Thursday 22 March 2018

Nineties pop engine can still rev it up

One of the odder moments I experienced, when documenting Irish rock'n'roll, came when myself and four-fifths of Engine Alley found ourselves sitting in a van outside a girls' school in Templeogue as the pupils emerged. "Er, does this happen a lot?" I asked bassist Eamonn Byrne.

"Yes, unfortunately," he replied, "we get an awful lot of weird looks and it never gets any easier at all."

Their drummer, Emmaline Duffy-Fallon, was still doing her Leaving Cert at the time and we were picking her up en route to a gig in Cork. Having a female drummer was just one thing which set the band apart from the pack in the early '90s. With the core members -- singer Canice Kenealy, guitarist Brian Kenealy and the aforementioned Eamonn Byrne -- hailing from Kilkenny and the band named after a thoroughfare in the Liberties, Engine Alley had a brightness and spark about them which was truly infectious.

The songwriting and visual presentation had a definite Bowie influence about it while songs like Mrs Winder (about an enthusiastic gardener) and the beautiful Song for Someone were outstanding pieces of work.

Their Steve Lillywhite-produced album A Sonic Holiday was a bright, shiny pop bauble which wore its art-rock influences on its sleeve and was a concise snapshot of a band seemingly destined for certain success.


However, a move to London and a spell of living under the same roof (never a great idea, it's not like The Monkees or Help! kids) brought too much pressure to bear on relationships within the band and their promise went unfulfilled.

The band -- minus Duffy-Fallon -- reconvened on a couple of occasions in recent years (Whelan's and the Rhythm'n'Roots Festival) and they're back at Whelan's this Saturday in what should be unmissable for lovers of 1990s' Irish rock.

And as if the prospect of Engine Alley alone wasn't enough to entice you out this Saturday, the 'special guests' slot is filled by Pony Club, who themselves have been around the houses over the past 15 years. Mark Cullen, one of the best Irish lyricists since Phil Chevron, and a man so talented that the late Grant McLennan was a huge admirer of his work, started out in Bawl. His 1996 debut, Year Zero, should have kickstarted a stellar trajectory, but their articulate guitar pop was lost in a deluge of Britpop sludge.

A spiky and magnetic stage presence, Cullen remains one of the country's most underestimated songwriters and, as double-bills go, this pairing is pretty much hard to beat. > george byrne

Engine Alley and Pony Club play Whelan's tomorrow night

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