The live music scene in Dublin is healthy at the best of times, but goes into overdrive the weeks before Christmas. If time and money were no object you could go to top gigs for a fortnight straight. The Kíla Christmas show is something of an institution now and I cannot recall exactly how many I have been. I remember Whelans, Vicar Street and the Meeting House Square. For the last few years they have held it at the Button Factory, a great venue that unfortunately programmes tribute acts a lot of the time.
The show started with Kíla's bass player Brian plus friend warming up the crowd by playing covers of songs by Van Morrison, the Hothouse Flowers, Tracy Chapman and Bob Dylan. Next up, for something completely different, was a man in a glitter blazer singing Italian opera. He was particularly appreciated by the more drunk audience members.
The last few times I had seen Kíla had been at festivals, where they are always a hit but sets are inevitably a little shorter. At the Button Factory I got my fill – almost two hours, with a career-spanning setlist. The band got together in 1987. They have had some line up changes, but since they are an eight-piece band and the changes have been gradual, it feels like there has always been a continuum.
I have been following them since 1993 or thereabouts and as I watched this show some great Kíla memories came back to me: St Patrick's Day at the Olympia; the Ballybunion Worldfleadh - a terribly wet and poorly attended show, where the band nonetheless gave themselves 100% and which I watched from inside a pop up tent in the middle of an almost empty square; I saw them when they were billed alongside the Dalai Lama in City West; I remember great festival appearances at Glastonbury, Cambridge Folk Festival and the sadly defunct Dún Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures; and visiting the Dingle Aquarium, listening to Kíla on headphones! This made for a great experience, not altogether unsurprising when you think that they also compose soundtrack music for animated films.
There was little talk during this concert. The band just threw themselves into the show, which was really varied. Some songs are very percussion-heavy, with tribal rhythms. Next the drums may take a back seat and flute and fiddle take the lead. Kíla have always described themselves as world rather than trad, but all the same they do trad really well – with self-composed tunes. I am often taken by surprise when they come up on my iPod shuffle and I first realize that it is them once the bass and drums kick in. Other songs are almost entirely vocal, with all band members singing – in Irish. They are a truly unique band that sound like no one else.
For my pre-gig listening I went back to their 2004 live album, 'Live in Dublin', which was even better than I remembered, and would be a great starting point for anyone new to the band. Kíla released a new live album earlier this year, 'Alive Beo', their 19th album in total and their first on vinyl. Most of their back catalogue, including solo albums, was on sale at the merch desk.
I had opted for the balcony at the Button Factory, which afforded me a great view with no one walking in front of me. In contrast to past concerts which featured anything from trapeze artists and fire eaters to projections of Muppet videos behind the stage, the show was kept simple this time – just the band members themselves. Fiddler Dee looked festive in a 1920s style dress with matching red hair. With eight musicians on stage there was so much going on at any one time that I still felt I could not afford a toilet or bar break for fear of missing anything. It was quite something to see the entire audience bouncing up and down during the final songs, when the atmosphere was definitely more akin to a rave than a conventional gig.
At one point singer Rónán mentioned that they had come to the end of all the titles written on their piece of paper, sounding a little surprised himself. They came back for two encores, one of which was a new song. Earlier in the set they had played another new piece. Once the show was over Rónán and Colm sat on the side of the stage talking to members of the audience. I found myself thinking that it was a good thing I had already submitted my top ten gigs of the year for this site , so I would not have to figure out where this one was going to fit in!