Midway through Nealo’s set at The Chestnut Bar in Birr, he welcomed onstage Saint Sister’s Morgan Mac Intyre to perform a song that, Nealo explained, they had written a mere two weeks ago. The track, entitled cereal, quickly turned into a party onstage, as everyone from Morgan to Nealo, to the two backing singers Rachel  Macauley and Uly, the saxophonist Mason McMillen and even the producer/DJ Adam Shanahan getting their own solo section and a chance to try something new. Smiles spread across each one of their faces, it was a reminder of the pure joy that artists up and down the country are experiencing with the return of live music. In the penultimate night of Hibernacle’s Meet Me in The Garden series, the shackles of uncertainty were flung aside as the feelings of hope prevailed.

The evening’s opening act, Dublin songwriter Micheal D’Alton, better known as Seba Safe. Accompanied by a four-piece band, he captivated from the off thanks to his mix of alternative-folk stylings with more traditional indie-rock elements thrown in for good measure. His low, wispy, echoed vocals propelled the performance, and set the tone of introspection and reflection for the evening to behold. 

With tracks such as Drip and Afterlife, he came to life. Despite his melodic dexterity both vocally and musically, it was the personable ability to truly accentuate the meaning behind his lyrics and his work that really stood out, his ease onstage impressive given his two-year absence. The highlight was On My Way, a track that’s chorus samples the lyrics of the famous Oró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile, that clever hook and an accompanying thumping bass was a joy to behold and set the standards high for the first-time headliner.

As the pink neon ‘Nealo’ sign was switched on, a hushed silence came over those in attendance. As his band scattered across the stage to their preordained positions, Nealo introduced himself before running through a set of brand new works, old favourites and some re-imagined gems. The show opened with a lone piano line; which Nealo leapt on with the passion and determination of a man willing himself to give everything his best shot. The instrumentation slowly grew, with backing vocals and a gorgeous saxophone line, until it hit its masterful crescendo before fading away into the background.

While some of Nealo’s more established tunes, especially those from his 2020 debut album ‘All The Leaves Are Falling’, gave listeners the opportunity to sit back and bop away happily, it was Nealo’s newer works that really stood out. The addition of the saxophone to proceedings accentuated the jazzier elements which were always present in Nealo’s work, but it felt as though some of the new material stepped even deeper into that mould and took on some more soul-infused hooks and thrills. As well as the guest appearance from Mac Intyre; Nealo was also joined by friend and fellow Dublin rapper Rebel Phoenix to perform their shared track Tears You Cry; before Nealo ceded to his guest who performed his emotive upcoming single Her Story, about being careful with how you treat the ones you love. 

Nealo has always had an enviable ability to simultaneously accentuate the most carefree, playful elements of the hip-hop genre and leave the listeners questioning themselves with every verse. This was particularly relevant with one of the evening’s final tracks; the first of an unofficial encore. As his bandmates slowly departed the stage one by one, Nealo emerged with a chair; sat centre stage and waxed lyrical over a stirring string line. It was a moment that truly captured the aura of the evening. Just one man, left with just his thoughts, with the world listening in.