A night out with Liam Ó Maonlaí is a spiritual affair, and the intimate surroundings of this Lancashire arts centre proved perfect for our Dublin visitor, a sell-out crowd clearly there for a full-on music experience rather than casual chats with friends at the bar during the sets.
It’s not always the case that a performer, no matter how beguiling – and Liam certainly fits that description – can bring it right down at times and hear himself breathe and his keyboard hum, but this appreciative audience was happy to keep it buttoned until invited to join in, as befitting a live show in a former library.
An uplifting evening got off to a mellow start as local lad John Clayton, aka Hungry Bentley, shared all but one song from new platter, Exposition, his Nigel Stonier-produced long player reduced to sole voice and guitar, and going down a treat.
Openers ‘Don’t Frighten the Horses’ and ‘Loose Arrangement’ carried shades of Damon Gough, yet John’s not badly drawn on this evidence, and if next choice ‘Elodie’ was an exercise in writing a song about a girl and finding The Beautiful South have stolen many available names, he somehow got by, with hints of Lightning Seeds in places.
‘Alabama Chrome’ was a pared-back highlight, a pleasing chord sequence afforded Robert Forster-like quirk, and ‘Play Them as They Lay’ also impressed, John in namesake Lennon territory with a splash of Dylan thrown in.
While ‘Time is a Number’ also echoed Ian Broudie-esque melodic flair, closing number ‘Car in the Rain’ was more a pensive, precipitous nod to Justin Currie’s town where nothing ever happens, in what proved an apt precursor to the main guest’s opener.
It was the wet ride from Manchester that inspired Liam to treat us to ‘An Emotional Time’ on arrival, a brave decision given that the Songs from the Rain title track of sorts includes some taxing notes for a tonsil-warmer, the red wine yet to work its magic.
Soon the voice was soothed though, and so were we, next number ‘Sweet Marie’ transporting us to Home, Hothouse Flowers’ 1990 style, before the first of two borrowed love songs, Liam breezing from ’68 to ’78 through Bacharach and David’s ‘This Guy’s In Love with You’ (‘Probably gonna kill it,’ he warned, but it was never in doubt he’d deliver) to ‘a bit more vulnerable’ fellow classic, Dylan’s ‘Is Your Love in Vain?’ never more gorgeous, perfect for those wondrous vocals.
The day after Paddy Moloney’s passing, Liam talked of collective mourning at his loss, paying tribute to The Chieftains’ co-founder and ever-present as he was joined by special guest Jacquelyn Hynes for a fitting penny whistle (Liam) and flute (Jacquelyn) tribute, ‘Limerick’s Lamentation’.
From there we were back to 1993 and the Flowers’ third LP, the subtle power of ‘Your Nature’ providing an opening set finale that left hairs up on the back of necks before a call to replenish our glasses ahead of part two.
(As it turns out, 1993 was also the year – Jacquelyn later told me – ‘Limerick’s Lamentation’ featured on The Celtic Harp – A Tribute to Edward Bunting, The Chieftains (who previously featured the number on their 1977 Live! Album, although the first sound recording was by Sean O’Riada and Ceoltoiri Cualainn in the early ‘60s, including many Chieftains’ founding members, Paddy Moloney among them) joined by the Belfast Harp Orchestra (‘led by Janet Harbison, a great harpist’). But she added, “I learned it from Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill’s 1997 album, The Lonesome Touch”.)
If ever there was confirmation that neither the Flowers nor their frontman believe in the constraint of set-lists, here it was, a woman in the front row asking on Liam’s return the tale behind 2016 LP Let’s Do This Thing’s opener, ‘Three Sisters’, the main man happy to oblige, filling us in on a family story or two before playing the song, following that with another anecdote about one of those sisters and Liam and a brother, before taking us into – not related, I might add – a traditional number about ‘two brothers, and one of ‘em’s been poisoned’, ‘Amhrán na hEascainne’, or ‘The Song of the Eel’.
(Again, Jacquelyn filled me in later, telling me it was ‘recorded by Joe Heaney, a famous Sean nos singer from Connemara who recorded it in 1964 for On the Road to Connemara. The English version is ‘Lord Randall’, and there’s a version on Martin Carthy’s Anthems in Eden”.)
Liam described ‘Amhrán na hEascainne’ as a song of ‘collective pain’ and the blues in different form, and on this occasion it gave rise to a mighty bluesy romp, the Allman Brothers’ ‘Stormy Monday’ seeing a scene-stealing appearance from harmonica artisan Clive Mellor, miraculously appearing from the bar in another evening high, two years and four days after I last saw him work his magic on stage with Richard Hawley at Liverpool’s Mountford Hall. What that man can wring out of the humble mouth organ defies belief. He has true soul, and as he retreated back to his drink, a fella in front of me speculated out loud the chances of that unfolding in Penwortham on a Tuesday night. He had a point, but as Liam put it, there’s always that chance, underlining that by heading into ‘The Song of Possibilities’. At least I think so. I can’t seem to find mention of that out there. Someone’ll put me right, I’m sure.
I kind of lost my thread, notebook-wise, as we headed towards the finishing line, but Jacquelyn led the pair of them far away on her own composition, ‘Lost in Marrakesh’, on a night when we also got a snatch of Ian Dury’s ‘Clevor Trever’ from Liam, joking about his jealousy at actor brother Colm getting to meet the chief Blockhead on a film set back in the day.
And all along the way there was that amazing stage presence from the man at the electric piano, the slightest of facial expressions from our distinguished, hirsute visitor enough to raise a smile or garner attention, a cocked head to the cameraman and mere swish of that mane ensuring we ate from his hand. But time was soon against us, the volunteer staff looking anxiously at watches, a curfew almost upon us. Liam saw that and acknowledged he may need to finish on a hit, offering a sublime choice of ‘Don’t Go’, ‘Hallelujah Jordan’ or ‘This Is It’. A three-way split on that became four as a fella at the back with a Northern Irish accent chose ‘I Can See Clearly Now’. And so it came to pass that our visitor gave us something of a medley, a fresh take on the first Flowers’ hit including occasional tilts into Johnny Nash territory before ‘Hallelujah Jordan’ and a further visit to Nash-ville.
We sang along, then there were calls for more, but Liam drained his glass and pointed out the ‘anxious beautiful women behind the bar’ waiting to lock up. I was soon away, but not before a handshake with our esteemed visitor, 30 years after my last sighting in Sydney with the band who made his name. And how had I not realised he was barefoot before? To be fair, I’m not even sure he was touching the ground earlier. In fact, we were all floating at times on the power of song. Come again soon, Liam. And bring your friends back too.
For the recent WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Liam Ó Maonlaí and further links, head here. With thanks to Michael Porter for the photographs. You’ll find more examples of his work here. Thanks also to Jacquelyn Hynes for the extra information. Jacquelyn’s website is here. The same goes to John Clayton, aka Hungry Bentley, for his labours on the night. For more about Hungry Bentley and new LP, Exposition, head here.