Hard Working Class Heroes raised a few eyebrows two years ago, when they made the decision to remove imported, high-profile indie headliners like TV on the Radio from the bill and focus instead on the Irish music scene. With hindsight, it looks a great decision: the festival’s unique set up makes it the perfect opportunity to check out a whole host of local acts, from well-established Dublin scene leaders like The Minutes and Le Galaxie (above), to a range of acts brought in from the sticks for a first taste of performing in the capital. It all comes with a great assortment of freebies from generous bands, and invariably involves a manic race between Dublin’s smaller venues to try and lap up as many of the 100 acts on offer as possible. For those who like to see a scene’s rising stars, HWCH has both the quality and the quantity.
We open our Thursday night account with Waterford native Deaf Joe, a quirky Delphi label singer-songwriter who shows impressive depth in layering beats and chords to form a darkly emotive whole. While he lacks wow factor, Joe seems just a song or two short of being a seriously compelling live act, not least for his surreal lyrics. AU are no strangers to Sounds of System Breakdown, whose set is riddled with technical problems that include the Button Factory’s fire alarm going off mid-set. When things do get going, the three-piece demonstrate an edgy electro-rock sound that uses a warbling theremin to add effects, and is punctuated by rock-out interludes by supremely talented frontman Rob Costello. As far as combining a barrage of electro-led bleepiness with witty Dublin-centric vocal insights goes, they’re hard to top even on a bad day.
No matter how many great things you hear about a band, it takes seeing them live to really take it all in, and Dublin buzz-band Spies deliver in bucketloads. There’s an Interpol-esque dank intensity to their double-barrelled guitars and super-speed performance layered with bass vocals. There’s a brooding, thundering intensity to Spies that belies their relative ‘new’ status; a musical maturity and on-stage focus that sees the set menace its way aggressively into the conscious. It’s tightly, touchingly beautiful.
If there’s one band just begging to be elevated to prominence as Ireland’s next big act, it’s We Cut Corners. The nervous early shows have given way to a tight two-piece set up, with the main vocals delivered by drummer Conall. It’s the clever lyricisms that load this act with potential, though. Slower efforts like ‘Dumb Blonde’ contrast with the surprisingly filled-out form of tracks like ‘The Leopard’. There’s a simplistic poetry to the lyrics that has us grinning through a set that is performed to an audience which will be thickened out substantially if upcoming album ‘Today I Realised I Could Go Home Backwards’ is half as good as the live show suggests it is.
Conor Walsh was one of our favourite finds of last year’s HWCH. Walsh is usually backed by swirling mirages and natural scenes, but with Shebeen Chic unable to set up his screen, things look a little sparse. While he is unable to calm the chatter with his spoken introduction, his music soon has the room captivated, with subtle, stylised neo-classical keyboard tracks the order of the day. Walsh plays in one long stream of intricately crafted chords, enough to have us happily endure the basement sweatbox, and dazed enough to need a bed not long after.
A talent like Owensie is unfortunate to find himself on so early on a Friday. Michael Owen’s Aliens album, released earlier this year, is one of those that seemed to really charm most who heard it, and the singer cuts a similarly likeable figure live. The backing visuals to songs like ‘Deep In The Eye’ – a tribute to a storm chaser who committed suicide after finding unmatchable perfection in the eye of a twister – add a mesmerising new dimension, but Owensie needs no back up. His songs creep up on you and nuzzle in with warm textures and wittily paranoid lyrics.
Tenaka possesses no such subtlety. In truth, his bleepy, abrupt outpourings are probably better suited to far later in the night, especially as there is little to look at. It’s ten-beers-down club music, and we soon find ourselves drifting towards Belfast’s Morning Claws instead. The five-piece appear a touch bland at first, but it doesn’t take long to connect with the nicely mis-matched songwriting. The forceful beats of ‘Slack Magic’ – which are layered with a beautifully constructed, near-droney vocal – are perhaps the best advert for an act that are nothing if not fiercely atmospheric.
Mackerel The Cat are one of those acts that – nicely constructed as their vocals are – don’t really stand out above a crowd of similarly modern takes on the folk scene doing the rounds, despite occasionally drifting into the oddest of lyrical territory. Young Kildare act Miracle Bell seem to have been on the cusp of something for some time, garnering critical acclaim and radio play not least for the single ‘Love Sounds’, which has been a soundtrack to several high-profile ad campaigns. Miracle Bell’s sound is essentially accessible electro-pop, accentuated live by a bubbly performance from invariable happy-go-lucky guitarist John Broe. Worthy of attention for their sheer effervescence and catchy songwriting, if nothing else.
