Hothouse Flower Power
About fifteen minutes outside Belfast, Hothouse Flowers’ van comes upon one of Northern Ireland’s makeshift military blockades. It is one o’clock in the morning, and the Dublin group — whose first record, 1988’s People, was the most successful debut in Irish history — is returning home from a particularly joyous gig. Now, with a soldier approaching, the mood in the van has turned tense. “Here we go,” the driver says, fishing around for identification.
Fortunately, after a few terse preliminaries, it becomes clear that the soldier recognizes the band. “Where have you been playing?” he asks Liam O’Maonlai, the group’s soft-spoken twenty-five-year-old singer and pianist.
“The Belfast Opera House,” O’Maonlai tells him.
“How was it?”
O’Maonlai grins and shakes his head. “You should have been there,” he says.
It’s true. Tonight, in one of the first shows of a worldwide tour for their second album, Home, Hothouse Flowers played for two and a half hours to a more or less perpetual standing ovation. The stage itself — dominated by three psychedelic-patterned platforms — gave the whole affair the look of a Sixties TV show. The music, however, bridged several decades: Celtic soul à la Van Morrison and rock & roll à la Bruce Springsteen, as well as strains of traditional Irish music, country and gospel. A barefoot O’Maonlai played a vigorous kick-the-stool-over kind of piano and, with twenty-four-year-old guitarist Fiachna O’Braonain, ventured into the crowd to whip up some house-shaking call and response. For a night, the opera house — an ornate wedding cake of a building — looked a lot like a Baptist church.
Now, as the van moves away from the blockade, O’Maonlai says, “The North is a special place to play. Bands just don’t play there as regularly as they do the rest of the country, because it’s got a name for being a violent place. So the people are starved, in a way.”
Asked how he had felt staying in a Belfast hotel that has been repeatedly bombed in recent years, O’Maonlai says, “If I drown, I drown. If I’m shot, I’m shot. It’s pointless worrying about it.” He pauses, then goes on: “In America, people come up and try to get on my good side by saying, ‘Are you Protestant or Catholic?’ They wait for me to say, ‘Catholic,’ and then they launch into their pro-IRA bit. Now I just say, ‘I’m not telling you, because I’m not getting involved. Nobody’s right anymore.’ “
O’Maonlai is quiet for a moment. Drummer Jerry Fehily, who’s sitting in the back of the van and listening to a tape of tonight’s concert on his Walkman, takes the opportunity to tease him about getting carried away during the show. ” ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ was a quarter of an hour long, Liam,” he says, rather loudly. “Pure wank.”
O’Maonlai smiles. “Yeah, that’s a nice one,” he says. “I like to let that one go on a bit.”
By three o’clock in the morning, the last of the Flowers — who also include bassist Peter O’Toole, 25, and jazz-trained saxophonist Leo Barnes, 34 — have been dropped off at their homes in Dublin. It is here that, after a year of college, O’Maonlai and O’Braonain began working as street musicians in 1985. They had met as children in a Gaelic-speaking school — the pair still occasionally converse and give interviews in the ancient language — where they studied, among other things, traditional folk instruments. (Hothouse Flowers’ arsenal includes bouzouki, mandolin, tin whistle and the bodhran, a goat-skinned drum.)
Performing on the street as the Incomparable Benzini Brothers, O’Maonlai and O’Braonain were soon joined by Peter O’Toole, who had left school at sixteen and gone on to deliver bread, make fiddles and work as a lumberjack. “We’d been in the same band before,” O’Toole says of O’Maonlai, “but we’d never actually met. It was that sort of band — there were loads of people.”
Of the Benzini Brothers’ sidewalk set, O’Braonain says, “We just did a lot of bad songs, and we used to do dances. We did an antismoking song. We did a very fast, manic version of ‘Kansas City.’ I think most of what we did was quite fast and manic. When we forgot the lyrics, we’d just get everybody to sing along. It was a brilliant summer.”
Before long, the Benzini Bromers had won a street-entertainer award, and Hothouse Flowers was formed. (The band would soon be singled out by Rolling Stone as “the hottest unsigned band in Europe.”)
“In September,” O’Braonain says, “I went back to school with a heavy heart. I didn’t go to any lectures or tutorials, and it was drawn to the attention of the deans. So I went in, and they gave me a two-year leave of absence, which was great. I felt quite funny, though. You know, ‘I’m sorry I haven’t gone to any of my lectures, but I’m in a rock band.’ “
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