Aston Villa, The Play Off Diaries: We Go Again

As you might or might not know, I’m a life-long Aston Villa fan. It’s been a rocky road. In the early days, it was quite good fun: a flamboyant, attacking club that won things – albeit relatively minor things like the then Coca-Cola Cup – and reached finals on a regular enough basis to bring lots of excitement. I had a season ticket as a student, by which time the club was a lower mid/table Premier League struggler, but still boasted the flair of people like Juan Pablo Angel and Thomas Hitzelsberger (don’t laugh, they were both excellent to watch). I still make roughly a game a year, which is less than I’d like, but as much as is really fair in the context of having a young child and living in another country.

In the next two weeks, Villa have the chance to regain their status at the top table, so I’ve decided I’ll take the chance to write about it. For two games. Or three. However long it lasts. I won’t be there, in all likelihood, but as far as a small number of games go, there’s nothing bigger than the playoffs. Time to ramble…

And so to year two: the play offs (and so, the play off diaries) strike again.

It’s funny that it can feel like your football team has gone through a complete cycle of transition, and yet come the end of the year, you find yourself facing into the same old battle to re-join the elite. 2019 Villa are a different team to the one that faced Middlesbrough and then Fulham in 2018. They’re a better attacking outfit. Probably a better defensive outfit, too, though they’re certainly liable to concede more chances and far less likely to shut up shop if they go ahead. They’re also far less likely to find themselves up against a team they can’t unlock.

It has to be said, firstly, that this has been one of the most interesting season to be a Villa fan in living memory. I’m almost at the point, as I said last year, where there’s a tiny bit of me that would prefer to stay in the Championship simply for more of this. The Championship is an equal and fiercely competitive league compared to the Premier League, and has far more in common with what I remember the Premier League being like when I was growing up. There’s a lot to like, and that’s before you get to Villa’s particular drama. So I have mixed feelings.

This season has had some distinctive highlights. We’ve had the cabbage incident back in the Steve Bruce era. The longest run of consecutive wins in the club’s history. The absolute doldrums of the first few months of the season, and the blast through from peripheral playoff contenders to comfortably getting in.

There was Jack Grealish getting attacked on the pitch and then scoring the winner against them from up the road, and that wonder-goal from Hutton against… Sure, well you know, them from up the road again. There have been two absolutely brilliant loan signings, in Tammy Abraham and Tyrone Mings, and the football – whisper it – has been really exciting since February or so (who could forget that 5-5 draw with Forest). Having a new manager in Dean Smith who’s clearly a mad fan of the club has certainly helped, too.

The issue with more championship action for Villa next season, though, is obvious. The Championship is very much a breeding ground league, and while Villa have been a selling club for a generation, if we’re honest, the loss of those two loan signings and (almost certainly) Grealish would, in my opinion, be the loss of three of the four biggest stars of this season (the other is John McGinn, for me, in case you’re wondering). It seems likely a lot of what’s been great about this year would be gone with it.

So it comes down to three games, again…

And so, once again, we come to this: the cliched ‘lottery’. I don’t know how to call it. Villa are on form – especially if you’re willing to set aside the loss to Norwich on the last day of the season, which saw half the team rested. The record against West Brom isn’t great this season, though you do have to offset that somewhat with the draw at the Hawthorns being largely down to an injury time handball goal by Jay Rodriguez which quite definitely shouldn’t have stood. This team are so much better than anyone would have credited only a few months ago, but – given I’m giving little credit to any favourites tag – there’s still a three in four chance it hasn’t ultimately meant anything at all.

So what about Albion? The full-on local rivalry isn’t there for me, despite the clubs being so nearby. I quite like Albion. For years they had that kind of ‘upstarts’ thing going on, a team with little bits of quality dotted through them that was willing to attack even when it didn’t seem that well-advised. Those yo-yo years looked entertaining, and I’d imagine they were a lot of fun to watch. I want to beat them, of course, and I don’t think it’ll be easy.

They have a squad full of premier league-quality players (not that it’s always a positive – see Villa last year), and are capable of being extremely strong. They should probably have been closer to the automatic places, but have looked like they’re in a little bit of a tumultuous mess at various times this season. Hopefully, the indifferent lot turn up for at least one leg of the semi-final, as if they do, I suspect Villa would have enough to put them away.

But we shall see. Only an idiot would go into the play offs with any level of confidence. Besides, not long after the plays off last season, it looked very much the club might disappear completely, which kind of puts the whole thing into context, right?

Que sera sera? Try telling me that at half 12 on Saturday…

Body Type: “We spend the whole time trying to amp each other up and usually succeed”

Australian garage-rockers Body Type are making their first steps over to Europe and the US, breaking out through a succession of industry festivals and now their first tour. 

There are high expectations on the Sydney scene for the four-piece, who have two EPs out to date, one of which charmingly features a slightly goofy picture of guitar and vocalist Annabel’s dad on the front cover. I asked them about that, album plans and life in general ahead of their Dublin date later this month…

I understand you’re quite a big deal in Australia. While I could name a heap of great Australian acts right now (I swear!), is it fair to assume that getting a more international breakthrough is as difficult for you Aussies as it is for local acts here in Ireland?

