Hothouse Flowers | Review

Holywood Harmony Festival 

Hothouse Flowers supported by The Nat Youle Band and Ciaran McElhinney

Photos & Words: Michael Barbour

There’s a much bigger crowd in the festival marquee on Saturday night for the visit of Dublin’s very own Hothouse Flowers. In my experience, The Eurovision Song Contest gave us two totally memorable experiences and the Hothouse Flowers’ appearance at half-time in 1988 performing “Don’t Go” was one of these. Naturally Abba doing “Waterloo” in 1974 was the other – don’t judge me; it’s a sign of my age.

The band were already making some serious waves in Irish music before that, but in 1988 they made a big impression on me and a few million other people. Their debut album (also released in 1988) made Number 1 in the Irish charts and Number 2 in the British charts. They’ve kept working and recording since, apart from a couple of sabbaticals during the mid and late 1990’s and retain a fairly substantial following within the island of Ireland and outside of it. They released their most recent album “Let’s Do This Thing” in November last year and it’s well worth a listen.

Belfast-based singer/songwriter Ciaran McElhinney opens proceedings with a nicely-judged cover of Mark Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” and proceeds to give us a mix of original material and covers. “Little White Crimes” stands out from Ciaran’s own material and covers of a couple of Waterboys and Thin Lizzy tracks go down well with the early evening audience.

Next up are The Nat Youle Band and again it’s a mix of covers and original material. This is more middle-of-the-road fare with a very definite alt-country feel at times and it’s not too challenging for the audience. Nat Youle has a big voice and it fills the tent as more people arrive. Some of the covers work better than others for me; “Sweet Child of Mine” is a bit weird when given this kind of treatment but Bonnie Raitt’s “Angel From Montgomery” is much more suited to Nat’s voice. The original songs are done well but the crowd love the covers and the band leave the stage to loud applause.

The Hothouse Flowers hit the stage next and the sheer energy is something to behold. Liam Ó Maonlai is a dervish on stage and the band launch into Nina Simone’s “See Line Woman” with a passion. We’re treated to high kicks, collapsing microphone stands and the crowd buy into it very quickly.

Love Don’t Work This Way” is delivered as a high-octane soul/funk number with upright bass and electric bouzouki.

The songs seem to go on forever and Dave Clarke on drums is the heart of the band’s sound – driving everything but never getting in the way of the music. At times, Peter O’Toole puts down his electric bouzouki and adds a second (electric) bass to the mix producing a heavier and punchier sound. Liam alternates between vocals, keyboard and acoustic guitar, never staying still.

Liam leads the crowd in a sing-a-long version of “I Can See Clearly Now” and then segues this into “Don’t Go.” They didn’t keep this to the end as many other bands would have done and I’m struggling to describe the version they performed. A rumba (or maybe carribean) rhythm gets the crowd dancing before they realize what the song is. When they figure it out, the place erupts. This keeps up for a good twenty minutes, although there was a rather bizarre interlude in the middle when Liam picked up a harp and the band stopped playing. It’s fair to say that a lot of the crowd didn’t know what was happening at this point and the noise and chatter drowned out whatever it was that the band were attempting to do. Suddenly Liam was singing Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” and then we were back into the chorus of “Don’t Go” and the crowd are back to being happy, dancing and joining Liam in a call-and-response. That was pretty much it for the evening; a couple of encores and even a chance for Mari Jackson (festival organizer) to join the band on stage and duet with Liam on her own “Holywood Song.”

Up to this evening, I had found some of the music programming to be a little odd but it has to be said that The Hothouse Flowers were the right band on the right night for the right audience.

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