If I could take a straw poll among the crowd here to see Ailbhe Reddy at the Button Factory (11 February), I’d suspect that for many, the meaning of tonight is what’s important. Personally, this is my first gig since the New York rapper Wiki performed to a small crowd upstairs at the Grand Social in March 2020. My chief memory from that evening is the feeling that something grim was coming down the tracks.

Reddy’s show was first postponed when that initial round of Covid-19 restrictions hit and has been pushed back several more times since. Entering the venue, I notice someone struggling to pull up a ticket on their phone – perfectly understandable if they booked it two years ago. But for anyone seeking to reintegrate into the live music scene gradually after the recent sudden allowance of full-capacity gigs, Reddy provides something ideal. The crowd in the mid-sized venue is pretty sparse and extremely chill. I’ve been to some hard-moshing rap shows at the Button Factory. Tonight, I don’t even have to take my coat off.

Up first is Maria Kelly, pegged to be the support act since the very first scheduling. Alone with her guitar, Kelly sings – and speaks – in a spider-web-soft voice. I can hear people coming through the door as she performs songs from her 2021 album the sum of the in-between. “If you didn’t notice, I’m here to depress you,” Kelly jokes between tracks, highly aware of the perception that downbeat music brings sadness to the listener. But there’s nothing depressing about a song like “Marta”, which covers her feelings of directionlessness after returning home from living in Germany. Rather, her delicate style is quite beautiful.

Reddy delivers a similarly sardonic warning: “I’m going to start off with some hardcore misery,” she says upon arrival. It’s an early indicator that her on-record persona and in-concert presence don’t exactly align. Reddy’s music typically covers life’s problems: “But I’m off the meds again/ Until I can’t cope again,” is a particularly dark line from her song “Self Improvement”. On stage, she makes gags, does funny voices, and constantly references the fact that woo-hoo it’s Friday night like she’s Rebecca Black.

The gap between the content of the songs and Reddy’s funny (and it is really funny) performance when the music stops can be jarring. But after the show, the thought occurred to me that maybe she’d stretched outside her comfort zone even more than I first realised by writing an album as inward and affecting as her debut full-length Personal History. We all have many sides to us and, crucially, many different methods to display these sides: humour, language, disposition, make-up, fashion sense. It seems to me that for Reddy, songwriting is one such tool.

Whatever the case, Reddy helps give the event a sense of cheerfulness that hopefully soothes anyone’s lingering nerves about returning to a live-music setting. She tells the story of how a friend in the crowd unwittingly got her name inserted into a song about a hard-drinking woman. “Fuck you, Ailbhe!” the friend yells back. Reddy is among loved ones here.

This gig was first organized to promote Personal History. Now, it can operate as a platform for Reddy to unveil songs written since. There’s “Shoulder Blade”, a pretty ballad. “It’s the same as the other stuff really. One-trick pony they call me.” She repeats versions of this self-deprecating joke a few times. Later, former Fight Like Apes singer MayKay comes out to provide backing vocals on heavy new track “The Mess”, which pulls her in a 1990s American power pop direction – remember the band Letters to Cleo? Despite what she says, Reddy has plenty of tricks.

Personal History is still a great record, and performed simply on guitar, bass, drums, and occasionally (I believe) some pre-recorded horns, it’s perfect for a live setting. There is “Time Difference”, a song about a long-distance relationship and one of her singles. The bass is replaced with those slippery guitar leads, which echo out over the crowd.

The title track (a post-relationship post mortem) and “Looking Happy” (covering the pain and jealousy that can manifest when you’re scrolling through other people’s lives on social media) might be Reddy’s two best songs and she performs them back to back. The drums come down a bit hard on the more quiet parts of “Personal History”, but Reddy’s voice finds the pocket on the emotional chorus: “Let’s fall into routine/ The romance of watching TV/ Hearing your broken sleep/ Feeling the warmth of your body.”

After MayKay’s cameo, Kelly also returns to perform with Reddy for the encore. Friends in the crowd, friends on stage, chatty interludes – it adds to the palpable sense of relief. When Covid-19 first curtailed Dublin’s nightlife, I assumed the lifting of restrictions would be met with wild celebrations. That assumption drained away over the last two years and, sure enough, the return has been a slow burn. Tonight, the crowd is calm. They quiet down in all the right places, laugh at all the punchlines, sip beer in plastic cups and leave in an orderly fashion. We don’t need a celebration, but relief is a fine thing. Outside, things felt better than they did 90 minutes before.

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth,...

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