- 18 Jan 19
Once a year, Danny O'Reilly of The Coronas takes on the mantle of solo performer. This year, he did it in the legendary Listowel venue, Mike The Pies. And he was accompanied by Thanks Brother and Niamh Farrell of Ham Sandwich, for what turned out to be a very special gig...
To say it was a special occasion would be an understatement. We all know Danny O'Reilly as the lead singer with The Coronas – one of the most successful Irish bands of the past decade. But once a year, Danny abandons the comforts of life with the Terenure outfit. He is no longer the frontman with a rock 'n' roll band. Instead he looks, acts – and feels – like a singer-songwriter for a day. Or that is the purpose of the ritual at least: a way of keeping in touch with the inner folk-singer which, one suspects, he might just allow to flourish sometime in the future.
Last year, Danny slung on his acoustic guitar and serenaded a small crowd in a bar somewhere in Donegal, if memory serves. Aiden O'Connor, who runs Mike The Pies in Listowel, got wind of the one-off and decided, long before Danny O'Reilly could even have contemplated it, where the son of Mary Black would be playing in January of 2019.
When Aiden gets on the case, he is irresistibly persuasive. He made the calls. He turned on the charm. His negotiating skills prevailed. Danny stuck it in the diary. Scheduled for the first week in January, for those in the know, there was a feeling that it might be one of the gigs of the year. Aiden gave Hot Press a call. Why don't you come down? We decided to make the journey south.
Listowel is closer than you might imagine. The motorway takes you all the way to the outskirts of Limerick. Before you penetrate the city itself, you follow a spur to the West, barrelling out the N69 towards Foynes and on to Tarbert, whence the local ferry crosses the Shannon Estuary to Killimer in Co. Clare, a village of just 500 people. The trip from Limerick to Listowel is 75km, which even on a winding road is less than an hour's driving on a good day.
It isn't hard to find Mike The Pies. Everyone in the town knows the legendary venue and the locals are friendly enough to cross roads and turn corners to show you the way. The crowds are already gathering when we arrive, and the feeling of excitement is palpable. Over a hundred fans have clustered at the stage end of the pint-sized venue, and the sense of anticipation confirms that they know they are about to bear privileged witness to something very special.
There is an element too of a family affair being played out before the eyes of Listowel's finest. Róisín Ó is sister of Danny O'Reilly and daughter of the renowned folk singer Mary Black and Joe O'Reilly, the founder of Dara Records. With a number of successful solo recordings already under her belt, Róisín has teamed up with sometimes Coronas collaborator, producer and songwriter John Broe, formerly of Miracle Bell, to form Thanks Brother. Together, in an acoustic format for this intimate occasion, they create a spellbinding noise, with Broe's nimble guitar playing forming a beautiful counterpoint to Róisín's fine singing.
Broe also delivers some beautiful, melodious harmonies. Their version of the Cranberries classic, 'Dreams', is exceptionally beautiful. Likewise, on the upcoming new single 'We Are Different' there are more than just hints of Kate Bush: dealing with the theme of inclusiveness, it is a lovely song, made for radio. Róisín has a fine, gutsy voice that also recalls Sinéad O'Connor and Dolores O'Riordan in the upper range. There is no doubting the potential of Thanks Brother: on the night, it shines through in what are deceptively simple, winning acoustic arrangements.
There is a short pause before Danny O'Reilly takes to the stage, accompanied by his sidekick and Coronas collaborator, Johnny McSharry. Danny steps beyond the microphone and, as a first salvo, takes the Coronas' classic 'Heroes and Ghosts' entirely acoustically. Everyone in the crowd knows the lyrics and they sing along. It is a heart-warming, spine-tingling opening to the set.
For 'The Long Way', Danny switches to the piano. "I'm glad that you were here tonight," he sings, mining the song's Beatles-esque melody lines, "I've got something that's been on my mind/ Cause I thought I knew how to play along/ I tried as hard as anyone/ But I was just one step behind." This is what The Coronas are particularly good at: picking their way forensically through relationships on the point of breakdown. In an acoustic setting, the song works even better, its casual intimacy a thing of very human resonance.
He introduces 'The Lakes of Ponchartrain', a folk milestone, popularised in Ireland by Paul Brady, as a song he doesn't often get to sing in public. His interpretation is powerful and performed with great relish: Danny's expressive voice tells the story with impressive authority. That's followed by 'I Choose Love', from Heroes and Ghosts. The stripped-down acoustic version is not very different from the original released all the way back in 2007, but the effect in this small room verges on the epic.
I've heard Danny O'Reilly do 'My Fault' acoustically before. Here, Johnny is on piano, and the whole thing gels seamlessly. "And I know it's my fault," the singer admits, "We're even here/ And I know it's my fault, yeah/ You made that clear." The note of bitterness is impossible to miss. But there's a twist in the tail too. "Will you wait 'til you see me?" he pleads, "before you do something that/ We could never get over?" The answer it seems is a resounding 'no'.
The atmospheric opening to 'Mark My Words' – Laura Whitmore was in the original video – opens the way to a song that has a big, radio-friendly chorus. One thought that occurs is that this should have been a much bigger hit; the other is the extent to which these songs stand up in an essentially acoustic setting. If Danny wants a job as a folkie at any stage, the gig is his for the taking.
Thanks Brother return to the stage, accompanied now by Niamh Farrell of Ham Sandwich, who looks positively radiant. They launch into a brilliant take on Madonna's 'Like A Prayer', with Niamh and Róisín Ó swapping vocals and out-doing one another superbly with every new intervention. Their voices work gloriously together. Danny O'Reilly steps centre stage again to unveil a new song, 'LA at Night' that will likely feature on The Coronas' upcoming album: the feeling is that you want to hear it again, and soon. That's followed by 'Warm' from Tony Was An Ex-con before the ensemble launches into a celebratory version of Fleetwood Mac's 'The Chain' that threatens to lift the roof.
There is the obligatory, humorous exit stage left before they return for one final number. When Mic Christopher wrote 'Heyday' he could hardly have imagined just how big a song it would become, nor how beloved. Here, it is delivered with magnificent gusto, the chorus ringing out into the Listowel night. "And this is our heyday baby," the collective sing, "And we're not gonna be afraid to shout/ 'Cause we can make our heyday last forever/ And ain't that what it's all about."
On a night like this, there is no mistaking the feeling of privilege that is associated with being close to greatness in action. But, in a sense, that is only one part of the equation in Mike The Pies. The other is this. Music is a craft. And to be in the company of not one master craftsman but of an extended family, collectively reaching into their souls to produce live art of great human warmth, dignity and love in what is a truly unique venue – well, that is very special indeed.
The crowd was rapturous in its response. The musicians bowed and smiled. The roof of Mike The Pies rattled. Not because the noise wanted to escape, but rather because it would have been hard for any building to contain the good vibes, the sense of occasion and the musical magic that had been created without exploding. But Mike The Pies stood firm.
"We can make our heyday last forever," Danny O'Reilly sang. Ain't that what it's all about indeed.