'Native Minds' live concert review

Celtic Tiger Ireland was beset by many social epidemics – fake tan, the upturned rugby collar, the wretched Ugg boot – but one of its most insidious creatures was the earnest singer-songwriter. Concert-goers were invited to step away from all the Bacchanalian commotion and drunken optimism rattling up and down the country and follow the unshaven, guitar-clutching troubadour down the slightly-whiffy corridors of his dark nights, mornings, mid-mornings, afternoons and evenings of the soul. We flocked to open mic nights as if they were confessionals, believing at some level that a regular dose of heartbreak, loneliness and misery would sate our Catholic desires for absolution from the raucousness of moneyed living. At a time of unprecedented plenty, we found ourselves unable to resist the allures of these new, sad, plaintive voices. The excitement of those halcyon years triggered some subconscious impulse sending us scattering for its opposite: the soundtrack of the boom was to be one of doom, gloom and the melancholic tune.

It is only right, then, that the onset of these darker times in the nation’s psyche is marked by a contrasting sound of its own: one of bright-eyed optimism, multi-dimensional (and multi-cultural) styles and speaking in philosophical mantras that transcend the mundanity of the immediate. Enter Size2Shoes (aka Eoin and Mícheál ‘Moley’ Ó Súilleabháin), a band of brothers from Newport, Co. Tipperary, armed with guitars, sugar-sweet harmonies and enough good vibrations to turn this recession into a session. S2S launched their eponymous début album to a full house at The Sugar Club on Friday 6th November and even before they took the stage it was apparent that they were intent on exploding any singer-songwriter categories that might have been waiting to ensnare them. Their cosily-arranged stage was populated by what looked like a good day at the jumble sale, with a large stuffed teddy bear, a Michael Jackson ‘Bad’ LP and a pair of tiny shoes (presumably measuring somewhere between sizes 1 and 3) accounting for some of the diverse elements placed with feng shui-like purpose around the performing area. Fair warning, then, for the musical smorgasbord which the Brothers Ó Súilleabháin proceeded to serve up to their entranced audience.

Opening with ‘Take It Easy’, a song of wise counsel towards clean living, the brothers gave the first of what amounted to a walk-through of their diverse musical influences, phasing from the initial laid-back guitar riff and harmonies to a freestyling rap interlude, courtesy of Moley, followed seamlessly by a tongue-in-cheek sample of Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’. Pigeonhole these guys at your peril – ballads, beatboxing, bongo drums and more besides are all in a day’s work for Size2Shoes. This was followed by the tender, loved-up ‘Breathless’ (as heard on the Ryan Tubridy show), as well as current single ‘Sitting By The Sea’ – a summery tune for a wintery night, breathing sunshine and sea air into the gentle dark of the venue. Ably asssisted by David Duffy on double bass, Eoin took the lead for ‘Snooze’, a dreamy recollection of duvet days spent in female company which he had penned at a recent songwriter’s workshop. The brothers, however, appear acutely vigilant against subsiding into any excessive earnestness, and the comic relief provided by Moley as well as some gentle fraternal ribbing throughout the show kept matters on a jovial keel. As if to reassure us that this was more than just two guys singing songs, the lads proceeded to crank up the surreal-o-meter a few notches, with Moley assuming an invisible double bass (having politely sought permission from Duffy first) and delivering a pitch-perfect backing to Eoin’s hugely spirited and polished tribute to Morrissey. It is a common grievance that new acts insist on foisting an entire catalogue of unfamiliar material on an audience who, though initially willing, can tire if not met halfway. Size2Shoes seem to have struck the musical equivalent of hiding peas in the mashed potato, blending their own tunes with popular classics, and the result is as delicious to the ear as it is nutritious to the soul. ‘I Am The Sun and The Air’, a laugh-along rendition of ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ and ‘Ask’, which saw Moley swap the invisible bass for some real maracas, produced a cheery and confident styling of which Mozza himself would have been proud. The interval was heralded by a tumultuous feat of vocal acrobatics as Moley took the microphone from Eoin and set about his own tribute to ‘Drive’ by legendary vocalist Bobby McFerrin. The break felt like an interlude in a play – entranced, everyone wondered what the next twist would be. So far, so unconventionally good.

