With Back to Work?, former Prodigals singer Colm O’Brien has created a spirited yet essential item that takes you from a history lesson to a pub and back!
O’Brien’s voice is a tarnished, gravelly instrument that sounds like he pierced his tonsils. Like Rod Stewart, he uses his God-given raspiness to his advantage.
There is a spoken word piece called “Beginnings” dropped in the middle of the music, the beatnik poetry adding to the cozy pub vibe of Back to Work?.
O'Brien was born in Dublin and he says he was surrounded by music as a child. His father, grandfather, grand uncles and great granddad were all members of the famed Fintan Lalor Pipe Band.
His grandmother, May Keogh "Mayday" O'Brien, was a legendary fiddler in Irish music circles and played at the All-Ireland dancing championships for 50 consecutive years and at most of the world dancing championships in that period.
O’Brien cut his teeth playing with numerous Dublin bands and at sessions from Dublin to Achill and everywhere in between.
He first moved to the U.S. in 1999 as a member of Fatal Flower. After the group disbanded he played with the ballad group Uncle Arthur and then with Hiring Fair.
O’Brien was recruited by the famed Celtic rockers the Prodigals and spent a year and a half as their front-man touring the U.S., playing at some of the country's largest festivals and recording the group's fourth album.
O’Brien harvests the plums of our culture, preferring to bypass the low hanging fruit like “No Nay Never” in favor of more obscure treats in our family tree.
Back to Work? opens with "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," a ballad written by Limerick poet Robert Dwyer Joyce about the perspective of a Wexford man about to plunge into the 1798 rebellion in Ireland.
“To me, the more obscure songs are the more interesting ones,” O’Brien says during the phone chat we conducted as he was heading home from some weekend gigs in Chicago.
“If we all just play the same old tunes all the time, the music is never going to live. I’m not into playing the same old songs all the time.
“There is this massive well of Celtic music that you can tap into. It’s a lot more interesting to explore. These are absolutely wonderful songs that still resonate. It’s cool to have these songs from the 13th century still feel fresh.”
O’Brien’s encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Irish music serves him well, with his heart being the editor as he cuts an album.
“‘Deep in the Canadian Woods’ is a song that my grandfather used to sing to me,” he explains when asked how it made it onto the album.
“It’s an example of someone close to me singing something and how playing it now reminds me of them. The first thing about picking a song for an album or a set list is that it has to speak directly to me.
“I also love some of the period pieces. It’s almost as if it feels like I’m back in that time playing it, and that’s what I try to get across when I play it.”
An O’Brien concert may sometimes feel like a history lesson, something he says the crowd deeply appreciates.
“I make it my business to explain where these songs came from. It changes how people hear it once they hear the origins of it. That’s what gets my chicken clickin’!”
Sometimes, the story is just something that you use to wash down the pint that just washed down the other pint, and there are drinking songs-a-plenty here.
Since O’Brien plies his trade along the cobblestone passageways of a seaport town like Boston, it’s only fitting that he includes the Paddy pirate ditty known as “Paddy Lay Back.” You can’t help but stomp your feet when the track plays. Give that man a drink, he sounds thirsty!
The disc doesn’t just dwell in the past. O’Brien has written a handful of original tunes that sound so good that you can’t tell the difference between the songs he wrote and the ones embedded in the culture.
“I got me a job at a small company and the money began to roll in/but I tried to pay what I owe/but the big banker man said this house is no longer you own,” he sings, spitting out a bitter story on “The Big Banker Man” about losing a job and finding yourself in a black hole financially. It could be an anthem for Occupy Wall Street, though O’Brien denies writing it for that crowd.
“‘The Big Banker Man’ is just me getting my anger out about how people are treated,” he explains. “The bankers knew damn well that these people were going to be in trouble.
“It’s all about the balance sheet and profit margins and there’s no happy ending to it. Anyone with the stress of paying a mortgage understands what that song is about. Please stop screwing the working man. ‘The Ballad of Little John,’ another original, touches on that as well.”
O’Brien attributes the great reaction he’s gotten on the disc to the fact that both the old and the new songs resonate in these tough times.
“It’s been absolutely terrific,” he says of the reaction to his new album. “I have been getting some radio airplay. The disc jockeys and the people coming to the gigs understand what the album is about.
“It’s a working man’s album. I hear all these politicians talking about jobs and that’s all good, but those jobs aren’t coming back. Even the old songs tap into that because it was the same back then.
“History books are always written by the winners. You have to listen to the poetry and songs of ordinary people. That’s the best sense of history.”
Like those old songs, O’Brien hopes his new songs will resonate years from now.
“I think that’s the beauty of a great Irish song -- they are timeless,” he says.
Back to Work? is a timeless, essential album for our times, or any time you want to get in touch with your rich Irish roots. It’s available on iTunes and other digital outlets.
Check out www.colmobrien.com for a list of tour dates.