I went to Picture This five nights in a row
And I'm not what I once was.
"I don't get it."
Four words that this writer has heard a fair bit over the past three years when the subject of Picture This comes up.
Hell, I've volunteered them myself.
Give the Athy men their due; the rise of Picture This is a big Irish success story, no matter how baffled you are by it.
The cliff notes; Jimmy Rainsford, once a hired hand for Ryan Sheridan, apparently decided that he could make a bigger impact with his own project.
He thusly recruited Ryan Hennessy, an unaffiliated local musician doing little more than drawing the dole at the time that Rainsford discovered him through an acoustic performance on Facebook.
Rainsford had built up a modest following on his YouTube drumming channel, but social media would bear considerably shareable fruit in the form of Traffic Jam, a lift of Carpool Karaoke with a better moniker.
Danny O'Reilly of The Coronas, Aslan chief Christy Dignam and Gavin James all belted it out from the back seat.
The Script are friends, so too is noted Peaky Blinders enthusiast Paul Galvin.
2FM mainstay Eoghan McDermott has steadfastly made the role of giddy hype man his own, going as far as to adorn his body with the most recent album title - the vowel-sceptic MDRN LV. You wonder if he heard it in advance.
2015's 'Take My Hand', a Mumford & Sons-flecked jig that boasts the line, "I'll treat you like your father treats your mother", caused a stir that led to selling out Dublin venue The Academy for their debut gig, national radio support, heaving festival tents and a country-wide tour, all powered by a seemingly built-in fan base.
A platinum-selling album followed, as did five sold-out appointments with the Olympia Theatre and headline status at last year's Electric Picnic festival.
One month on, the announcement of an "unprecedented" five-night 3Arena residency set for the final week of March.
Westlife played 13 consecutive nights in the same venue in 2001, a run of 11 the following year and nine in 2004, but it wasn't sponsored by a phone company then, so this "historic" tickets-gone-in-minutes 2019 flex is technically gospel.
A Hot Press cover story from 2016 is worth the revisit, for it shines a fascinating light on the Picture This creative and commercial process before industry razzmatazz worked its way into the bloodstream.
"We had our own ideas of how we wanted to do it – based on what we thought people wanted to see," explained Rainsford, then 23 years old.
"It wasn't in an arrogant sense, but we said we'd do it our way and do what we thought would work. And when it did work, well, we stuck with it."
Which is fair enough, if that's what you want your art to be. By the same token, you can't really judge those who identify and question what appears to be a deliberately cynical strategy, especially when a quote like this lands a little later:
"When you give people quality content on a regular basis, they attach to it more, and they’ll subscribe to you in a subconscious kind of way, and they’ll always be there."
Music means different things to people, no doubt, though it's hard not to wince at such a calculated summary.
"I write best on moods," offered Hennessy, who went on to note, matter-of-factly, that every song he had written to date had taken no more than five minutes to construct.
"When I'm writing a song, it's for other people – actually, for thousands of other people to sing back to me. I don't like that whole thing of 'Oh, I'm writing this for myself'," he shrugged.
An attitude instantly backed up by his partner, who summed up such introspective notions in unapologetically succinct terms:
They likely sleep easy. Their aim to ensnare, unite and feed off the masses is clearly going great guns, at least domestically speaking.
There is the feeling that this may wind up being a uniquely home-based phenomenon, with MDRN LV debuting at #1 at home while simultaneously charting at #54 in the UK.
America is clearly the major play, with Picture This enjoying the status of being the first ever Irish signees to Republic Records, where they share roster space with Ariana Grande, Post Malone and Drake.
"We saw something unusual happening here," said Republic president Avery Lipman for the benefit of a Facebook Live press conference held at Dublin's Westbury Hotel in October.
"This level of passion, this level of activity that did not make sense. This is what we do - we're out there, we're looking for things that don't make sense.
"Something didn't make sense about the band, in a good way."
He's right. It doesn't make sense.
Ryan Hennessy, a man who lives by the laws of attraction, saw it coming.
Jimmy Rainsford bet on himself.