Dubliners Sleep Thieves seem to have been taking an ever heftier musical path over the course of their existence, with new member Keith Byrne (a replacement for former member Derek Murphy, who is still so attached to the band that he’s on sound tonight) making things still more abrupt. The material from their debut EP It Was Only A Satellite has lost its potency a touch with the increased pace and wall-of-sound style live production, but it’s a sound well suited to the likes of album tracks ‘Hope Is Dead’ and ode to Le Galaxie ‘Do It The Hard Way’. It would be nice to see the band find a way of balancing the two extremes and unveiling the variety that the two releases show they’re capable of, which is not to say they’re anything but catchy and engaging without doing so.
Le Galaxie might be ‘doing things the hard way’, but the scale of their home-town following is fast becoming undeniable. Much like their album launch show at the same venue a few months back, tonight’s show is a sweaty riot of glow sticks and pogoing. Regular closer and single ‘Midnight, Midnight’ remains the band’s big hitter, but the scattered electro-crescendos and work-out intensity of the set suggests this is a band ready to move on to much bigger things. They’ll be dragging a substantial, manic audience along with them.
With school out for the weekend, Saturday sees HWCH step up the daytime events. Numerous bands strutting their stuff in shops and micro-venues around the city plus the chance to snap up their records at a stand run by a host of local record labels turns an evening of music into an entire day’s worth of entertainment. We open our night with young synth-heavy club act Luasa. Clearly new to the live arena, the young threesome make an enticing racket better suited to a sweaty post-dawn dance floor than a near-empty Twisted Pepper at 7pm. Perhaps it’s the emptiness that makes their naivety so clear: while the drummer is lively, the other two look like they’re checking their emails on their on-stage laptops. At least the hooky, smoothly constructed dancefloor fillers are crammed with potential.
Next up are The Violet Roadkills, another instrumental act, but one that packs plenty of energetic punch. Considering the band are playing to one of the smallest audiences we’ve come across all weekend, their intensity is admirable, but Dublin is a fairly saturated market for instrumental rock, and the keyboard dosing added here isn’t enough to convince us this is a band that will break through. Groom, on the other hand, prove to be far better live than on record. Despite their opening song’s chorus sounding oddly like Rubberbandits pronunciation of ‘Hawk’ on their new single, the personality of singer Michael Stevens and his penchant for storytelling shines, as does the band’s ability to kick things up into a slightly edgier realm live.
The Last Days Of 1984 have been performing to increasing hype over the past month or so. Vocally the duo is a touch delicate tonight, distracted, perhaps, by an elderly gentlemen in the front row who seems intent on preaching about subjects unknown whilst dancing like he’s been partying with Rubberbandits. The blend of clever synth loops and swirling beats emanating from the stage is intensely danceable, without doubt, with the songs hanging together well and creating an atmosphere that edges its way towards some mesmerising peaks. For all the high points, though, there are a few too many moments when we feel disconnected from the inwards-facing performers.
All of which leaves perhaps the biggest name act on the bill, The Minutes, to close things out. The band might not quite hold the forceful appeal of The Cast Of Cheers’ mindblowing headline slot last year, but they are one nasty, gurning, in-your-face rock band. Marcata, quality album though it is, doesn’t convey the live ruckus and posturing that the three-piece have become masters of, to the point where they’ve edged their way onto the main stages at a host of Ireland’s bigger festivals. Tonight’s performance is predictably rammed, and makes people want to take their clothes off for more than just the heat. Dirty, ramshackle rock and roll, just how we like it!
Once again, Hard Working Class Heroes succeeded in doing entirely what it intends: showcasing the sheer quality and strength in depth of the Irish music scene, both in a handful of name bands and a plethora of lesser-knowns. It’s impossible to leave an event like this without having found something to love; hard even to leave without a wallet-damaging quantity of new music to add to the playlist and a bag bulging with well-constructed freebies (the triple-vinyl given out at The Button Factory on Friday was a particular highlight). Not everything is a hit, but the sheer quality on offer is a stunning advert for a scene Dublin locals are rightly proud of, brilliantly supplemented with a range of acts from across the entire breadth of the country. James Hendicott