Cathal Coughlan and Sean O’Hagan may be better known for their more recent work in leading The Fatima Mansions and The High Llamas respectively, but prior to the formation of those bands they joined forces as the creative backbone to Microdisney. Releasing albums throughout the 1980’s, they may not have enjoyed much in the way of commercial success but their music always had an artistic consistency to it and inspired a loyal following.
Tonight’s show at the Barbican saw them focus on their 1985 highpoint The Clock Comes Down The Stairs, the show having been added after an earlier show in their native Dublin had quickly sold out. As they walk on stage they receive one of the warmest welcomes in recent memory with Coughlan declaring the album to be a “major piece of history”. He qualifies it by acknowledging it may not have made a hugest of impacts on release but it’s clear to see how much affection there still is for the album among the crowd.
It quickly becomes apparent that despite their time away the band are well-honed unit and Coughlan remains a commanding figure, full of animated gestures and with a real ferocity to his feeling. Horse Overboard shows them at their heady, transportive best and the bold, gleaming guitar pop of Birthday Girl follows, sounding as fresh as it did when first released. It’s undoubtedly a product of its time – the 1980s production and musical phrasings of the record are very much in evidence in the live performance while some of O’Hagan’s guitar work on Past recalls that of Johnny Marr (on a side note it’s unusual for those acquainted with the High Llamas to see O’Hagan not in a central role but he seems to be enjoying the freedom this affords him).
By the time they reach Humane they have fully hit their stride and Irish singer Eileen Gogan is ushered on stage to provide vocals on Are You Happy. The liberated, escapist pop excellence of Genius is introduced by Coughlan as “a giant song of praise to one’s self” and he theatrically addresses crowd throughout. He seems to especially enjoy imparting the line “come back – you’re a visionary genius and a beautiful, sensuous man”. It’s clear that most in the audience agree. The pace for the second half of the album may head in a more contemplative direction but highlights include Begging Bowl which sees Coughlan at his big-hitting, visceral best and the glossy melodies of Harmony Time.
Coughlan then announces that they’re going to “curate” songs from their other albums. The focus may have been on The Clock Comes Down The Stairs but this selection from their back catalogue maintains the high standard. Everybody Is Dead closes with a hailstorm of guitars and Pink Skinned Man incorporates a drum machine while exuding emotional warmth. The instrumental Michael Murphy meanwhile prefigures O’Hagan’s work with The High Llamas and 464 sees Coughlan roar and the band at their heaviest.
There’s a moving exchange between Coughlan and O’Hagan – neither truly gets the acclaim they deserve so to see O’Hagan remark how Coughlan was his “musical inspiration” and Coughlan acknowledge O’Hagan special musical abilities is a touching interlude. They finish with a cover of The Night by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. If this is the last Microdisney show, as hinted at by various members of the band, tonight sees them go out on a high, offering a fitting tribute to the lasting power of these songs.