What is it with Irish frontmen? They can lead a band of soldiers or a band of drunks with equal aplomb, and likely while quoting Yeats, making a joke, and proudly balancing an angel and the devil on their sturdy shoulders.

Last night, Bell X1’s kinetic, frenetic, impossibly tall frontman Paul Noonan and his merry band of Bellies cast a spell on the sold-out Joe’s Pub crowd with heart, fuzz, a songbook that would turn the ear of any fan of Modest Mouse, the Shins, and Wilco, and yes, a little bit of cowbell. “You can never have too much cowbell!” Noonan remarked towards the close of the hour-long set.

It was indeed a special night for the Bellies; playing to a packed (but small) house of passionate fans, and proud family members, the “biggest band in Ireland at the moment” according to Vanity Fair, was officially beginning their play to break America. Throwing their hat in the ring, and taking to a road that so many of their country brethren (U2, the Frames, Snow Patrol) and former bandmates (Damien Rice) have gone before, with the release of Flock in February on Yep Roc.

Already a massive hit across the pond in Ireland since 2005, Flock has gone quadruple platinum on the Irish charts, and Bell X1 are even considered the “real creative drivers in Irish music,” according to The Clare People, a weekly paper in Ireland. But can they do it? Do they need to go the “Snow Patrol route” and get a spot on Grey’s Anatomy and then find themselves in a corner they don’t belong in? Or can they, with some brash elbow grease and Irish work ethic, hit the ground running, as Flock finds its faithful?

Previewing most of Flock to the Joe’s Pub crowd, the Bellies with a dapper Noonan up front in his maroon suit, immediately shook the house with heavy bass, shimmering keyboard and atmosphere. One could immediately sense that this will take off. During “Bigger than Me,” Noonan called to mind a young David Byrne, using his entire body to emote, like an unstoppable dervish of rhythm and rye whiskey.

“Next To You,” an older tune from 2004’s Music in Mouth, found Noonan fretting that the Bellies might have “peaked a little early” and that they might have “upset these people eating their dinner,” but the crowd paid their burgers and “chips” no mind as the tune elicited Irish howls from the audience and the first of several sing-alongs.

Next up was “Rocky Takes a Lover,” the lead track on Flock, which the band had just performed on Late Night with Conan O’Brien the night before, and had to edit for TV because of the song’s use of “asshole” and “shite” brought more howls, and the evening’s first chill-inducing moment as Noonan’s perfect breathy purr crooned out the signature line, “I’ll shine for you,… that’s what I’ll do.”

A spine-tingling “Eve, The Apple of My Eye” followed, begging me (though I didn’t) to ask the band’s family seated around me what is with the Irish’s fully developed sense of large scale intimacy. This is Bell X1’s “Chasing Cars” moment, and it is brighter by a mile.

Older tune “Alphabet Soup” was easily the barn-burner of the night, a rough and tumble pub song with plenty of “yeah oh-oh’s” and a ridiculously dense, riveting backend, punctuated with Noonan’s ultra-dramatic, brilliantly slurred “It’s gonna be okay!” at its close. Everyone should hear this song, or at least see it in the flesh. “Tongue” provided a perfect partner in vibe, Noonan working the microphone like a certain Mr. MoJo Risen. It was a psychedelic cage-rattler, manically loud and proud (hey! Just like the Irish!) moment, and the stage was scarcely big enough to hold it all together.

“Bad Skin Day” was an elegant example of the quieter Bell X1 formula: lovely song, expert musical precision, sardonic wit, (“Oh Christ I’m such a drama queen…on a bad skin day”), with an identity that slowly reveals itself and its complex flavors and peppered notes. “Flame” however, a very Modest Mouse-esque hand-clapping, fist-raising wonder akin to “Float On” with its loving celebration of roasting marshmallows, even found Noonan saying the song “will be huge.” Seeing it come to life on that tiny stage, you couldn’t possibly disagree, and with the addition of cowbell at the end, the gig, and song, truly had it all. Or so I thought.

Final encore of the night, “I’ll See Your Heart, and I’ll Raise You Mine,” was all I needed by way of convincing me of Bell X1’s potential in America. Take to mind the naked beauty of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes,” add a guitar, allusions to poker, a Jekyll and Hyde angel and devil predicament to gentle drum beat and you’ve got magic, folks.

Pure moth to a flame magic.

Don’t wait too long to get on board. Bell X1’s Bowery Ballroom show in March will probably be the last small gig these Irishmen do in this town.

–Carrie Alison, Photos by Carrie Alison

  1. Yes it was a fantastic show! That was my 3rd time seeing them in NYC. Looking forward to March 15.


  2. It was not my favorite bellx1 gig. I do think they were much better at Sin E.

    I also felt that the vocals were very much lost in the mix and that the stage at Joes Pub was way to small for them.
    It was a very stuffy, cramped night. I’m sure the The Bowery gig will be much better. More room for the band to breath and the audience too.

    Best of luck!