I had banned myself from listening to Liam Ó Maonlaí’s album Rian because I was afraid I would play it to death. Since I bought it three or four years ago there was rarely a week went by when it wasn’t on my CD players, in the house and in the car, at least once a week, usually more often. After tonight’s gig at The Black Box it’s back on again and may be for a few days yet, although I think he only actually played one tune from it – the bódhran-driven Sadbh Ni Buruinnealadh.
There were more songs from his most recent solo album To Be Touched which I had bought with high expectations. I’d heard Ó Maonlaí live on John Kelly’s RTE Lyric FM show in November last year and he was doing some superb west African-style material, mixed in with Australian Aboriginal and Sean Nós influences. He had also made a documentary about a trip with uillean piper Paddy Keenan (formerly of the Bothy Band) to Mali.
I’d hoped this African/Sean Nós vibe with a bit of bódhran and whistle thrown in was the direction he was taking musically. However, To Be Touched turned out to be a series of self-penned songs, almost improvised or still gestating, with some backing from Glen (I’ve got an Oscar) Hansard and Market Irglova. It was alright but didn’t really grab me.
However, the songs from that album, including the title track, fared much better in the live setting – particularly the two he sang as Gaeilge – Siobhán Ní Dhuibhir and Amhrán na Féidireachta.
He opened with a Kerry air on the whistle before taking to the piano for a version of Dylan’s Forever Young, during which his microphone kept slipping lower and lower until his chin was almost touching the piano. Ó Maonlaí was then joined by double bass player Martin Brunsden for the most interesting piece of the night – a North African-style piece in which Ó Maonlaí played Irish harp. Sadbh Ni Buruinnealadh gave him a chance to show off his bare-handed bódhran skills before a short break.
For the second half he was joined by Cork singer/songwriter John Spillane, who for some reason I got it in to my head I didn’t really like and so didn’t even hurry to the gig to catch his opening set. I did see half an hour and realised that I needed to do a serious reassessment. That was reinforced in the final part of the show when Spillane and Ó Maonlaí, backed by bass-player Brunsden, got the floor vibrating with some almost punk-like renditions of of Gaeltacht favourites Oro Se do Bheatha Abhaile, Si Do Mhamo and An Poc ar Buile (in which Spillane managed to rhyme in the line I’ll fuckenkillya).
Both singers also took turns to slip in some of their own material with them finishing off with an almost inevitable rendition of Ó Maonlaí’s best-known song from his Hothouse Flower days – Don’t Go. Unfortunately they went after that. But what a night.