There are two other full-time members, with guitarist Owen Cardiff and bassist Cliff Deane upgraded from touring positions last year. They don't say much. Rumours of a fifth man abound, but it's The Ryan & Jimmy Show and everybody knows their role.
The case against Picture This is that they make homogenous, bland music in the Sheeran mould, linking generic lyrics with basic, ultra radio-friendly arrangements. Almost like they were written in five minutes.
Truth is, they're an easy target, which is curious enough in and of itself.
A recent article in The Sunday Times previewing the RTÉ Choice Music Prize took a scalpel to harmonious Bray outfit Wyvern Lingo. The words were clearly agenda-ridden, the insinuations ultimately unfair.
A minor storm erupted, with many coming together to build a passionate defence for a band who voiced their own hurt reaction. People weren't pleased, to put it mildly.
It begs a question with a perhaps straightforward answer, but let's ask it anyway - why is it deemed acceptable to take shots at an act like Picture This, but similar scorn upon a Wyvern Lingo is off the table?
The school of thought is that going after a group like Wyvern Lingo - independent, socially conscious, well-respected - is to punch down, but to slam Picture This - signed to a major label, backed by the highest points of industry, positioned for fame and fortune - is fair game.
The nature of the Sunday Times snipe was undeniably personal, but, were it Picture This who were afforded the same kicking, you can't quite see a spirited fight for their integrity taking over Twitter for a few days.
So, let's give Picture This their fair shake, and what better way to do so than to attend all five nights of their grand undertaking in the capital?
In a bid to understand all of this, the decision was made to immerse myself right in the thick of it, to embed myself amongst the fanatics, to devote a week of my life to the cause and basically spend more time in the 3Arena than my own home.
Five nights or none at all, just as the prophet Garth Brooks foretold.
Would I come out the other side a convert? Would I lose part of my soul? Will I ever want to attend a gig or listen to music again?
It's the quest for MDRN LV.
It's the Picture This of Dorian Gray.
It's the most absurd idea I've ever had.
Night #1 | Wednesday 27 March
Sample Crowd Dialogue: "You don't have to record it, honey."
7.15pm. Beneath a sky of blue and black, the queue stretches out the door of Eddie Rocket's like the good times never went away.
A larger procession snakes its way around the steel of the 3Arena, doors long open now, vague strains of opening act Dagny filtering through to the street.
"It's busy," notes the man behind me in the direction of his girlfriend.
"They're a very big band," he explains.
Inside, the Norwegian singer is about halfway through her set before a decent-sized early turnout.
Moving forward as far as possible into the middle of the arena, the fear that I may have flown too close to the sun is realised as two sets of teenagers commence wearing the faces off of each other for the duration of an entire song.
An attempt to subtly scurry back is blocked by a girl who proceeds to throw her arm around my shoulder, ruffle my hair, and woo, Ric Flair-style, into my face. Fairly sure I have clothes older than this person. 15 minutes into night one. Pray for me.
Smash cut to the bar, much-needed sustenance in sight at €6.50 a pop. There's an art to attending gigs solo - your faithful reporter has no plus one this evening, the ultimate first world problem - and I haven't mastered it.
Going to the cinema alone is honestly a recommended practice. Done right, it can be a worthwhile form of therapy. Weekday afternoons are the way to go, as to avoid being surrounded by couples or weekend family outings.
The cinema isn't supposed to be a social event, you see. Yes, there's a strangely romantic communal element in play, but you hope that everyone is well-versed in etiquette. Big fuck-off pop concert extravaganzas, though? That's a whole other story.
Hitting up a gig on your own can induce anxiety. Some people love it, and good on them. Reviewers, photographers and promoters have reasons to be there on their lonesome, and some undoubtedly thrive on such hustles.
Not me. A traumatic experience at a Drake show sat next to an empty seat in the front row for the duration hasn't left my brain two years on, nor will it any time soon.
And so you treat the night as a 'stick and move' situation, eking out pockets of space in various corners across a potentially intense three hours, as might a war correspondent.
Before he comes anywhere close to the stage, Lewis Capaldi's name rings out through the building. It's an open goal for the 22-year-old; locked in for five half-hour support slots at a time when his profile has risen considerably since his initial booking.
