A dedicated crowd get caught up in the emotion 'like their 4x4 keys and gym membership cards depend on it'
Last year, in the run-up to the 2011 MTV European Music Awards in Belfast, Gary Lightbody gave an interview to the BBC, in which he claimed that Northern Ireland had been deprived of live music during the 1980s and early 90s.
'I hardly saw any gigs until I moved to Scotland,' recalled the Snow Patrol frontman, who left Bangor for the University of Dundee in 1994. 'Nirvana I saw, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, but not that many gigs. There's almost no point talking about those times.'
Perhaps if Lightbody had spent less time strumming an acoustic guitar by the seaside and more time in Belfast watching the myriad of acts who did venture over during 'those times' – everyone from AC/DC and Kiss to the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr, not to mention Belfast punk legends Stiff Little Fingers et al – it might have made Snow Patrol a more exciting prospect.
Still, he was right about one thing. Times have changed, and now Lightbody's band can sell out three nights at Northern Ireland's largest concert venue. Contrast Snow Patrol's residency at the cavernous Odyssey Arena with Nirvana at the height of their powers, in 1992, when they could 'only' manage one night at the smaller King's Hall. 'Alternative' music in Ulster certainly has come a long way.
Snow Patrol are playing three nights at the Odyssey, to roughly 30,000 people, about 10 per cent of Belfast's population, before moving on to similarly sized sheds across the UK, Europe and America. Of course, attracting huge crowds isn't an automatic guarantee of quality, but it would be arrogant to dismiss outright the enjoyment of the audience at tonight's opening show.
Snow Patrol (four Northern Irishmen, two Scots; let the arguments about the group's nationality commence) kick off with the expansive, electronica-tinged 'I'll Never Let Go', from their new album, Fallen Empires. It's an odd opener, having more in common with Simple Minds than Sonic Youth, but the crowd go with it.
The band – and the fans – are back on surer footing with the second number, the ridiculously catchy 'Take Back the City'. The 2008 single sounds like Lightbody was told to write something straightforward and upbeat that would appeal to US radio, which is probably why this writer likes it.
'This is just all for you,' the singer announces, as he clambers down off the stage to get in the faces of the front row. Hundreds of people clamour to paw a man who, just ten short years ago, was performing for smatterings of punters at Ash support gigs.
'In some cultures, we'd all be married by now,' Lightbody jokes after extricating himself from the mob. 'In others, we'd be put to death.' (The latter option might appeal to ousted Snow Patrol co-founder Mark McClelland, who was ejected from the line-up in 2005 and went on to sue his erstwhile cohorts.)
The band seem keen to plug their latest record, but the relatively ambitious new material washes over the arena, suggesting Snow Patrol's reign as a viable 'hits' outfit may be coming to an end. Still, Lightbody and his sidemen are content to knock out the oldies as well.
'Run' has the crowd singing along like their 4x4 keys and gym membership cards depend on it, while 'Chasing Cars' and 'Open Your Eyes', both from 2006's six-million-selling Eyes Open album, get predictably roof-raising responses.
'Set the Fire to the Third Bar' sees Lightbody sharing the mic with Shauna Tohill from local support act Rams' Pocket Radio (who also performs solo as Silhouette), who does a good job covering Martha Wainwright's parts.
There's not much of a stage show to speak of, but Lightbody works hard to engage the room. During 'Shut Your Eyes', like a floppy-fringed Freddie Mercury, he gets everyone to clap along, then to stand up, and then to sing along. Bono he ain't, but Lightbody has clearly embraced his rock star role.
The other band members, including longtime drummer Jonny Quinn, could probably walk the streets unmolested, and the vocalist does little to dispel the sense that this is 'The Gary Lightbody Experience' by not introducing them.
Much has been said about the supposed death of 'guitar music', but the amazing, enduring popularity of Snow Patrol tells a different story, albeit one that might be hard to swallow for those of us who grew up going to see AC/DC and the like.