to the people who put so much work in to the last year or so. It would be no consolation to the artists who could have experienced, first hand, the effect of being chosen. For all these people, there was a lump forming in my throat.
When the result was announced, and Galway was chosen by the judging panel, I found myself welling up at the mass outpouring of pride and celebration throughout the congregation. People of all ages; businessmen, dancers, shopkeepers, butchers, artists, singers, painters, acrobats, actors, everybody was ecstatic that our little city was being acknowledged for the effort that it has always put into culture, and for the effort that could (and, now, would) be put in for the future.
To top off a brilliant result, it was time for the first “Big Top” show of the Galway International Arts Festival 2016. We were being blessed with one of music’s biggest names in renowned songwriter, Elvis Costello. Yet, it was The Undertones that were the more enjoyable. The Derry band were one of the first Irish punk bands to receive acclaim in the UK, Australia, Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States. We now find ourselves almost 40 years on from the famous day when John Peel of BBC Radio 1 played their breakthrough hit, “Teenage Kicks”, twice in a row on live radio (something he had never done before) but the band still sound as boisterous and raw as ever. In a set of constant belters, “Jimmy, Jimmy”, “Here Comes the Summer” and, of course, “Teenage Kicks” were particularly lively both from The Undertones themselves and the partisan crowd. Billy Doherty was a joy to watch on the drums; never missing a beat despite playing with such speed and aggression. Since The Undertones reformed in 1999 they have been fronted by Paul McLoone, and the Today FM DJ has done a good job of winning over the cult followers of original lead singer Feargal Sharkey. He was passionate and emotional during his performance in the Big Top, equipped with leg kicks and volatile dancing. The backing vocals and harmonies of John O’Neil, Damien O’Neil and Michael Bradley were flawless throughout, despite their years.
Costello, on the other hand, seemed like an artist passed his peak. It’s impossible to deny his songwriting ability, evident in songs such as “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and “Oliver’s Army”; the latter being the most enjoyable song of the show, made even more so by the fact that it is quite often omitted from Costello’s setlists of late. For the majority of the songs his voice was strained and unpleasant. Sometimes it seemed out of tune. His guitar, too, was practically muted and I wondered if this was intentional so as to put more of the spotlight on his fantastic backing band, The Imposters. Steve Nieve, on keys, and Pete Thomas, on drums, were in sync and glued the whole thing together without being overly flashy.
That’s not to say Elvis Costello was boring or particularly bad in any way. By the time he got toward the end of his set, he had the crowd firmly on his side and his rendition of “Alison” saw his voice grow stronger and his guitar chime with bluesy attitude. That was, however, about three quarters through his show. The Undertones, in contrast, rifled through four high-octane songs in just 9 minutes to begin their set.
The fact that the Irish band stole the show was, perhaps, fitting of the day. It was a proud one for the whole country, not just Galway. The losing candidates will be painfully disappointed; I have no doubt. But that, in itself, is a good thing. To see so many people getting behind their region and being genuinely upset when they lost just shows the kind of support that arts and culture has received for the past year. There was a staggering amount of work put into each of the bids from the final three teams, and of course, Dublin, whom were knocked out earlier in the process.
But, thankfully, Galway was chosen to fly the flag for Irish Culture in 2020. Now, more than ever, we can really believe that musicians and artists of all kinds from Galway, and Ireland, are capable of headlining festivals and putting on amazing shows themselves. Now, we need to give them a chance to show what they are worth. Now, we need to start going to shows of local bands who we may have never heard of and going in with an open mind. Now, we need to be proud of the abundance of unbelievably talented artists we have right here in our City and put them on a level playing field with the artists from abroad that seem to hold an allure on the public. Now, we need to support the artists that need it most.
It is amazing to see so many Irish artists on the Big Top billing for The Galway International Arts Festival this year; Imelda May, Villagers, Mick Flannery, Bell X1, The Gloaming, to name a few. Over the next four years we need to challenge punters and musicians, alike, to push the boundaries of their tastes and their performances so we can fill that Big Top with Galway musicians in 2020. We can’t rest on our victory, there’s a lot of work ahead. But for now, we should celebrate. As John Peel once famously said: “It doesn’t get much better than this…”.
Credit to Ciaran O Maolain Photography for the snaps of the night.