Between this, an upcoming Dublin winter headliner, festival appearances and further guest commitments, he may be playing a dangerous 'Nile Rodgers & Chic' game with Ireland.
Still, we're far from burnout, as underlined by the stampede of screams that greets his arrival. There's an 'Ole, Ole' chant for good measure, because I guess we're claiming him in the great post-Brexit knife fight.
"Thank you for helping me move out of my mother's house," he winks, closing off an easy night's work with 'Someone You Loved', currently the number one song in the country.
If you haven't heard it, the track is a mournful effort, tailor-made for Capaldi's wounded range. In tribute, another couple, older this time, go for it. Do people still play that Police song at weddings?
Three minutes past nine and a digital curtain presents a kaleidoscopic vision of Athy's favourite sons, a blur of blue, white and red set to a cinematic rising pulse that strains for U2 sensitivity but instead brings the start of The Rock's 2003 'Hollywood dickhead' heel theme to mind.
All very epic in a 'Take your half NOW' sort of way. Before you know it, the circular video wall levitates and there stands Ryan Hennessy front and centre, suited and booted, hand on hip, surveying his kingdom.
77 nights ago, Hennessy, Rainsford, and the other two sat in the front row balcony of this venue as The 1975 unleashed a deft, thrilling and highly innovative pop spectacular.
A glance in Hennessy's orbit told the story of an awestruck soul who knew he would soon be given multiple opportunities to emulate, to perhaps even outdo. All of this would be his.
The debt to Matty Healy is visible throughout his first shot in anger, from choice of attire to mannerisms to the desire to reach the entire room. That hand-on-hip unveiling, oh-so-detached and daring, will re-appear like clockwork as the days unfold.
He turned 24 on Tuesday, and thus this run marks celebrations worthy of Achilles. There's a vague sadness behind the beams, like a team leader who knows that he has four or five other meetings lined up that day.
With 20 songs in the set, you're getting value for your €60-odd. Stacking all of these together over the course of five football match-length turns (no injury time, the boys are pleasingly punctual) means that it's impossible to ignore how alike it all sounds.
The space is loud, the people polite enough. Hennessy plays them like a fiddle, darting around like he's being prodded by invisible cattle brands and hitting his marks like a seasoned game show host, one who thinks profanity is an edgy character trait.
"A lot of people told us that we could never do five nights in the 3Arena, and here we are," he affirms, informing us that we can do whatever we want to do.
The takeaway image is that of Hennessy greeting the closest disciples at their level, mobbed not by outstretched adoring fans, but iPhone cameras in search of focus. That, and the removal of his mesh t-shirt to usher in the finish.
Over on Instagram, hyperbole bleeds from a most permanent supporter, down since day one, heralding Picture This as world-beaters in that painfully insecure Irish way.
The truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere in the middle.
Night #2 | Thursday 28 March
Sample Crowd Dialogue: "He's so cool. He's like a broken man."
8.08pm: Lewis Capaldi, who may be the real story here, serenades a fresh sea of twinkling iPhone lights.
A trip to the merchandise stand yields the information that signed MDRN LV vinyl sold out on opening night, with t-shirts "flying" out the door. Nearby, a woman notes that she has travelled from Athlone via packed-out bus.
There's barely a Dublin accent in earshot tonight. Coaches line the tarmac outside, bespoke logos announcing the likes of Laois, Tipperary, Cork and Galway. They're even coming from Gdańsk to see the film.
Night two is when it really kicks in; Picture This is a boy band that happens to wield instruments. To clarify, there's no great shame in that.
With the likes of The Coronas and Kodaline registering as bands first and pop acts second, Picture This have taken the Script formula and embraced full technicolour flamboyance when nobody else of their kind in Ireland, save for Wild Youth, is truly committing to anything quite this unabashed.
Who are they competing against? The returning Westlife reside in their own weird middle-aged nostalgia bubble, Niall Horan is a far more international proposition and The Script don't really feel Irish, no matter how many times Danny O'Donoghue drapes the tricolour over his shoulders.
