- 03 Dec 18
Fresh From A Successful UK Tour, The Flowers Show They Can Still Cut It
It’s been a hard week. Four nights on the hoof so far – gigs, interviews, writing, and drinks – a lot of drinks - with returning emigrants as the season approaches. I was running on fumes and thought twice about venturing out again. But a quick spin of Songs From The Rain put me right. I was throwing shapes in the penthouse like the Celtic love God I imagined I could be when the record came out back in 1993, before time dashed those youthful notions against the rough rocks of reality. It might be difficult to trust anything I say about Hothouse Flowers. I’ve been going to see them since that marvellous day out at the R.D.S. in 1988 and I’ve never had a bad time in front of them.
Liam Ó Maonlaí looks rather splendid as he takes to the Olympia stage, in a rumbled white suit, a fetching stetson, and, of course, no shoes or socks. The mop of hair is still intact, complimented by a full beard. He’s still got that Celtic love God shimmer I was hoping for, albeit one recovering from a heavy night with a gaggle of nymphs. His solo piano starts, with a hint of bouzouki from the damn-his-eyes, eternally youthful Peter O’Toole and then a lover’s howl of pain as he enquires, as Gaeilge, “Were you at the mass rock, did you see my love?” Dave Clarke’s cymbals splash, Ó Maonlaí is already lost in this deep sean-nós blues. I suspect if you took the music out of him, he simply wouldn’t be there anymore. This beautiful version of ‘An Raibh Tú Ar An gCarraig?’ gives way to ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, the gospel latent in Johhny Nash’s original turned up to ten. Ó Maonlaí’s a dervish, communing with the unseen, up off his seat, yelling.
Two basses – O’Toole on electric, the brilliant Martin Brunsden on double – drive a bluesier than the original version of ‘Love Don’t Work This Way’. As Fiachna Ó Braonáin channels Nile Rodgers, Ó Maonlaí essays a sort of Maori haka/rain dance hybrid, he’s the hippy Elvis, fanning the flames coming from his friends guitar, booting – while bootless – the tune over the line with a ridiculous/fabulous scissor kick finish.
O’Toole lays into ‘Isn’t It Amazing’, Ó Braonáin dances on his wah-wah pedal, Dave Clarke is a blur of movement and sweat behind the kit. Ó Maonlaí testifies to the power of song:
Sweet Surrender! Trumpets! Open Up The Door To Your Heart!
It’s the music we can thank for Falettinus Be Ours Elf Agin
He sternly hushes the crowd in the old tongue before a beautiful ‘Good For You’, which has taken on a more country-soul arrangement over the years, Liam up off his stool, at the piano like a repentant Jerry Lee, not afraid of sorrow, Ó Braonáin’s solo a balm against pain, real or imagined.
I’m very nearly tired of telling people that Songs From The Rain is one of the great Irish records. 2016’s Let’s Do This Thing, while a very different animal, is nearly its equal. A hushed late night mood piece, it will hopefully gain wider acclaim if they ever get around to releasing it properly, although the sight of a few CDs knocked around the venue bode well. We only get ‘Three Sisters’ from it tonight, a swaying, almost waltz of a thing. The keyboard vibrates as Ó Maonlaí caresses it, switching to an organ sound for an extended coda. He’s on his feet pleading and begging us to “let the light inside shine” for ‘This Is It (Your Soul)’ followed by a gossamer delicate ‘Sweet Marie’ “a song written on the road, trying to make sense of things that are hard to understand”.
The support tonight came from Ó Maonlaí Jr’s band, Coyotito. Due to Ms Kane’s tardiness, I only caught a song or two but they had a nice bang of Ben Howard and John Martyn about them. Ó Maonlaí Sr introduces three “mighty aunties” of the band, The Henry Girls, although only two of them show up, to help on backing vocals. His bellow on the chorus of ‘It’ll Be Easier In The Morning’ is a thing to behold, before a dramatic stop that drives the crowd to a frenzy as the man removes his hat and jacket, appearing slightly bemused by the reaction, although it’s obvious he knows exactly what he’s doing.
He picks up an acoustic guitar and begins to pick at a Malian air, hushing the excited throng. The band follow him into Afel Bocoum’s ‘Ali Farka’, exploring this desert groove. A song written for the master musician Ali Ibrahim "Ali Farka" Touré as he was passing from this life, to call it hypnotic is not enough. ‘Hallelujah Jordan’ bring things back up again, Ó Maonlaí ends it away from the microphone, scat-seaning at the rafters. They’re in full soul revue mode for ‘I’m Sorry, everyone roaring and shouting and giving it out.
“Thirty years we’ve been walking this path, it still gets better” If the inevitable ‘Don’t Go’ is an albatross around their necks, it doesn’t show. Each man takes a turn. Never seen a Townshend power chord on a bouzouki? O’ Toole has got you covered. Brunsden goes a bit Mingus before the drums take it to the West Indies as Ó Maonlaí vamps on the piano. Clarke takes a manic spin around the skins and Ó Braonáin proves, yet again, what a sensitive musician he is, taste over flash. Back to Ó Maonlaí who goes a bit Rachmaninoffy before they all remember the way back to the number they started about a quarter of an hour ago.
The encore starts with a song for a friend that the sea took last year, a song that Fiachna’s great uncle used to sing, a tradition that the band are fiercely proud to be a part of. Ó Maonlaí’s melodic right hand dances over a drone as Ó Braonáin intones the lament of ‘Amhrán na Trá Báine’ – a song of a sadness that you may never have felt, but was likely felt deeply by someone who lead to you being here.
Ó Braonáin tunes his guitar down before launching into the hop and skip of ‘Sí Do Mhaimeo Í’ As the tune ramps up to a jig, Ó Maonlaí’s daughter and her two pals come out to joyfully dance across the bright surface of the song.
After the deserved bows are taken, a smiling Ó Braonáin modestly takes compliments in the bar, pronouncing himself happy that the band have the sound of a practiced road unit, coming off a successful English tour. They were as great tonight as I’ve ever seen them. You know you’re having a good time when you have to pull back from reverie and remind yourself to take a few notes. So many bands claim, or wish for, “soul” and “feel” but the Flowers just have it, naturally and effortlessly.
The Flowers are in Letterkenny on the 28th, and in Cork on New Year's Eve. Let's Do This Thing is available from hothouseflowers.com