The second half began with a bang: the brothers snarling and gurning their way through their very own hard rock creation, ‘Hot Stone Soup’, staying all the while in perfect harmony. A generous sprinkling of beatboxing, Eurythmics, bongo-beating and Genesis added some exotic spice to the hot and heavy broth. This was followed by another anecdote recounted by Eoin of how the boys decided on what song to perform at this year’s Electric Picnic (the Teddy Bear’s Picnic, what else?!). Once more though, S2S took full ownership, turning what most will remember as a cheerful children’s nursery rhyme into a leering, sinister and malignant affair, singing less like musicians in song and more like a pair of psychopathic cannibals reciting their favourite recipe. Harmonious and upbeat they may be, but these guys are not without their dark side! Order was restored with the S2S-penned ‘Lovely Time in The Sunshine’, which was dedicated to the absent Paddy Moloney (he of Chieftains fame) who had been scheduled to join the lads onstage but was called away at the last minute. Then, before you knew it, it was invisible instrument time again – and another contender for showstopping moment of the night. Setting up a pair of imaginary turntables in front of him, Moley punctuated his steady vocal beatboxing riff with licks from invisible records he plucked out of the air. With the invisible-record DJ calling on requests from the audience, we were transported to a weird and wacky soundscape where Pope John Paul II’s ‘Young People of Ireland’ speech looped in with Chris deBurgh’s ‘Lady in Red’, while Michael Jackson’s ‘Dirty Diana’ tagteamed with Louis Armstrong, much to the delight and astonishment of the audience who seemed unsure whether to laugh, applaud or gawp in amazement (most did all three). After a brief breather, the boys were joined onstage by chanteuse-du-moment Julie Feeney, providing note-perfect backing vocals for a rendition of her single ‘Impossibly Beautiful’. A dizzying medley of the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, Snap!’s ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’, Technotronic’s ‘Pump Up The Jam’, Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)’ and, catch your breath, Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’ was sent up, the lads firing wave after wave of feelgood club hits in our direction, armed so improbably with only an acoustic guitar and two voices. Your correspondent took a moment to count on his fingers the number of musical genres tapped during the performance (pop, rap, rock, hip-hop, indie, classical, vocal percussion, spoken word, a capella…) only for the boys to finish with a simple sean-nós song native to their neck of the woods, the Limerick ballad ‘The Parting Glass’, which held the Sugar Club spellbound and reverent for three final minutes. There is a line of thinking that says music emerges from silence and returns to silence, and as the sons of Irish traditional composer Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and singer Nóirín Ní Riain, their quiet and ‘gentle calling’ of this beautiful ballad was a fitting homage to where these two boys come from and to a genre where they obviously still feel very much at home.

To Size2Shoes, laughter and music are not mutually exclusive energies and these are certainly two guys who play their music with smiles on their faces. The infectious sense of fun, creativity and sheer joy that colours each song is itself a joy to behold as well as being an intoxicating, emotion-soaking experience for anyone who believes in music’s ability to bring them to happier, more hopeful places. While they describe their songs as ‘acoustic inspirational pop music’, the truth is that everything about these guys defies categorisation. From the multi-dimensional, wide-ranging technicolour of their musical arrangements to the part-standup comedy, part-open-mic-improv feel to their onstage manner, Size2Shoes are much more than mere ‘musicians’ or even ‘artists’. They are, above all, born performers and entertainers, creators and conjurors of atmosphere who don’t confuse the need to work hard with any imperative to take themselves too seriously. Indeed, the one criticism that could be made is that some of their more contemplative songs (‘Light In The Dark’, ‘Breathless’) might actually benefit from a more earnest and vulnerable rendering. But that is to nitpick at what was a quite glorious mosaic of musical talent and artistry, infused with messages of hope, reminders of love and exhortations to positivity and goodwill at a time when despair seems to stalk the streets and we seem irretrievably fixated on the negative. The musical stylings may be complex, but the message is simple: come, listen, laugh, be healed. And that, as far as this country is concerned, is the best soundtrack our generation could have hoped for.

“I don’t know what it was, but baby when I find out I’m gonna tell it to the whole wide world“.

Barry Lysaght – view original article
Native Mind / © Barry Lysaght