Picture This, on the other hand, have resolutely seized a gap in the market by tapping into a demographic that want what they have for sale. Speaking of, it's tough to gauge a common denominator over the week - I encounter every type of Irish person imaginable, barring maybe apathetic hipsters and old age pensioners.
A barman with the same name as mine is in no mood to converse. He's not really a fan, he mutters. I tell him that doesn't matter, I'm just wondering how it's been for him. We're all in this together.
"Has it been busy?" I enquire.
Finally, his eyes lock mine. The reply is as terse as it is short.
Not far from the site of this rejection you'll find the Turkish Airlines stand, a vivid mess of touchscreen pads and promised lands, ideal for those who absolutely must book their getaway in the middle of a concert.
You get a pretty good view of things from the sound desk. There's room to amble around if you fancy stretching your legs. Picture This fans are an easy-going bunch, quick with a smile, happy to be here, easy to manoeuvre your pint past without spillage.
What do they make of a production that largely stays in first gear, though?
Yes, you've got the video wall, the light-up floor only seen from the seats and a band giving it their genuine all, but the lack of expected bells and whistles is strange.
No confetti explosions, no smoke cannons, no dry ice, no fireworks, no flames, not even the modern staple of an on-stage proposal. As for the visuals; a mix of bright colour strips, an open desert road, Greek statues, and other default screensavers.
A creative director is presumably under contract. If not, consider hiring one.
Songs that should be a no-brainer don't quite kick off. Picture This 2.0 calling card 'One Drink' is an agreeable banger, one that begs to just get the pre-chorus drop right... only there is no pre-chorus drop, no real lift. It was right there, lads. Lean into it.
The shirt comes off at the same time.
Are you not entertained?
Night #3 | Friday 29 March
Sample Crowd Dialogue: "Oh my god, do you know him?"
Does anyone really know anyone, though?
As for Ryan Hennessy, I cannot confess to know him personally but I feel like I'm beginning to get a handle on the press release for the eventual solo run.
Outside, a friendly security man says that the past couple of nights weren't as bad as he expected. Inside, the room is piping hot and I don't much care for it.
In hindsight, boozing until 3.30am wasn't the wisest call I've ever made.
Hitting up the same gig five nights in a row is also questionable, especially with some class of cold/flu kicking in, yet here we are.
We're going to do this.
We're going to see it through.
Sleep when we're dead and dust.
Maybe I can expense work for the Advil that's currently coursing its way through my system.
This was supposed to be a particularly momentous day in world history, a real, 'Where were you when?' memory scrapbook affair.
I cannot lie. I was very much looking forward to being at a Picture This show when the news filtered through that Brexit, in fact, did mean Brexit.
Would the band stop the show in a fit of pique not seen since hulking WWE hero John Cena, no script to steer him, had to inform 10,000 patriotic Floridians that Osama Bin Laden had been "compromised to a permanent end" by SEAL Team Six?
Imagine it. Ryan Hennessy pausing to tell us all that the UK were officially out of the European Union. A cheer goes up. This next one's called 'Life of the Party'.
9.25pm: I can't believe it's taken me three nights to cop that the bassist is rocking a five-string. Sick.
He has one line to say every night - the show is so tightly choreographed that even between-song dialogue is predetermined - and it's a doozy.
Around halfway through, he is praised for his sartorial prowess only to turn the compliment back to Hennessy's suit game (red, yellow, salmon, white, and powder blue, across all five respective nights) to provoke a massive yell.
It's a tough gig, that one exchange. Indeed, he manages to screw it up at least once, opting for the word "costume" instead of "suit". For shame, Cliff.
Still, it's not as upsetting as the guitarist's penchant for showing off his O-face every single time he's shown rocking out on the big screen. Less of that, please.
To note, it would be irresponsible of Picture This to not have rehearsed this thing to within an inch of its life, and if someone opts to turn up for every second, they can't be too vexed at getting the same meal.
Sticking to scripted sequences with such rigidity is odd, though, and robs the occasion of individual moments. Deviations are almost non-existent. It's all blurring into one collision at this point and I really don't feel well.
I've seen some of the same faces these past few days, queuing for hours to get to the barrier as their heroes arrive via police escort. On Twitter, where some dedicate their accounts to Picture This adoration, one fan reveals that she may have lost her job to ensure she's right at the front.
