The Hudson Valley – and especially Ulster County – is home to a deeply entrenched expatriate Irish community that loves the music, dance and culture of the Emerald Isle. So it’s no surprise that the Irish singer and multi-instrumentalist Liam Ó Maonlaí has received a hearty welcome each time he has performed here over the past few years.
This time, the founder and lead singer of the Hothouse Flowers has scheduled a local mini-tour in advance of his appearance next week with Cassandra Wilson at the Irish Arts Center in New York City. But you don’t have to go there if you are free tonight through Sunday evening (though I’d wager a wee bet that you’ll be eager to travel to the City once you get a taste of him here). You have four upstate opportunities to hear Ó Maonlaí perform, beginning at 7 p.m. tonight at the Chocolate Factory in Red Hook, and in concerts through Sunday in Kingston, Woodstock and Gardiner.
Ó Maonlaí’s deep commitment to indigenous people and to the preservation of native languages and cultural expression starts close to home, in Ireland, where his beloved Gaelic language and culture are under siege. Bob McDonald, Gaelic teacher and program director for the Irish Cultural Center of the Hudson Valley (ICCHV), says, “Liam is very well-known as a rock ‘n’ roll musician, and he really connects with audiences through his singing, which he does in the Gaelic as well as English languages. He has a real stage presence and spreads mirth and good cheer wherever he goes. He plays rock piano like a master, then switches gears to jazz singing and then, for the crème de la crème, Liam is also a master of instrumentation. As a harp player, he brings music from ancient times to the present. His playing – and he can pick up almost any instrument and play it – is sublime, transcendent.”
His performances here are in alignment with causes and fundraising campaigns that are important to many people here – creating an Irish cultural center in Kingston, standing in support of the Native Americans at Standing Rock – and designed to spread awareness of the beauty of Irish dance and culture. Starting in the late 1980s as frontman for the Hothouse Flowers, Ó Maonlaí gained international acclaim and has subsequently released two recordings as a solo artist. His most recent projects include performing the songs of Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie in Irish Gaelic, and touring the world as musical director for dance performances. By all accounts, he’s a compelling and engaging musician.
On Thursday evening, Ó Maonlaí kicks off his tour in Red Hook with members of the Solas An Lae (SAL) American Irish dance school. In 1998, dancer Deirdre Lowry started a school for young dancers and a few years later, Patrick Brown came to work with her. The SAL dance company was established in 2006 and, says Brown, “We set out to create a performance extension for the school, which pushes the envelope for the possibilities of Irish dance. That’s why we call ourselves American Irish dance: because our training process includes ballet and traditional Irish dance. It’s not just step work and footwork, but rather involves the whole body. Deirdre draws on the versatility of movement and music.”
A SAL concert series on the third Sunday afternoon of each month was established three years ago as a training and performance platform for dancers to work on new routines and performance techniques. This concert with Ó Maonlaí is a very special event for the school and, says Brown, “We’re honored to be hosting Liam. He’s all over the map musically, and [exudes a sense of] timelessness and integrity that’s exciting. And yes, he’s very improvisational. When he arrives, we’ll have rehearsals with him, and have selected four or five pieces that are suitable, both lyrically and rhythmically, for dancers, which we’re hoping to collaborate with him on. His heart and soul really comes out when he’s playing traditional Irish music in the old style of sean-nós.”
On Friday evening, Ó Maonlaí performs at the Arts Society of Kingston (ASK)’s new upstairs gallery with dancers from the D’Amby Project and the T. McCann Band, a lively local group of gentlemen musicians, in a concert to benefit the ICCHV and its desire to build an Irish cultural center in Kingston. The D’Amby Project performed last summer at the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice and, says McDonald, “They wowed the audience. They were so graceful, athletic and rhythmic, and their costumes were striking. They really captured the imagination with kinetic energy, and the dancers are all cut from the same cloth as Leighann [Kowalsky, the director]. She moves with the grace of a lioness, and it’s thrilling to watch her dance students perform.”
McDonald, whose parents are both Gaelic-speakers, travels often to Ireland, Scotland and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where Gaelic is still spoken by the older generation. “For me, it’s a totally natural thing. The arts are as natural [in those areas] as breathing; it’s a very integrated society, including music, dance, sports and storytelling – not like here. I know a lot of people who happen to love Gaelic singing, and Liam did a beautiful evening of song the night I first met him,” he says, recalling an informal concert from a decade ago. Ó Maonlaí began coming to America for house concerts shortly thereafter, and has built up quite a base of local fans since then. “He is very caring and very supportive of indigenous speakers around the world, particularly of Native Americans, because Gaelic language and culture is under threat in his own country.”
At a benefit concert on Saturday evening, “Water is Life,” at the Woodstock Community Center, Ó Maonlaí headlines a concert to help sustain the presence of the International Indigenous Youth Council at Standing Rock in North Dakota, where water protectors are waging peaceful protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. He’ll be joined by vocalist Bethany Yarrow, cellist Rufus Cappadocia and local percussionist Joakim Lartey in a concert preceded by a presentation from Rachel Marco-Havens and representatives of Earth Guardians New York, who are working locally as well as in support of Native American and other resisters who are camped at Standing Rock.
Ó Maonlaí wraps up his Hudson Valley tour on Sunday at an “Amp It Up” benefit at the Yard Owl Brewery in Gardiner to raise construction funds for a new amphitheater at the Lenape Elementary School. The campaign to create a new 500-seat performance, education and gathering space for the entire New Paltz Central School District community was initiated by the Duzine/Lenape PTA. The new amphitheater will be an outdoor classroom, a school-based and public performance space and the setting for the annual fifth grade Moving Up ceremony. A VIP reception with Ó Maonlaí and Niall Connolly will be held at 4 p.m., with complimentary hors d’oeuvres, a Yard Owl craft brew and seating for the show.
Liam Ó Maonlaí/Conor Mac Diarmada/Solas An Lae American Irish Dance Company, Thursday, November 3, 7 p.m., $20/$10, SAL Dance Studio, Chocolate Factory, 54 Elizabeth Street, Red Hook; (845) 516-5130, www.solasanlae.com/home_1.html.
Liam Ó Maonlaí/Bethany Yarrow/Rufus Cappadocia/Joakim Lartey/Rachel Marco-Havens/Earth Guardians New York, “Benefit Concert: Water Is Life,” Saturday, November 5, presentation 6:15 p.m., concert 7 p.m., $25 donation, Mountainview Studio, 20 Mountain View Avenue, Woodstock; (845) 679-0901, www.mtnviewstudio.com.
Liam Ó Maonlaí, “Amp It Up” Benefit for Lenape School Auditorium, Sunday, November 6, reception 4 p.m., $85, show 5:30 p.m., $40, Yard Owl Craft Brewery, 19 Osprey Lane, Gardiner; (845) 633-8576, www.yardowlcraftbrewery.com.