That kind of reminds me this scene in Anchorman where Ron Burgundy says, “I don’t know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal”, so I’m gonna deny that. It’s pretty early days, and I’m not sure if anyone in Ireland has a clue who we are, but I’m hoping that our Australian aura (whatever that is) gives us an edge of intrigue. I think any form of a breakthrough is a small miracle so we’re just giving it an international stab and seeing how things go, but it is definitely harder building up an audience from the ground level of touring when you’re confined by money and distance to a large and isolated island somewhere at the bottom of the world. I guess that’s why the internet is so handy.

How have you found growing into more international tours? Have you developed a good international fanbase?

This is only our second step out of Australia for an international tour but I think we’d definitely do it all the time if it was sustainable. Unfortunately, it’s not though. I’m probably going to be asking my parents if I can borrow money soon, so I think we better lay low for a little while. My main concept of whether we have an international fanbase comes from the breakdown of listener locations on Spotify and by the looks of it strongest international reach we have so far is New Zealand, but we had a pretty nice response to our shows in America, so hopefully that’s a good litmus test for how things will go.

Davie Furey: Fire And Gold

FLYING UNDER the radar for much of a career that’s grown from pub shows to international tours, Davie Furey’s brand of distinctly Irish folk-rock has led him into an extremely hectic lifestyle. He leans heavily on touring income to survive.

The man from Meath believes in telling stories through his music, taking a leaf from the likes of Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg, and winning fans like Christy Moore and Luka Bloom. He’s toured the US, Germany and Holland in recent months, and new single ‘Fire and Gold’ shot to the top of the Irish rock charts in early April.

“For an independent release, it’s a good run,” Furey says. “I find you build up really quickly, in a good way or a bad way. Thankfully it’s been a good way for me so far, but it could change overnight.”

“Radio is still king,” he says, as a veteran of countless in-studio sessions. “I know a lot of people do Spotify and streaming services and stuff. Spotify has a ripple effect and gets people coming from gigs, but radio is the big thing for me. You can see the figures go up with it. It’s not very romantic to say it, but you’re running your own business doing this, and you have to learn quickly.”

One of Furey’s songs is quite a pointed attack on Donald Trump, one which he bravely brought out whilst touring the East coast of the US recently. “They didn’t say a whole lot against it to be honest,” he laughs. “They’re liberal, Democrat states mostly.”

Jamie Adam: “I didn’t write the record for anyone other than myself”

I love discovering people like Jamie Adam. I think its the intimacy that’s implicit in listening to an artist who made tracks that perhaps weren’t, at the time, really meant for the light of day. Most of Adam’s music was strung together in tiny gaps in his schedule during years of night work, and they have this kind of mellow, slightly fuzzy, heady fuzz that comes with the 3am spaced-out world.

His new album ‘Melodic Electronic’ has grabbed the attention of the likes of the BBC, as the Kells man emerges from his iPad and instrument cocoon as a complete entity, complete with tracks that sound fresh from the MGMT cutting room floor, with an added tinge of electro-weirdness thrown in. 

I had a chance to chat to Jamie about his debut record and the experience so far. Here’s what he had to say.

You sound like the ultimate bedroom music producer. How have you found stepping out of that zone in recent years?

My comfort zone is the bedroom/studio. It’s where I enjoy being the most. But I like being on stage, as well. The only feeling that rivals writing something new and exciting is the feeling you get when you play music with other people. That’s why I ultimately was looking at recreating everything from the album live with other people. I never wanted to do the whole DJ/ solo act thing live as I knew I would never get the same enjoyment from it. I do see myself doing more production work down the line. I love fleshing out ideas and developing a basic piece of work into something more whole and complete.

How inspired by the nocturnal post-party scene would you say the album is? Was it literally post-party? Was it a sober process?

I think the Nocturnal post-party scene would be accurate for only a snippet of the album! It was a very busy period in 2016 when I committed to writing Melodic Electronic. I was still at college and we were required to be present quite often. I was also working a night shift job in hospitals at the weekends just to have enough money for living expenses. So I would write whenever I had the chance really. Whether it be an hour in my bedroom in the evening after a day of college or a half hour in some random hospital canteen at 4am on a Saturday night. I ended up not really going out for about three months while I was writing Melodic Electronic, there was just too much going on!

Posthumous Celebration for Quiet Star Conor Walsh

CONOR WALSH – a Mayo man who operated with huge niche acclaim on the periphery of a Dublin music scene almost too boisterous to fully grasp his appeal – is to get a posthumous album release of music recovered from his laptop.

Walsh was a country boy besotted with open space and fishing, but was making an unlikely breakthrough into the heart of the Dublin music scene a few years ago. He suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack at the age of 36 whilst at home cooking with his family.

His debut EP, ‘The Front’ had been accompanied by shows at a number of major Irish festivals. friends of Walsh – many of whom have gone on to be influential in Irish music in their own right – had an inkling that he was working on something a bit special in his isolated Mayo farmhouse.

