Rock O' the Irish

Faith and Begorra! Is this another invasion we're havin'?

"Conquer America?"
Peter O'Toole ponders the phrase for a few moments, savoring its alluring bouquet, allowing the full breadth of its implications to settle, as any good

Irishman waits patiently for the creamy head to fall on a just-pulled pint of Guinness. There's a quiet echo on the London-to-Phoenix telephone connection delivering the voice of the 24-year-old Dublin-born musician to his American interviewer, and O'Toole hears his own repetition of the words one more time as he searches for a proper response.

He's heard lofty prognostications made before about his band, Hothouse Flowers, during the past year. Melody Maker, the respected British music magazine, praised the eclectic Irish quintet upon the release of its debut album, People, proposing that the band was perched "on the threshold of something huge." U2's Bono, who first saw the band members on an Irish television show and quickly hauled them into the studio to record their first single on U2's own Mother Records, gave the Hothouse Flowers their rock 'n' roll green card by proclaiming them "a masterpiece of a band."

But this question about the possibilities of the Flowers' "conquering America" on their current eight-week tour of the States--actually their second U.S. jaunt in the past four months--has O'Toole a wee bit thrown. It's not that the band's bass player and co-songwriter underestimates the Flowers' ability to win over U.S. audiences. "We've already been to 24 states in America," O'Toole says, "and our music's gone over very, very well."

It's just, well, the phrase itself. The idea of "conquering" any place sounds a little too militaristic for a young man who lives in a city only fifty miles south from an ongoing, violent civil war, and too calculating for a band whose relatively rapid rise from Dublin "buskers" (street musicians) to hot new Polygram recording artists owes more to the luck o' the Irish than the grand marketing schemes of any savvy management team. In fact, as O'Toole's quiet laugh suggests, the very concept of "conquering America" seems in itself a typically American conceit to this laid-back lad, whose city last year commemorated its 1,000th birthday with less hoopla than the U.S.A. accorded to the 60th birthday of a cartoon mouse.

"We just wanna go over again and see some of the places we haven't been to yet," O'Toole finally offers with just a touch of that lilting accent most Americans get to hear only from Boston bartenders or old priests. "We had loads of good times when we were over there last November. And we met loads of great people. That's really all we hope to do this time."

O'Toole's professed preference for pressing palms over stuffing pockets fits in with Hothouse Flowers' songs. "People" is the underlying theme of People, an album full of optimistic story-songs that underscores the value of simple human deeds: the challenge of being a loyal friend, the courage it takes to apologize for one's mistakes, the noble achievement of leaving one's neighborhood better than one found it.

These are Irish sensibilities, to be sure. Dublin is a peaceful, village-like place where one can always find a helping hand or a stranger to listen to his tale--if only to keep the conversation going, which Dubliners value almost as highly as their dark ale. But the simple notion that people are worth more than the sum of their possessions is, oddly enough, a very timely, almost hip outlook to display in America right now. George Bush issued a similarly kind and gentle appeal to altruism in his much-quoted Inaugural Address ("We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account"). And lead vocalist Liam O'Maonlai's impassioned vocals sound just enough like Bono's, and the band (O'Toole, O'Maonlai, guitarist Fiachna O'Braonian, sax player Leo Barnes and drummer Jerry Fehily) sounds just enough like U2, to make the Flowers' music instantly accessible to American ears. Maybe more so. Hothouse Flowers' sound is consistently more upbeat than U2's and heavier on the Stax-inspired soul--more grooving than brooding, more smile than guile.

Given all that, the road to success in the States appears pretty well paved. There's even been talk in U.S. rock magazines about an impending "Irish Invasion" led by U2 and followed close behind by the Flowers, the Waterboys and dozens of even newer bands.

Ironically, though, these invaders seem reluctant to attack. "It's true, timing is everything," says the band's U.S. publicist, Californian David Milman. "And right now, thanks to the mainstream success of U2, there's a big sudden interest in Irish bands. But I don't think the bands themselves are really thinking about capitalizing on that. It's more of a thing where a lot of Irish bands are getting together individually and having success here, by coincidence, collectively."

When it's pointed out to Milman that Hothouse Flowers will be hitting its stride on the U.S. tour just as the nation's Hallmark shops begin turning green with Saint Patrick's Day cards and Garfield leprechauns and America's bars begin pumping out the green beer, Milman confesses the inherent opportunities to cash in on that synergy had escaped him. "That's right!" he exclaims. "You know, I don't think anyone here even thought about that." Checking the band's itinerary, Milman skims down to the weekend of March 17 and discovers the Flowers will be celebrating our nation's biggest Irish holiday in . . . Nashville, Tennessee.

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