Once again, it's raucous and boisterous, good times had by the predominantly female assembly, but something is missing. I'm here but not really here at all. The floor is essentially glue now.
A tanned girl in a summer dress stands in the middle of a lengthy bathroom queue. She turns to her friends, none of whom are paying attention, with a lament. Her face falls.
"I just love Ryan Hennessy."
Pro-tip learned on the walk home:
If you wish to shut down an illegal merchandise seller, at least conversationally, tell them you're a journalist. They don't like that.
Night #4 | Saturday 30 March
Sample Crowd Dialogue: "I'm not apologising before she does."
Well, it's happened. They said it might.
I do feel a bit broken.
There's a strange sorrow attached to the experience now, the giddy joviality of actually committing to the thing - the dropped jaws, the disbelief, the well wishes, the 'I cannot wait to read it', the fact that I am somehow getting paid to do this - replaced by a tangible remove.
The words on my forearm a harsh truth.
Non sum qualis eram.
I am not what I once was.
Artist's impression of the writer
"You've been through a lot," I'm told.
Tonight, once more, my company will be 13,000 strangers. Living vicariously through friends the past two nights has brought different perspectives even if both arrived at the same place.
"Man, I would dread having to go back tomorrow," one declared before patting me on the shoulder. I didn't feel that then. I think I might now.
Hours to go and my brain is all fogged up. Writing these sentences is a struggle. Might try and finish Red Dead Redemption 2. Arthur isn't looking so good. I hope he makes it. I hope we both do.
Maybe I can bail early, keep an eye on Twitter to make sure nothing out of the ordinary occurred. Maybe I could just stay home and pretend. No, Dave, suck it up. You literally asked for this.
8:50pm: All thoughts of abandonment fade away when the miracle happens - a seated ticket. Four nights in, these tired bones get to rest. The stage looks different, amazing what a literal change of perspective can do.
To my right, corporate types with lanyards who say things like "wonderful" when Ryan does his thing.
"Some people have been here all four nights," says the man.
Buddy, you ain't wrong.
To my left, a family that includes a young boy, probably around 10 or so, attending his very first gig.
His mother, an early fan who saw Picture This play much smaller stages than this one, guides him through, clapping and encouraging all the way. It's really quite lovely, and I appreciate the new lens.
So thank you, random family I was too shy to ask the names of, you win Saturday.
Midway through, a trip to - where else - the bar. Yasmin has been working away here for the past few nights, thinks the band are "very good" and is off on her holidays in the morning.
"I'll be right here," I say.
And I will.
Night #5 | Sunday 31 March
Sample Crowd Dialogue: "Call me."
10 things I have learned:
'Take My Hand' is the cue for lads suffering through dates to become unglued.
David Byrne's maxim of "It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary" may not apply to every venue, but the 3Arena affords ample opportunity for respite.
Encouraging a thousands-strong crowd to whistle in unison isn't the move.
Ryan Hennessy loves his mother. She gets a touching shout-out on a day that belongs to her and many others. My own mother is thousands of miles away.
Picture This fans might not fare well at a Drake gig.
A huge show like this one, with noise emanating from every possible direction, will not deter some people from a lengthy phone call.
Wearing ear plugs to events such as these isn't a terrible idea, especially when the crowd is as deafening as it was during the conclusion of night five.
Ryan is right. He really does resemble a young Joe Dolan in his suit.
The bags beneath my eyes could support the weekly shop.
Rickshaw drivers make a killing and are a plague upon Dublin.
The stage, the building, the surrounding city and its myriad of winding streets - it is a movie.
The players, predetermined.
The credits, all of us.
The writer may not have found love, modern or otherwise, but he learned.
Break out the fine china, chill the lemonade, and tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree, 'cause this boy's comin' home.
To the hardcores, the various workers clad in green, purple, orange and blinding florescent yellow, the friends by my side, the guests who played their part, and, of course, to Picture This - I can only thank you.
Our sensibilities may differ, but we'll always have our time together.
We did it.
Main concert imagery via Glen Bollard
On-the-ground shots via Dave Hanratty