Despite being a live unit for almost 25 years there are no indications that Hothouse Flowers are about to succumb to the role of complacent elder statesmen of Irish Rock, chiming out the tried and tested on auto-pilot. As exemplified on this particular evening in the Alley, there is still no certainty as what Liam Ó Maonlaí and Fiachna O’Braonain will do next. The Hothouse Flowers take their audience around the world, with the musical styling changing not just from one song to the next but, at times, from one verse to the next.
Tonight, they took Strabane to the Afro-American Gospel Halls of the South, and then hitched a ride with Muddy Waters to Blue Chicago after finding some African Roots in classics standards like ‘Your Love Goes On’ and ‘Don’t Go’. At the heart of this trans-global two hours, twenty minutes was an unmovable Celtic Soul that only reinforced just how sweet a thing it is when music travels, marries and merges. Ultimately, there are only two kind of music: good and bad, and this was damn good stuff!
The mood was set with epic opener ‘Isn’t It Amazing’, which immediately accommodated for Ó Maonlaí’s love for building a song from a subtle beginning to something anthemic and rousing. Appreciation was unanimous, with the audible seal of approval from Ó Maonlaí’s three-year-old daughter, Pema (meaning Lotus) from the balcony enough for the man himself. Pema later took to the stage herself and sat on daddy’s knee during ‘Better Man’, a lovely moment between father, daughter and the audience.
As ever, Ó Maonlaí managed to make scruffy look stylish: barefoot and dressed in a manner that would see the rest of us told to “move along”; the open shirt and long overcoat fitted him like a glove. He looked every inch the rock star poet, like a vagabond in the gutter forever looking at the stars. Only he can pull it off and he does it well. Besides, it was his birthday; he could wear what he liked!
A tale of being arrested for “minor grevious bodily harm” preceded “It’ll Be Easier In The Morning”, scaled down but no less powerful than it was in its 1989 carnation on the band’s ‘People’ album. A beautiful version of ‘Sweet Marie’ had couples snuggling up, which was a bit odd considering it’s a song about the breakdown of a relationship in the Dylan ‘Blood In The Tracks’ mode.
Snuggling to ‘Dear John’ letters done, it was then time to dance! Audience members got up off their seats for ‘This Is It’, as Ó Maonlaí swooned and swooped like a gentleman in need of a lot of room on a dancefloor. ‘Forever More’ and ‘You Can Love Me Now’ illustrated how the absence of the studio choir matters very little when you’ve got Ó Maonlaí and O’Braonain filling in with harmonies to raise any roof. The band got playful again on ‘Your Love Goes On’ with pop, trad and reggae breezing along together. This continued with the African-tinged rendition of ‘Don’t Go’, much to the delight of the dancing audience.
In the midst of the party, the Flowers’ penchant for risk perhaps went to step too far as the joyful ‘Don’t Go’ was stopped abruptly only for the band to venture into what could be best described as a long winded extended moment of progressive rock. It was obvious that it was going to kick back into ‘Don’t Go’ eventually but the momentum of the slightly bewildered audience wasn’t the same come its return.
Come the encore and all was forgiven as the Traditional Irish roots of the Flowers came to the fore with ‘Cailleach an Airgid’. A foot stomp resonated around the Alley as tin whistles and bodhráns and Irish dancing graced the stage. The set was closed with the very wonderful ‘Hallelujah Jordan’, as the Flowers, after taking us around their catalogue – and the world – for over two hours, took us back to the beginning – a journey worth taking time after time.
Published with the kind permission of N. Flatman of the Alley Theatre Strabane.
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