Dublin band Fontaines DC have had a pretty meteoric rise over the past year, powered by their terrific album “Dogrel”. Anyone who has any liking for punk and indie must surely find “Dogrel” irresistible, and that was reflected in the fact that BBC 6 Music and Rough Trade, amongst others, made it their album of 2019. I had it fourth in the end, but it could easily have been top three. And it is still growing on me. The rockers – upbeat in sound though not necessarily in tone – hit you straightaway, with the joyous Ramones-style “Liberty Belle” the best of a great bunch. I love the philosophising of singer Grian Chatten at the beginning of “Chequeless Reckless” too: an idiot is someone who lets their education do all of their thinking. But in time the greater subtleties of songs like “Television Screens” and “Roy’s Song” reach into you. There’s a bit of celtic wistfulness in those pieces. And then there’s the Pogues dead-ringer “Dublin City Sky” to give it the finishing touch, and root it in the band’s home city. The album is an uplifting listen every time.
The band have developed a strong live reputation too. The front rows mosh energetically to “Big”, “Too Real”, “Liberty Belle”, “Boys in the Better Land” and “Chequeless Reckless”, while “Sha Sha Sha”, “Television Screens” and “Roy’s Tune” are just asking to be sung along to. As is “Dublin City Sky” when they play it. I saw them live for the first time at End of the Road last year, in a packed BBC Music tent. Didn’t have a great view, but it rocked. No “Dublin City Sky” on that occasion. It whetted my appetite for a full show.
And so to a sold-out Brixton Academy on Tuesday. In the seats with Jon G, looking forward to being able really to take them in. That didn’t quite work, as everyone stood up for the whole show! And we couldn’t see any of the audience below, just hear them. But we could see the band, and it was a chance to reflect on how they go about their business. The focal point is very much Grian Chatten. He is known for patrolling the stage with a kind of restless strut, adding to the music’s sense of agitation. There was a bit less of that at Brixton – maybe he is just becoming more relaxed with experience. Overall though, it is a fairly static performance – the music does the talking. Certainly Grian doesn’t. There are very few between-song exchanges with the audience. That was a bit of a shame because the band have taken the opportunity offered by headlining a big show to introduce quite a few new songs. Six at my count. Not new as in just off a newly-released album, but new new. None are on Spotify, for example, though I did hear an interesting Rough Trade podcast with the band a while back in which they referred to some new tracks which were on a vinyl EP.
They started with a new song, which Setlist FM tells me was called “A Hero’s Death”. Then it was “Chequeless Reckless” and “Sha Sha Sha”, before another new one, “Televised Minds”. That was the pattern for much of the show. It was good to have an hour and a half, and it is always interesting to hear how the music is developing, but the dynamic of the show was disrupted by the alternation between “old” favourites and the unfamiliar. The new ones were also mainly mid-tempo. If they indicate where Fontaines are heading then the energy rush of “Dogrel” may prove to be a one-off.
It all came together at the end as the band piled through “Boys in the Better Land”, “Hurricane Laughter”, an anthemic “Dublin City Sky” and then the double delight of “Liberty Belle” and “Big”. I rather wished I could have seen the front rows’ reactions for those two!
So it was an enjoyable concert for sure; but the sound was a bit murky and they do lose a bit of pace with the guitar tuning and noodling in between songs. The sound issue, I think, might be because the Academy’s speakers are really very powerful, maybe too powerful for the space. I contrasted that two days later with the excellent sound for Big Thief at Hammersmith Apollo, a similar sized venue. The convex hanging speakers at Hammersmith were at best two thirds of the size of those at Brixton. But there is also a need, looking ahead, for a bit more of what my friend Dave would call stagecraft. It’s something that their compatriots The Murder Capital exude, and it really does add to the music. Maybe Fontaines will always let their music do the talking. In that case they need better sound to maximise their impact.
I’m well aware that I’m just an old geezer in the seats – not exactly Fontaines’ target audience. And people were definitely buzzing at the end. But I’d like to see the band go on to even greater things. “Dogrel” is such a great start. A little more of that stagecraft will help them go a long way.