This writer was lucky enough to catch Walsh live several times. His style wasn’t so much that of hooking a room from the first, but one of languid visuals and beautifully slow-building melodies, somehow evoking meaning with little more than a keyboard in the corner of captivated rooms.

Conor’s audiences were in the low hundreds, normally, though he had the ability to quieten a lively Friday night bar in a couple of songs as, one-by-one, his gentle music drew people in. It’s easy to be misty-eyed and nostalgic towards people once they’re gone, but it was clear from the off the Walsh was going to be something big. Critics were already purring.

A couple of years before the release of ‘The Front’, he sent me an early demo of one of the songs from the EP, a gentle, soulful melody that he insisted it was fine to preview for a small blog project. It was, in effect, a soft-launch single. I pointed out to Conor that he could probably launch a new track to far more acclaim, but to him it wasn’t really about that: he liked the project, and that was enough.

The Lee Harveys: Protest Punk.

AS THEIR NAME might suggest, Dublin punks The Lee Harveys – made up of musicians who have been hanging around the Irish punk scene since the early 80s – were originally very much about American political protest songs. An odd niche for a Dublin-based band, perhaps, if one most punks would agree offers fertile ground.

The band are angry, firing off two-minute, politically potent tracks on themes like Israel and Palestine, gun crime and a certain Donald Trump. Their latest EP, due shortly, is entitled ‘Resistance is Not Terrorism’, and – amongst other themes – rounds on Eurovision’s visit to Israel with an ‘alternative Eurovision’ track.

“One of things that I loved about the Dead Kennedy’s was the sense of mischief they had, and that’s what we’re doing here, throwing the cat amongst the pigeons,” guitarist Peter Jones says of the song. “It’s not against the Eurovision, it’s in support of Palestine.”

“We’re not against the Israeli people, we’re against what’s happening over there. I think it’s like holding the Eurovision on the Shankill Road in the middle of the troubles,” Bitzy Fitzgerald explains.

“We have submitted the track to RTE, but we haven’t had a response. I’m not sure we really wanted one. But the whole thing was to make a point about it, really, a bit of subversion and a bit of craic.”

There’s a real punk ethos to the way the Lee Harveys release their music, too, with circumstances seeing the band cram their new ‘EP’ with old classics because they can.

Grace Petrie: “the most authentic art tends to be the most powerful, in my opinion”

Grace Petrie by

You wouldn’t know it by her media coverage, but beneath all of Grace Petrie‘s fiery, political content – which covers anything from frustrations with the left wing’s in-fighting to various civil rights movements – there’s actually plenty of self-deprecation, too.

My personal favourite Petrie track is ‘Nobody Knows I’m A Fraud’. Not because I think she is, you understand, but because it’s a beautifully witty admission that those of us lined up on the side of social progress are often, nonetheless, wallowing in hypocrisy (but at least we’re trying, right)?

I’ve always a had a soft spot for activist music, and presented with wit, genuine intelligence and a fresh perspective (Petrie’s vocal recent noise on behalf of trans people in the feminist community on social media particularly stands out).

The lefty troubadour came to Dublin for the very first time only last year, and she’s back in a few days. I took the chance to catch up with her and see how life’s going, plus how she’s finding all the latest Brexit shenanigans…

This is your second stop in this particular spot in Dublin in less than a year. What did you make of it last time?

It was my first time playing in Dublin and I absolutely loved it. By some miracle I had a fantastic crowd, even though I’d never been over before, and they were brilliant, totally up for it and singing along to everything. So I’m really excited to be coming back.

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, you’re coming over right after Brexit. I think we’re all aware of how hard it could hit the music industry. Do you have any concerns? How do you view it all generally – obviously I know you’re anti-Brexit, but is it getting harder as the time approaches?

It’s funny because in the time it took me to reply to you, Brexit has been pushed back a bit and there is more doubt than ever about what’s going to happen next. Personally it’s very hard to actually believe that it’s going to happen because it’s all so illogical and Theresa May doesn’t have the ability to get a deal through anyway. Then we’ve had indicative votes that produced no solution – it’s all a farce. But I am deeply concerned about what logistically it will mean for touring musicians to isolate ourselves off like this.

Olympia: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”

Aussie quirky-pop singer Olivia Bartley – better known by her stage name ‘Olympia‘ – has an unusual approach to songwriting. Inspired by art and abstract concepts, her tracks draw from concepts like a New York Times article about fake asylum seekers, or the futility of materialism and lust for what you can’t have.

It’s pop with depth, and it’s coming to Dublin in the coming weeks, with Olympia due to support Julia Jacklin at Whelan’s on March 30. I caught up with Olivia before one of her first ever European tours got underway…

I understand these are some of your first European shows, so first of all, welcome. Do you have much idea what to expect when you head for Ireland? What are you hoping for?

I am so happy to be playing Ireland – I have heard Irish audiences are wonderful (and I’m truly not making that up). How else should I prepare – would watching the Commitments again help?

Who knows, maybe! Congratulations on the award nominations recently. How seriously do you take the awards and acclaim side of things?

Thank you! Well I am my biggest critic, and I’m still waiting on an award from myself – so plenty of work to do.