Rock O' the Irish

"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.

"Hmmm . . . " the publicist says. "Not exactly a hotbed of Irish festivities, is it?

EVERY FEW YEARS, American pop-radio listeners go on an intercontinental field trip. In 1981, sparked with a sudden fascination for Vegemite sandwiches courtesy of Men at Work's "Down Under," rock fans began clamoring for more music from Australia--and U.S. record labels delivered by signing Aussie bands by the truckful. Never mind that the highly touted "Aussie Invasion" produced only two other bands with lasting appeal, INXS and Midnight Oil. Without Men at Work's welcome mat, Americans may never have known the delights of "Crocodile" Dundee or Foster's Lager. Later, spurred to social consciousness by the USA for Africa single and Liveaid, Americans made a goodwill trip to the Dark Continent, along the way picking up a little Swahili from Paul Simon's Graceland and finally returning home to the tune of "Don't Worry, Be Happy," an only slightly African-rhythmed number rendered by the sly Bobby McFerrin in such a mannered voice it nonetheless sounded to many Middle American ears like the last Air Africa luggage carrier bidding them a carefree, guiltless journey back home to the land of plenty.

Presently, the nation's oldies stations are busy commemorating the 25th anniversary of the British Invasion, and rock fans, reminded of the fun in welcoming a wave of cheeky foreigners to our airwaves and concert stages, are looking off both coasts for the next Big Thing. At the moment, Ireland seems the most promising exporter.

U2, of course, is the new invasion's Fab Four. "It is, obviously, U2's success that has got people looking at Ireland's bands," admits O'Toole. "But there's always been good music in Ireland," he quickly adds. "U2's just got people focusing their attention on Ireland now and seeing what's happening here."

There's a feeling in Ireland that the eyes and ears of the pop-music industry are upon them. "All of a sudden," he says, "there's a load of good studios here now, a load of good rehearsal halls, and a lot of bands are getting their chance to get signed to really good British and American labels."

On Grafton Street, Dublin's hip shopping strip, where quaint red-brick shops display everything from Waterford crystal and delicate linens to smoked salmon, and the overcast atmosphere is filled with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and chocolatly dark beer, lines of Edge and Bono wanna-bes crowd the sidewalks with their guitars and upturned hats, hoping to be transformed into rock stars--or at least score enough Irish "punts" to buy a glass of stout.

"Dublin has become great for that in the past year," O'Toole says. "Suddenly, every evening there's loads of buskers playing. It's great. You just walk up and down Grafton Street listening to them all the time."

Some of the buskers are "real crazy people!" O'Toole admits. But the Dubliners don't mind them clogging up their most fashionable thoroughfare. "People in Ireland just love music," he says. "They go out every single night of the week to hear bands." And it's not just rock 'n' roll or loungey Top 40 they hear. "There's all types of traditional Irish music as well," O'Toole says. "Myself and Liam and Fiachna play Irish music. (In fact, the band's songwriting trio are pros on instruments like the bodran, the bouzouki, the mandolin and even the tin whistle--instruments they subtly employ behind the standard guitar, bass and drum tracks on their album.) And we still do some of that in the pubs. It's great: You go into a pub at night and you just pick up a mandolin or, if you have an accordion or something, you take that out and play. And a lot of that music is terrific. You can sit there playing all night and people will keep joining in . . . you meet a lot of people."

Indeed, part of the reason Irish rockers may be dragging their feet a little on this invasion thing is that most of them love their nurturing environment. The best thing about all those recording and rehearsal studios popping up around town, O'Toole insists, is that "now Irish bands don't have to move out of Ireland to survive. It used to be if an Irish band got good and wanted to get a record deal, they'd have to go to London and keep their fingers crossed with all the other hopefuls there. Now we can just stay here."

IT'S HARD FOR AMERICANS to understand what ties young Dubliners so tightly to their town, Peter O'Toole concedes. Yes, the unemployment rate there is at a desperate level, and many young people are either on the dole or hard drugs, or both. And yes, it's true the strife has made it quite difficult to drive through Ulster without getting your doors blown off by a rocket. ("The north of Ireland is a fantastic place," O'Toole says. "Unfortunately, there's a war going on there.")

But there's something about Ireland. "I understand the people here, they understand me, and it's home," he says. "This is where my family is, this is where I grew up, and I'd never live anywhere else. None of us would. Ireland is great. It's full of greenery, you're always very near the sea, there's loads of rivers. And it's quite cheap to live here."

The Flowers hope those who see them on this tour of the States will get a sense of their homeland. If not, O'Toole proposes a kind of Irish invasion in reverse.

"You should definitely come!" he exclaims. "Come over immediately! Then you'll understand."

Hothouse Flowers will perform at After the Gold Rush on Thursday, February 23. Show Time is 8 p.m.

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.

"It's great: You go into a pub at night and you just pick up a mandolin or, if you have an accordion or something, you take that out and play.

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