RTÉ Choice Music Prize in Vicar Street, Dublin, on Thursday 5th February 2019

It’s been a good week for bang for your buck gigs in Dublin. The Rock Against Homelessness show on Tuesday in The Olympia, curated by one of tonight’s album of the year nominees, Fontaines D.C., showcased eight of the best live acts in the country while raising something in the region of €70,000 in the bargain. Tonight, in Vicar Street, it’s the fifteenth year of the Choice Music Prize, and eight of the ten best album contenders are here to take us through to the big announcement.

The evening is going out live on 2FM, and compère Eoghan McDermott is obliged to do that cheesy-by-his-own-admission ‘lets make some noise’ rabble rousing for the benefit of our friends in radioland. Bound by the time constraints of broadcasting, each act gets their allotted time for a few tunes, a brief backstage interview that’s broadcast on the big screen, and a quick equipment changeover in between, so there’s barely time to get a piss and pint in. It was during one of these excursions that Goldenplec almost missed one of the night’s more bizarre turns, when Louis Walsh, collecting the publicly-voted song of the year award on behalf of Westlife, claimed that Picture This or Dermot Kennedy should win album of the year (despite neither of them being nominated).

First on the roster is Maija Sofia with a few tracks from her excellent debut, ‘Bath Time’, a concept album of sorts that gives voice to marginalised women though history. Our previous encounter with the singer was in Coughlan’s in Cork as part of Quarter Block Party, a tiny room in comparison to Vicar Street. The bigger stage allows her to expand her live set-up, accompanied here by a violinist, harpist and pedal steel player. The latter peals behind her through Edie Sedgwick before all four join for The Glitter, the gentlest of plucked violin notes ringing out between the lyrics.

The Wife Of Michael Cleary takes on a country tinge via the pedal steel, its momentum gently picking up over the chorus to close out the brief selection. McDermott relays that Sofia told him backstage after the set that she was nervous. It’s no surprise, being first up to bat on a night like this on one of the city’s finest stages, but there will be plenty more stages like this in Sofia’s future.

It’s always scary playing here,” SOAK tells us. Towards the end of Get Set Go Kid she covers her eyes with both hands while singing, but we suspect it’s more of a sensory stimulation than an effort to block out all our bleary stares. The Derry songwriter already has a Choice Prize win under her belt with ‘Before We Forgot How to Dream’ in 2015, so she’s no stranger to these shenanigans. Apparently, she set up a bar tab for her friends with the €10,000 prize money from that win and they only managed to drink €100 between them. Anyway, accompanied by a drummer and guitarist, the ‘Grim Town’ songs are more expansive than her previous outing, and Knock Me Off My Feet takes an increasingly rocking set to its conclusion for another three-piece to take up the baton.

I hope none of ye have the Corona virus…‘cause I do,” Junior Brother announces to the crowd, but he’s in fine fettle regardless. Accompanied by Tony McLaughlin on mandolin and Fiachra Meek on uilleann pipes, tin whistle, and bodhran, Junior Brother’s singular take on folk sees the three men glide from busy instrumentals to the intimacy of voice and guitar. The singer often embellishes McLaughlin’s bodhran by pounding a foot, or both feet, on a tambourine, doubling the percussion as things hit a crescendo. Full Of Wine is prefaced by some sage advice: “There’s only one cure for the Corona virus, and that’s pints.” The gear change between gentle folk into more of a double-time stomp gets the crowd going, that bit more full of wine and stout by this stage of the evening.

Girl Band’s Going Norway is screened in their absence, after which, our compère coerces song of the year nominees Mango X Mathman onto their feet – who up until now have been seated in the front row minding their business – to lead the crowd in a chant for the next band. Mango is having none of it so Mathman goes it alone, and does so admirably, but there is little need for a hype man for who is about to follow.

Jafaris appears in a flurry of flow and movement in the midst of his four-piece band, a complete change-up after the previous three acts. For the first time tonight, the entire expanse of the Vicar Street stage is used with Jafaris bouncing back and forth between his band members. Despite his efforts, his energy isn’t matched by crowd, but he’s on it, rousing everyone to their feet. “We’re not done yet” he says, as if anyone was thinking about sitting down. It’s a seamless, relentless set, with the beats and grooves of ‘Stride’ seguing into one another, and an impressive combo of drum breaks to close. Now we’re done.

Sorcha Richardson has a tough act to follow, but the few whoops from the band during Don’t Talk About It attests to their enjoyment of a set that culminates in a fine False Alarm. Testament to the eclectic nature of the album selections is Daithi’s subsequent set that features vocal turns from Bell X1’s Paul Noonan, and Sinead White, taking the seeds sown by Jafaris earlier and switching the setting to a banging club vibe.

Fontaines D.C. must still be recovering from wrecking The Olympia just days earlier, but theirs is a snappy two-song set with Grian Chatten appearing with his now-customary nervous energy pacing and hand-shaking, and Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley kneeling at their guitar pedals through Too Real. It’s a bit looser in the crowd by now, and Boys In The Better Land sees pockets of people on their feet downstairs to dance things out before Mick Flannery rounds out the night on a more mellow, mid-tempo note.

By now everyone will be aware that Lankum picked up the best album award for ‘The Livelong Day’, a deserving nod to a remarkable album. At the time their manager Cian Lawless accepted on their behalf, the band was trying to get to a gig in Washington in a broken-down van. That €10,000 couldn’t be timelier. €100 is the bar tab to beat. No better band to do it.