After a break from concerts, governor marches again

Friday, June 19, 2009

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Photos by Cathey Allison
Gov. Martin O'Malley, left, founded O'Malley's March in 1988. Two members of the seven-piece band are fiddler Jim Eagan, center, and accordion player Sean McComiskey.

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Gov. Martin O'Malley plays guitar during an O'Malley's March concert.

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Photo by Cathey Allison
Gov. Martin O'Malley, the main draw and frontman for "O'Malley's March," has a response to critics who say he's the band's weak link. "If you want to know how I govern, take a look at my band," he said during a recent phone interview. "I try to surround myself with people that are more talented than I am."

In the basement recording studio of drummer Jamie Wilson, Gov. Martin O'Malley is just another guy in the band.

Please, boys, no courtesy titles: Martin will do just fine.

Here, in this Baltimore basement — from roughly 2007 to 2009 — O'Malley was able to take sporadic breaks from the workplace.

Here, his band, O'Malley's March, a Celtic rock group founded in 1988, worked on its fifth and latest album, "Galway Races," which was released in March.

"Playing in the band is part of who I am," a 37-year-old O'Malley told The Washington Post in 2000. He added, "It helps me become a whole person. When I come back [to my office] I have a fresher perspective for sorting out the tangled mess of politics."

A year before that, the band's lead singer, lyricist, guitarist and occasional tin whistle-ist had been elected mayor of Baltimore, and it was shortly after that political victory that O'Malley's March began to thrive, receiving prestigious gigs even as the mayor began to limit his musical engagements to one a month and as the outfit began to face certain artistic restraints. I mean, what if someone in a drunken St. Patrick's Day crowd saw the mayor drink, of all things … a beer?

A Washington Times reporter, as it happens, declared in 2000 that the buzz emanating from O'Malley's March was "building as fast as the foam on a frosty pint." And there was nary an article which forgot to mention a certain segment of the audience (all ages!) who were rather fond, shall we say, of the mayor's biceps bursting like tree trunks out of sleeveless muscle shirts. The main draw wore tight jeans, played his guitar over his head and exercised the First Amendment between songs with a level of loquaciousness political advisers are wont to frown upon.

So when it was time to make a run for governor, O'Malley's March, as we once knew it, came to an end. The band disbanded, as advisers feared it would detract from his image.

Hindsight proves, though, that the band did not really break up. Rather, O'Malley's March retreated, occasionally, to a basement in Baltimore, where a good audience for a recording session was a dog and a cat.

Often only a couple members of the seven-piece outfit could attend a session. After each one, then, CDs were shared and decisions were made. "In that virtual long distance, we spun the clay together and made the CD," O'Malley said during a phone interview.

He has called the album "an excuse to get together."

"The fact that we're all friends is why I enjoyed this latest project," O'Malley said. "Some people have friends they get together with and do bowling leagues, or they get together for games of cards. … We get together to play music."

Meanwhile, after all that work, it would seem natural for a band to want to expand its audience to human ears and perhaps sell a few albums. Even so, nowadays the band will mostly perform when a gig can blend into the governor's public schedule. Bars and rowdy dance halls will not be the preferred venues — that is, as long as Gov. comes before O'Malley.

His songwriting, as well, is on sabbatical: "One of the things that you give up when you become governor is any sort of solitude," O'Malley said, "and it is only in solitude and quiet that I have ever been able to write songs." It is also important, he added, that his constituents know he has his priorities straight. (The new album was criticized by James Pelura, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, for coming out at a time when the top news was the state's shrinking revenue.)

"Galway Races," unlike the band's 2000 release, "Wait for Me," — which O'Malley once called the group's "smash hit" — includes none of the governor's engaging original tunes (written from an Irish-American perspective), but solely a mix of old Irish numbers as well as covers by Steve Earle and The Saw Doctors. The band even performs Green Days' "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," although the punk band's 1997 hit, truth be told, is ill-suited for the band's style.

Better use of the governor's melodious tenor is evident in "Galway Girl," a happy, upbeat number with peppy accordion as well as trombone and tin whistle trading breaths. Earle wrote the song with Irish musician Sharon Shannon, and it provides an opportunity for the band to showcase a sound that's as eclectic as the original genre that inspired it.

Most of the bandmembers are multi-instrumentalists who have also played non-Irish music: The trombone-ist and tin whistle-ist on "Galway Girl," Jared Denhard, has also mastered the harp and highland pipes. Guitarist Ralph Reinoldi plays mandolin and bouzouki and also finds work with an acoustic rock band called Dharma Bums.

O'Malley said he sometimes listens to the Annapolis indie-alternative rock station, WRNR, and that his teenage daughters, Grace and Tara, keep him up to beat with modern music. He first heard the adaptation of "Good Riddance," however, while on a trip to Australia, and knew immediately it was a song he wanted to record.

O'Malley's favorite song on the new album, however, is Irish songwriter Wally Page's gentle, "So Do I," which the governor aptly describes as a "Celtic haiku" that connects the listener to the spirit of nature.

Following a day-long visit to Calvert County on June 19, O'Malley will head to St. Mary's County for opening night of the 11th annual River Concert Series.

According to the organizer of the series and conductor of the Chesapeake Orchestra, Jeffrey Silberschlag, the opening weekend will rise to the level of "circus maximus" in celebration of Maryland's 375th birthday.

Guests will include Scottish soprano Marie Claire Breen, trumpeter Andrew Balio of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and trumpeter John Wallace, who played at the marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales and Lady Diana. Maryland composer N. Lincoln-DeCusatis will debut a narrated symphony that tells the story of Maryland. O'Malley's March will then take the stage after A. Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "New World."

Backed by the Chesapeake Orchestra, O'Malley's March will perform three of the governor's original songs, including the title track from "Wait for Me," in which O'Malley imagines the journey of his great-grandfather, who emigrated from Ireland to the United States. In the recorded rendition, wailing bagpipes occasionally pierce through what sounds like a jingly early '90s rock band fronted by an Irish folksinger.

Will O'Malley's advisers allow him to trade his politicians' clothes for a muscle shirt before he takes the stage?

O'Malley laughed. "When you get older, it gets harder," the governor said. "I don't know if it's a case of advisers warning me to dress more conservatively or just physics, but I tend to look better with sleeves in my old age."

If you go

O'Malley's March will perform at the River Concert Series at 7 p.m. June 19. In celebration of Maryland's 375th anniversary, a second River Concert Series event, with fireworks, will be held at 7 p.m. June 20. The River Concert Series is held at St. Mary's College in St. Mary's City, and the Townhouse Green opens at 5 p.m. Bring a chair and blanket; picnic baskets and coolers are allowed. The free concerts will continue Fridays through July 31. Go to