On Sunday night Carnegie Hall in New York took a little breather from its usual classical fare to host an Irish rock invasion headlined by the incomparable Gavin Friday, the solo singer-songwriter who once fronted the notorious Virgin Prunes.
“An Evening With Gavin Friday and Friends” was a 50th birthday celebration for Friday hosted by his famous friends in aid of Red Nights, a concert series designed to help eliminate AIDS in Africa. It was also a thrilling retrospective on the work of the Virgin Prunes, as performed by singers as distinctive as Rufus Wainwright and Bono.
Friday hails from Ballymun in Dublin, at one time considered the worst projects in the city, so to find himself headlining at Carnegie Hall is an unlikely coup.
“Isn’t that great though?” he told IrishCentral’s sister publication the Irish Voice. “I don’t have time to think about it, though, because right now I’m on autopilot. I’m not going to over-think it. It’s a good way to keep happy you know, by staying true to yourself, by saying, ah the hell with it, this is what I want to do, you know?”
But who were the Virgin Prunes? Introducing Friday on Sunday night, U2’s manager Paul McGuinness appeared onstage in a pinstriped Louis Copeland suit to give the crowd a quick rock history lesson.
“The Virgin Prunes were the band that always opened for U2, so I got to see a lot of them,” McGuinness told the crowd. “I saw more of them than perhaps I would have liked. One night Bono came up to me and said, ‘What’s wrong with the crowd? They’re in an awful mood.’
“I explained to him that 10 minutes earlier the Virgin Prunes has thrown pigs intestines at them all. They were into Dada performance art at that point. They called it the theater of cruelty.”
Friday, it must be said, is a great star, possibly the most charismatic torch singer that Ireland has ever produced. It’s evident the moment he takes to the stage, all swagger and poise, that this man was born to be famous, and his music is the vehicle that takes him there.
Some people wonder why Bono and Gavin Friday are rarely photographed on the same stage at the same time. Possibly it’s because they suspect they might be one and the same person.
After all, they’re about the same age and same height, they come from the same town and they’re fascinated by the same kind of music. For decades now they’ve dared each other on in search of exciting new musical directions, and the results are well known.
Friday brought that torch song singing European influence to Bono, and he in turn brought it to U2. “You become the people you hang around, so yeah, I would have opened doors after the 1980s when they had finished (the U2 album) ‘Rattle and Hum,’” Friday said.
“Bill Graham, a very clever journalist for Hot Press, Ireland’s rock magazine, once said, ‘One day U2 will turn into the Virgin Prunes.’ And they nearly did around (the U2 album) “Achtung Baby.” We were always far more extreme. You never know, I might turn into U2 eventually.”
But on Sunday night it quickly became clear that sharing a taste in music is where the similarities between the two men end. Friday is really Lucifer to Bono’s Gabriel; he’s the difficult one, the bad son, and he’s as intriguing as that sounds. When he takes to the stage he’s also the one you can’t take your eyes off, and even the mighty U2 have learned to pay him his due.
The concert began with Friday singing his haunting ballad “Apologia.” An atmospheric late night track that conjures up the glory years of the Berlin cabaret, it was perfectly suited to Friday’s voice and to his artistic vision for the night -- to turn Carnegie Hall into Dublin’s Baggot Inn, CBGB’s and a European speakeasy between the world wars.
No sooner had the opening song ended but he was joined onstage by Bono and The Edge, who lifted the roof off the place with the first notes of Friday’s “I Want to Live.”
“When we were kids, we grew up in the same streets and we had these grandiose ideas, we lived surreal lives in our imagination,” Bono told the crowd. “Gavin always talked to me about playing Carnegie Hall. I barely knew what that was at the time. But tonight Gavin’s living that dream.”
Asked if it was true that on Bono’s 33rd birthday Friday sent him a packet containing nails, a hammer and wood with a note marked “DIY,” Friday told the Irish Voice that it was. “It was during the Zooropa tour and I was out on the road with them. He didn’t get up on the cross, though,” Friday laughed.
Next up Friday was joined onstage by Anthony Hegarty from Anthony and the Johnsons. “You must have some Irish in you with a name like that,” quipped Friday.
“Somewhere I guess,” Hegarty shrugged.
“Well you’re a beautiful man,” Friday continued.
“I’m not a man,” Hegarty countered firmly.
“Well you’re a beautiful person,” Friday said and smiled.
The two sparring singers then started into a memorable version of the first ever Virgin Prunes song, “He Got What He Wanted,” and their voices complimented each other so well that it became a highlight of the evening.
The delicacy of that duet was instantly obliterated by a jump out of your seats sensational announcement. The Virgin Prunes had reformed to sing “Caucasian Walk,” a sonic wall of rock power that vividly underlines why this band were and are so important to the genesis of U2.
This lot rock out like no Irish band ever has or will. The well-heeled audience was astounded, and you could tell that suited this band just fine.
Shane MacGowan took to the stage with a near death pallor, a bottle of booze and the ability to galvanize an opera house with a simple song. “A Rainy Night in SoHo,” one of his own classics, was so good in performace he sang the song’s finale three times. Each time it was more powerful than the last.
Then Joel Grey, the star of the Oscar winning film “Cabaret,” a film that Friday was obsessed with in his youth, picked up act two (yes, this concert had two acts) with a rousing performance of his signature song from the film, “Willkomen.” Soon after Friday was joined onstage by Rufus Wainwright and actress Scarlett Johansson to sing a song in honor of the famous Irish drag queen Mr. Pussy.
Lady GaGa was an unannounced surprise, and Lou Reed’s also unexpected appearance with Laurie Anderson lifted the roof of the building. The grand finale saw Friday, U2, Reed, MacGowan, Courtney Love and Johansson singing David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie.” Bowie himself was rumored to be in attendance, and if he was I’m certain he would have embraced Friday as one of his own.
Asked if he’d celebrate after the show with a few pints Friday replied, “I never drink pints. I’d turn into Van Morrison. If he reads that he’ll kill me.
“But there’ll be fine wines quaffed after the event, I’ll tell you that baby. It’ll be a very loud, late night in upper Manhattan.”