I first met Gary O’Neill in early 2014 at the now defunct Zephyr Sessions in the equally defunct Pint Bar. He sat down in the corner at a tall, round table and struck up a conversation with me, asking if I was playing. I already went on, before he got there. “Ah that’s a shame that I missed it,” he lamented with absolute sincerity. Gary got up and played, standing in the corner of the bar to just three of us, but his charm, his talent and his power encompassed the whole room. This was a man who was destined for greatness, with songs written to stun people.
Fast forward to June 12th, 2015, and I’m sitting in the Dublin Unitarian Church, waiting for the opening act of Gary’s EP launch, Gracefully With Haste (which I already reviewed). Gary pulled together two fantastic support acts, David Keenan and Callum Orr, both songwriters he met on the circuit. Gary sat in the aisles of the church for their sets, diligently watching the whole time, proving that he is in fact the nicest man in Ireland.
David Keenan, the Irish guy who sang in a taxi, opened the night perfectly. His music was a nice introduction to the night, starting slow and building up. He opened with Matchbox, a song he recently played onstage with the Frames. Shortly after, he spoke about a “groundskeeper” in his head, maintaining his musical gardens and guiding the way. A speech not unlike something you would hear from Pete Doherty and his Albion visions.
Callum Orr was up next, and despite a broken string in the first song, his set was the perfect follow on from David’s. David kept it mellow, let us dip our feet into the water, and with Callum, we were now up to our chest. His music was livelier than David’s, building up the anticipation of Gary and his band. Callum elicited quite a few laughs from the crowd, describing Gary as a “bearded vision” in the International Bar, and taking time to tell all the women in the crowd that he was on Tinder.
The whole time I sat in the church, the word “intimate” was running through my mind. We weren’t at a gig, we were in our friend’s living room. The smell of the church was irrelevant, forgotten from the minute music started. The pews weren’t cold and harsh, they were like that old emergency chair that’s pulled from the shed for parties. When Gary stood up to play, the crowd went into a fever. His hometown friends screamed, proud of their friend. He didn’t see us as a crowd of fans, we were a crowd of friends, and he treated us just like that.
Gary opened with a twist; an unplugged rendition of Hannah & The Cobblestones, the final track on his EP, Gracefully With Haste. Given the stripped back nature of the recording, this version fit perfectly. The booming piano was matched by Gary’s voice, surrounding us in the high ceiling. Without any amplification, the song was just as loud as the two openers and more commanding.
After that, the band stood up and powered into Vienna, the current single. The initial mix was a little off, the drums often overpowered the vocals, but by the end of the song, all was good again and the band were in full swing. He finished the song and spoke with confidence into the microphone, welcoming us all “to this special edition of mass”. Charming as ever, the crowd cheered. The often awkward silences between songs for the openers were completely pacified once Gary stood up. Either he was talking to us, or someone from the crowd was shouting up at him, usually a joke from home that left me bewildered, but amused nonetheless.
The church was the perfect setting for these songs, all except one. One Last Dance and Treasure Chest all went down perfectly, but for the intangible force of If You Don’t Mind, a dancefloor is needed. That being said, it didn’t stop the crowd from joining in, clapping to the beat towards the end. It was not unlike a gospel choir, bringing it all full circle back to our venue for the night.
I’m not going to describe each song, because they were all fantastic. His band were flawless after their live debut just two days before at the King Kong Club. The reverb of the room on the music wasn’t a hindrance, something I was very worried about. It added to the energy of the night, even during the slow songs, filling the space.
The band ended with “If You’re Ever Lonely”, a track not on the EP but one I really wish was. They left, and after a few seconds, Gary got back up onstage.
What followed next was the highlight of the evening. Gary played 3 songs, all unplugged, and all with a different guest singer. He started with Callum Orr, then brought up his bandmate Geoff Warner-Clayton and David Keenan, before ending with a mini choir, including members of his band, support acts and a friend from home. He thanked everyone profusely and frequently.
Though the set was short, it was enough to ensure every single person would come out to the next show. Gary gave us a taster, now we want the meal.