It may be getting hard to remember this as the live music business returns to something recognizably “normal,” but it wasn’t long ago that the COVID-19 shutdown had fans wondering if a vaccine might ever arrive to allow shows to again be staged in the crowded, sweaty spaces that are the lifeblood of a vital music scene.
When all that was in doubt — and the survival of shuttered independent venues in Philadelphia and elsewhere far from a certainty — I fixated on a few cathartic nights that reminded me just how life-affirming seeing a band on fire in the perfect place and time can be.
I couldn’t help but wonder: Am I ever going to be able to do that again?
One memory burned particularly bright: Fontaines D.C. at Johnny Brenda’s in September 2019. The Irish quintet is named after Johnny Fontaine, the Frank Sinatra-modeled singer in The Godfather, and Dublin City, their place of origin.
The band led by gifted literary-minded wordsmith Grian Chatten was on tour for their gripping debut album Dogrel, and showed themselves to be masters at turning taut, post-punk songs of focused intensity into vehicles of emotional release.
It was a glorious night made more memorable by meeting Fontaines fans who had made the perfectly reasonable decision to fly from London to see the band in venues much smaller than they were already playing in the U.K.
And it was also the last conversation I ever had with Tom Sheehy, the Philadelphia music historian and publicist who died in 2020. He told me, “I haven’t been as excited about a young band like this since The Clash.”
So let’s just say that I’ve had April 22 circled in red. Friday was not only the release date for the Fontaines’ third album, Skinty Fia. The band also had not one, but two sold-out Philadelphia shows on its docket to celebrate the release.
First up was a bright and early Free at Noon show at World Cafe Live, also broadcast on WXPN-FM (88.5) and livestreamed at xpn.org. That was superb, though somewhat subdued by the band’s standards. It was followed by a nighttime show at Underground Arts that was every bit as explosive as I could have hoped.
Not that this new Fontaines experience recreated the one that I remembered so well. Trying to recapture the thrill that comes with discovering great art is a foolish pursuit. It’s never as surprising the second time around.
But that’s not a bad thing. The world has changed plenty since the fall of 2019, and so have the Fontaines D.C. In 2020, the band expanded its blunt-force sound on its second album, A Hero’s Death.
They opened with that album’s title cut at Underground Arts. It’s the one in which Chatten uses a talk-singing delivery to deliver a message of bare-bones optimism (“Life ain’t always empty”) and a few life guidance tips: “If you find yourself in a family way, give the kid more than what you got in your day. And when you speak, speak sincere, and believe me friend, everyone will hear.”
The growth evident on A Hero’s Death is more pronounced on Skinty Fia. The new album’s title comes from a Gaelic expression that is used as a substitute swear word and literally translates as “damnation of the deer.”
The songs are more varied and confident in their musicality. The Smiths-y “Jackie Down The Line” has a sinister protagonist, but it’s the band’s catchiest pop song. At Underground Arts, “Nabakov” and “I Love You” rode moody grooves rather than shouted to the heavens.
And the biggest has to do with geography. Most of the Fontaines members now live in London. That doesn’t make Skinty Fia any less of an Irish record. James Joyce, after all, wrote Ulysses in Zurich, Trieste, and Paris, and Chatten’s consideration of his Irish identity — which he mulls in “Bloomsday” — is only deepened by being an expat.
All that perspective and experience informs both the band’s new album, and their two Philly performances on Friday.
The band’s evolution was apparent at the Free at Noon. Taking the stage with collective bedhead after a tour-opener in Washington, the night before, the short set was plenty captivating, with an emphasis on subtlety. The band didn’t go for the throat the way I remembered them having done at Johnny Brenda’s, and a few times Chatten seemed to be literally trying to slap himself awake.
In the evening, the band was in its element. It was an entirely more electrifying affair, a 70-minute set energized from the the start. The crowd — almost entirely maskless on the day after the city’s mandate was dropped again — came immediately to life in the subterranean space at the first sound of drummer Tom Coll’s pounding downbeats.
Chatten was a live wire, stalking the stage, standing atop monitors, and raising his fist on “Big” as he trumpeted the ambitions first voiced on Dogrel. “Dublin in the rain is mine, a pregnant city with a Catholic mind,” he sang, and repeated a promise now beginning to come true. “My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big!”
The evening ended abruptly with no encore. (Maybe because Chatten was having vocal issues: The group canceled a show in Asbury Park on Saturday “because Grian has lost his voice.”) But at the end of the set, fans didn’t leave immediately. First they chanted “Allez, allez, allez!” like a European soccer crowd, then lingered a while, as if not yet ready for such a night to recede into memory.