The weirdly polarised people that sit either side of the weirdly polarised Jeremy Clarkson debate probably have weirdly polarised opinions about his favourite musicians, Hothouse Flowers. Regardless of your take on either, there’s no denying that the first ten minutes of The Grand Tour – which featured the band occupying a festival stage and blasting their 1990 cover of Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now into an unsuspecting Mojave Desert, has done Hothouse Flowers no harm whatsoever.
Truth be told, that’s why I’m at the Electric Ballroom tonight. Whilst I enjoyed The Flowers output in the late eighties and early nineties, were it not for that appearance and the subsequent upsurge in interest for the Dublin four-piece, I’ll be honest and say that this evening might have otherwise passed me by.
Owing to London’s most scenic car park the Marylebone Flyover being even less aptly named than usual (I really must stop thinking it’s OK to drive to Camden gigs), I managed to arrive at the Ballroom just in time to see flame haired support Lisa Lambe walk off stage. This was a great disappointment as YouTube suggests she is a singer with a phenomenal set of lungs and she certainly has an arresting presence. Another reason for missing her is that annoyingly, Saturday gigs here start ridiculously early to accommodate a 10.30 curfew and the club night that follows. Fortunately, as it turned out, her disappearance stage right was not my last view of Lisa this evening.
At around half past eight, the band takes to the stage. Engaging frontman Liam Ó Maonlaí starts leaping about, in exactly the manner one might expect of an artist bereft of the encumbrances offered by shoes and socks. It soon becomes clear why there are a lot of people in here tonight. Regardless of the comparative lack of commercial success in recent years, Hothouse Flowers are a phenomenal live band, Ó Maonlaí controlling the crowd as if they are on strings.
To his left, decked in black stands Fiachna Ó Braonáin, a guitarist of great talent who gives the band much of its soul. Stage right, Peter O’ Toole alternates between electric bass and mandolin, a smile never far from his lips. At the back, comparative newcomer Dave Clarke (he has only been in eighteen years) keeps the sound moving like a freight train with an urgent unloading appointment to keep. The band are joined on stage for live performances by Martin Brunsden on double bass.
Hothouse Flowers do have a new album, Let’s Do This Thing, though it’s currently only available as a paid download from their website. Given the reliance on streaming services as a means of consuming music these days, it’s perhaps understandable that the older stuff got the best reception tonight. From around half way through, Lisa Lambe reappeared; at times, hugging O’ Toole’s stage right mic; at times (Love Don’t Work This way) occupying Ó Maonlaí’s central position. The overwhelming feeling was of a band very comfortable in its own skin – especially when they embarked on one of several extended jams. There were times when I started to wonder whether the 10.30 curfew I’d read about was actually on Sunday morning.
The encores were a delight. I Can See Clearly Now had the whole crowd singing and ensured the Top Gear fans went home happy. “We’ll see you soon”, said Ó Braonáin, shortly before walking off and reappearing 45 seconds later to close with Feet On The Ground. He wasn’t kidding. The only surprise was that Don’t Go, unquestionably the band’s biggest worldwide hit, wasn’t played. Perhaps they grew to hate it. REM never played Shiny Happy People after all. And with that, the lights came up. Verdict: excellent, and if you get the chance to go, go.
A special mention needs to be made for the crowd tonight, who were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered at a show. The group within which I was embedded was universally Irish and consumed pints faster than they could reasonably be poured. They even offered to buy them for me (cheers Barry, but I had my hands full). If this demographic was repeated across the venue, I’d imagine there were a few gloomy looking publicans in Kilburn and Clapham last night.
Live Review & Photography by Simon Reed. Hothouse Flowers at The Electric Ballroom Camden on 18th March 2017.
Simon has his own music photography site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk