There is a pub halfway up the Rathmines Road that has changed name many times over the years. It has now become a live music venue. I first became aware of this when I noticed that none other than Lee Scratch Perry was due to play a stone's throw from my flat. The Upsetter proved to be too popular and his show was moved to a bigger venue, but on Thursday I got to check the venue out.
On the bill were Liam O Maonlaí, musical genius best known as the singer of the Hothouse Flowers, and Rónán Ó Snodaigh, founder member of Kíla. These descriptions do not at all do them full justice. Both men also work as solo artists and collaborators in numerous musical projects. Rónán teaches the bodhran and has recently started a Tuesday night trad session with Eoin Dillon at Whelans (see 'Call The Dancers'). I first became aware of Liam when the wonderful video for 'Don't Go' was shown at the 1988 Eurovision, and I have recently seen him play churches, either solo on a church organ or with his other band Ré.
Both men were active in the Grafton Street busking scene in the 80's alongside Glen Hansard and Mic Christopher amongst others. They are Gaeilgeoirs (Irish speakers) and the advert for the show described them as musical shamans, druids even! I did not know what to expect of the collaboration but was sure it would be fascinating.
The show took place on Holy Thursday and the venue was packed and lively. On Good Friday the pubs would stay closed, so folks seemed bent on living it up. Support came from David Keenan, a young singer/songwriter from Dundalk. I was struck by his confidence. David has a strong voice, not unlike Liam, sometimes sounding like Damien Dempsey. The songs he sang were all his own and I particularly liked one about James Dean. Though he was unknown to me he had a fan base in attendance that was seated near me.
Liam O Maonlaí is a multi-instrumentalist, but for this show he concentrated on the piano, besides a short stint on the bodhran and some frantic African-style dancing (impressive for a man the far side of 50). Rónán stuck to the bodhran, of which he is a master, plus one song on a tiny guitar. The varied set included some Hothouse Flowers songs ('Movies', 'Feel Like Living') and some Kíla ones ('Dúisigí' and 'Cathain'). Both men have recorded 'Cathain' and they sang this together in breakneck speed Irish, which sounds very exotic to my ears.
An early highlight was a highly original cover version of Talking Heads' 'Once In A Lifetime'. Many of the songs turned into long jams, with tribal percussion and improvised singing. There were some traditionals too – 'Carrickfergus' and 'Bean Pháidín'. Rónán sang a song in English for a fallen friend. I very much like his unique voice, but I do somehow think he sounds better singing in Irish, perhaps because I am more used to hearing him sing that way.
The atmosphere in the packed pub was fantastic, as the beer kept flowing and the crowd kept calling for more. The show ended with Liam leading the crowd; something he is so good at and which I have seen him do on a number of very different occasions (at the Festival of World Cultures, at Glen Hansard's traditional Christmas Eve busk in Grafton Street). He manages to get everyone on board, not just the trad cognoscenti. And it was not an easy song we sang either. He got the entire pub to sing several verses of the 'Lakes Of Pontchartrain'. It was a truly magical moment.
If you ever get the chance to see these druids collaborate, do not miss it!