The easy response to a concert like last night’s would be cynicism. Niall Horan, a very pretty one-time member of a boy band that didn’t win a television talent contest, played to an arena packed with girls and young women who seemed more interested in screaming at him than listening to him sing.
That would be the easy response, and it was one I was quite ready to write before I arrived at Spark Arena last night. And some of the elements would be true — the audience was, largely, screaming girls and young women, and Horan is undeniably pretty. But he is also surprisingly talented, and that is the review that I think I should write instead.
Horan’s music, on record, is ultimately a touch unremarkable, perfectly pleasant and agreeable but somewhat forgettable. Live, however, he manages to find depths to his songs that provide a surprising — well, to me at least; the faithful in his audience clearly knew that he was capable of more than I had anticipated — richness. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that his voice is more mature and potent than, again, recordings might suggest.
Horan’s set was made up, largely, of Flicker, the one album he’s released since the demise of One Direction, and he padded his show with the inevitable brace of his old band’s songs, and a couple of covers. There was an agreeable range of styles on display — while the album’s title track is a single-guitar acoustic thing that, despite the enormous cheers it drew, was a little lightweight, show-closers Slow Hands and On My Own benefited from Horan’s five-piece — one of which, wonderfully, was a fiddle — backing band, who fleshed out the sound of these numbers in an arrangement that put muscle on the bones of songs that grew into themselves in a live setting.
Comparisons with Horan’s one-time bandmate Harry Styles, while possibly unfair, are inevitable, and Horan definitely fares better. While Styles, who appeared on the same stage in December of last year, put on a pared-back show that would have been better suited to the Tuning Fork lounge next door, Horan had a stage production that, while hardly spectacular, let folk know that he knew he was playing an arena, and understood that, no matter how chirpy and cute he may be, he needs a production behind him to fill the show, and he and his band put on an effective, arena-sized show, something Styles struggled to achieve.
Horan also revealed himself to be a competent musician. It’s expected that a singer like him will strap on an acoustic guitar and strum it, even if one could be forgiven for wondering if the thing were even plugged in. But Horan demonstrated a comfortable familiarity with his instrument, Flicker being his song alone, and his reading of Camila Cabello’s Crying In The Club was driven by his far-from-shabby guitar. Perhaps more questionable was his other cover, Dancing In The Dark — Springsteen, he assured us, is his favourite singer and songwriter, and this did feel like just a tiny bit of a stretch, but his take on the song, an acoustic opener that built into a full-bodied rocker, went beyond its primary roles of “Look — see, I’m not just a pretty boy, I have depths too!” and as gateway drug for the teenagers, and suggested that Horan has a future ahead of him as a credible performer.
I’m not, I have to confess, a fan of Horan’s music — in particular in its recorded form, it is, as I’ve said, a touch disposable and inconsequential for my tastes. But with the polish of his performance, the ease of his rapport with his audience — the Westmeath accent doesn’t hurt — and the added dimensions his songs adopt on stage, he managed to win me over.
Thanks to Amina McCabe for photography.