Aqualung, Vicar Street, Dublin, 5th April 2003
With his neatly-combed hair and sensible glasses, Aqualung frontman Matt Hales doesn't look like your typical pop star - he ambled onto the Vicar Street stage looking more like the quiet, studious kid who was always picked last in PE. Then again, Aqualung isn't exactly your typical rock band. Their hushed, wistful brand of music is best suited to those dark tea-times of the soul when you've come home from the pub alone (again), tired and probably drunk - basically, when you just want to luxuriate in your own self-pity...
Seeing the transferral of such introspective melodies from bedroom stereo to live performance was bound to make for an interesting night. After the simple, rhythmic piano chords that open 'Good times gonna come', the calm suddenly exploded into multi-layered majesty. Vicar Street was enveloped with Hales' sweet voice, tumbling from crescendo to a soft croon. Even from this opening number, it was clear that this was a different incarnation from the Aqualung you may have heard on your stereo - live percussion and double bass gave an added resonance to their hallmark delicate melodies.
As a classically-trained musician, the obvious craftsmanship of Matt Hales' compositions is belied by his genuine humility and wry self-deprecation. He has a wicked sense of humour, contrasting with the raw, heartfelt emotions in his lyrics and bringing a sense of levity to an otherwise intense performance. Between songs, he bumbles about, mocking his inability to sing without closing his eyes and his lack of a back catalogue. He had to play some new songs, he assured us, to give the audience value for their money - "otherwise we'd only be onstage for about half an hour".
As soon as the music starts, however, the jokes end. Songs like 'If I fall', with its layered repetition of harmonies and falling cadences, had the quiet strength to hold the audience in thrall. It was dedicated to David Gray, whom Aqualung supported on his recent European tour and whom Hales described as "the most vicious brute I've ever played football with". The swirling light of the Vicar Street disco-ball added to the dreamlike atmosphere and there wasn't a sound from the hushed crowd. 'Over', a new song from July's forthcoming album, sounded generally more upbeat and guitar-based than you might expect. Other new songs included 'You turn me around' and 'Nothing else matters', which went down really well with the audience.
In what was Aqualung's first headline show outside Britain, any initial nerves were soon assuaged by the warmth of the crowd's reaction. While introducing 'Can't get you out of my head' - and sending up the popular perception of himself as a "moody, depressed young man" - Hales was interrupted by an audience member who felt compelled to point out that they had similar watches. Looking ever so slightly bemused, he took it in his stride and, in keeping with the intimate nature of both the show and the music, engaged him in a private conversation about the merits of quartz timing and glow-in-the-dark dials.
The next song was introduced as "the very best song in the world". Courteous as ever, he hastened to add that he didn't write it, "lest I appear rude". Paying homage to their musical influences, what followed was a cover of the Beach Boys' 'God only knows'. Its upbeat enthusiasm was foregone in favour of a more off-kilter, austere sound. The harmonies were tenderly achieved by each band member and, without the original version's rich wall of sound, the song took on a greater pathos.
The show was briefly interrupted for the band to have a tea break. How very rock n' roll. Gentleman that he is, Hales gave his half-empty mug to a friendly heckler in the audience before continuing with 'Everything changed' and 'Halfway to the bottom'. The set finished with 'Strange and beautiful (I'll put a spell on you)' and, sure enough, the whole crowd seemed captivated by its ethereal qualities.
For an encore, the band re-emerged onstage to play the haunting 'Tongue-tied' and followed this with 'Gentle', one of the highlights of the night. It swung from soft to soaring, backed by sweet strings and rising harmonies that filled the whole hall. In another tribute to Hales' idols, the band played 'Riversong', taken from Dennis Wilson's '77 album "Pacific Ocean Blues". The final song was 'Nowhere', the simple melody needed no more embellishment than a piano and a beautiful voice.
Anyone who may have dismissed Aqualung as mere Radiohead wannabes was proved wrong in Vicar Street. Their songs are more than mere craftsmanship - a melodic fragility draws you in; simple, organic piano hooks tug at the heartstrings; and there's real feeling behind every note. Hales' pure, plaintive tones are like those of a lost angel, imbuing his songs of love, loss and lamentation with such sentiment that to see the live performance was to eavesdrop on the secrets of the human heart.
Mary Anne Kenny.