Houthouse Flowers frontman Liam Ó Maonlaí thrilled audiences throughout New York last week in small and intimate gigs. He even surprised Joe Hurley and the Gents who were in the middle of their annual Irish Rock and Soul Revue at Joe’s Pub when Ó Maonlaí hopped onstage and mesmerized the crowd.
“I have a whole generation of old friends that made a life for themselves over here, so it’s been really great to reconnect with them,” he says of this mini-tour that found the legendary musician playing pubs, clubs, and house parties.
“I just realized I could,” Ó Maonlaí says when asked what inspired him to come over for such an unorthodox tour. “My stepbrother Ruari got a request to play a big show in Brooklyn, which was enough to pay my way over.
“So he got me two shows and I thought I’d call some of my friends and fans here and on the West Coast to see if there were other places I might play, and these were people that could make things happen. That’s what was so cool about this experience: I found that this pioneering spirit is very much alive and well here in the States.
“You call someone, create an event with three weeks notice and they will just run with it. Whereas elsewhere that might cause nervousness. I love how Americans see the opportunity and not the problems with doing something like this.”
Ó Maonlaí is an ancient Celtic soul in a 46 year-old’s body, and this gypsy-like existence where everything happens on the seat of its pants has boosted the creativity in his shows.
He plays where and when he wants nowadays, and that spirit has him paired with Glen Hansard’s Swell Season tour and on selected dates with Rónán Ó Snodaigh of Kilá.
“When you’re in a band, everything is just managed for you,” he says. “You get sheltered and defenseless. When you need to pay your rent, you can make a call, negotiate a price for a gig and just go out and do it.
“I find it hugely liberating. You exist on the kindness of strangers and then you give that back onstage when you see that faces. I consider myself very lucky and very grateful to have this support. It gives me great joy.”
The joy of music making was evident last Friday night when he set up shop at St. Stephen’s Green House in Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey, a patch of Jersey Shore nicknamed the Irish Riviera (handily, the pub is a bike’s ride to my house!)
On this Friday night, half the crowd didn’t even know about the legend in their midst. They were more concerned with the March Madness festivities blasting from big screens at the bar.
Ó Maonlaí quietly strode to the microphone, prepared to do battle with the basketballers with nothing more than a tin whistle. He started playing “The Old Bush” from his excellent traditional solo album Rian from a few years back.
He then picked up a bodhran and in strong voice shouted out the lyrics of a powerful Gaelic poem.
One by one, the sports fans peeled their way from the television to watch one of the most charismatic Irish performers taking in air at the moment.
Ó Maonlaí’s set was one of the most spellbinding musical moments I have witnessed so far this decade, plain and simple. He re-worked the trad ditty “Lilly of the West” and framed the lyrics to have that melody carry a love story on Lake Pontchartrain, a brackish estuary located in southeastern Louisiana.
From there, he zig-zagged from a Nina Simone song to Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now,” a brilliant pub singalong if ever there was one!
With the next few tunes, he took it to church with a jaw-dropping read of Bob Dylan’s gospel masterpiece “I’m Pressing On.”
“I’m pressing on to the higher power of the Lord,” he wailed, rescuing the spirituality of this St. Patrick’s Day from the boozy suds of this little bar.
Ó Maonlaí’s read of Van Morrison’s obscure “The Master’s Eyes” from A Sense of Wonder was a religious experience.
For any of you kicking yourselves that you missed these shows (and you should!), Ó Maonlaí will return in November when he brings a new show to Lincoln Center. It is a performance piece based on his album Rian.
“Michael Keegan Dolan of Fabulous Beast Productions worked with me on it,” he says. “He does this really good, energetic, thought-provoking stuff. He’s wanted to get in touch with his own Irish roots for a long time.
“We worked for two months with eight dancers and five musicians. We made 105 moves and made this two-hour show. It’s really good.
“It had its Dublin Theater Festival debut last October and went to London as well. We start up in May. We are taking it to Australia, Germany, Cork, England, and Sweden before New York. People at Lincoln Center are really happy with it.”
Described as “one of the most daring and highly original dance theater companies in the world” by The London Times, Fabulous Beast collaborated with Ó Maonlaí, drawing inspiration from Rian, which means “mark” or “trace” in Irish.
Rian the show is a celebration of Ireland’s roots and traditions. Performing to Ó Maonlaí’s beautiful score, which mixes Celtic sounds with elements of world music, Keegan-Dolan and the cast of eight dancers and five musicians (including Ó Maonlaí himself) tap into Irish traditions with influences from across the globe.
Ó Maonlaí closed the show with “Don’t Go,” his signature tune from his Hothouse Flowers days about losing a friend in a freak motorcycle accident. It was a sparse arrangement tickled on an electronic piano on this night, allowing the singer to howl in a pain that still seemed raw all of these years later.
He’s cautiously optimistic that the band that made him famous will launch something in the near future.
“We’re really starting to inch closer to making another record,” he says of Hothouse Flowers. “I think its time we did. You just have this feel that everyone is ready and not too busy with other things at the moment. I just keep doing my own thing, and when the calls come through for the Flowers, I can make it work.”
One of the biggest thrills of the night is to see a masterful musician play music for the love of music itself.
“I feel victorious in my life because I get to do what I do,” he says.
Seeing him live in such an intimate setting made us all feel a bit victorious!