Concert review: Flogging Molly

molly

Lifestyle Communities Pavilion, Columbus, OH – June 29, 2015

I first saw Celtic punk standard-bearers Flogging Molly, appropriately enough, a little over a decade ago, with a dear friend in a packed tent at Dublin, Ohio’s annual Irish Festival. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The Dublin Irish Fest is a fairly big deal in the outer ‘burbs of Columbus, having grown over the years into a sprawling operation now claiming seven separate music stages, many hundreds of scheduled performers and tens of thousands of expected attendees. In the late days of July, the Fest shuts down or redirects with extreme prejudice approximately 5-6 blocks of a lower upper-class neighborhood within whimsical, (just barely) figurative spitting distance of the building in which I used to work. Even in humbler days, whenever Molly headlined – or, let’s be honest, closed down – the Irish Fest, the resulting logistical clamor was sufficient to bring the rest of the operation to a standstill. So it went that the first time I ever saw Flogging Molly, I didn’t even actually get into the tent, merely stood amongst the overflow traffic and stared blankly through one of the side entrance flaps. Craning my own head to see around all the cunningly placed human obstructions, and also to accommodate my limited viewing window, I still had a good look at bassist Nathan Maxwell, chugging away, caught several partial glimpses of ace multi-instrumentalist Bridget Regan, and…wait, is that an accordionist? The up tempo music bled together for me in short order, but it was still enough to make a positive impression, and to make me feel it might be worthwhile to dig further into the band. I’m really glad I did. I still remember that old chestnut of conventional wisdom about the Ramones springing immediately to mind: “They may have only had one song, but damned if it wasn’t terrific.”*

*I’d assert that the Ramones, in reality, had about four songs (or was it merely tempos?): 1) the default hard-charger (“Blitzkrieg Bop”, “Rockaway Beach”), 2) the occasional overdriven hard charger (“Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment”, “I’m Against It”), 3) the highly tweaked rock anthem (“Teenage Lobotomy”, “Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio?”), and 4) the off-speed pitch (“Beat on the Brat”, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”). Type #1, of course, covers roughly 70% of the band’s recorded output, and, as advertised, is unassailably great, no apologies or qualifications necessary. Flogging Molly transcended thoroughly my early tone-deafness and eventually revealed a solid, let’s say, eight songs. Plus the band is secure and established enough now to be able to periodically emerge from the lab with a ninth style in tow, as on “The Power’s Out”, a knockout, Springsteen-worthy combination lament/howl of defiance from an unemployed protagonist that was the unequivocal best thing on otherwise spotty 2011 album “The Speed of Darkness”.    

The next year, my friend returned to Columbus along with Flogging Molly (they arranged separate transportation), and we again headed for Irish Fest, this time squeezing our way into the swarthy middle of a similarly full but unmistakably larger headlining tent. I’d spent the interim between fests boning up on my Flogging Molly knowledge, and what a difference that year made. The band that had once seemed to me energized but unfocused, charming but indistinct, now owned the stage in full, a gang of seven dressed in brown and grey $60 suits, confidently plying its infectious trade. Frontman/songwriter/ringleader Dave King is himself an authentic Irish outlander wielding dual citizenship, and a gregarious, magnetic figure on stage, even if, with his ginger, sub-Eraserhead coif of hair, middle-aged paunch, and awkward but committed strutting outbursts, he makes a fairly unlikely rock star. To his immediate right, typically dressed in black and focused to a fault, is his wife Bridget Regan, whose gymnastic fiddle and tin whistle throughlines impart upon every song a shared larger identity and, very often, render them airborne. Regan’s presence as its musical foundation makes Flogging Molly one of the very few legit rock and roll bands to philosophically defer to any instrument other than guitar, though there’s still guitar a-plenty seasoning its sonic stew. If the prior year’s engagement had left me intrigued but wanting, my second impression was the real eye-opener. I became a fan then and there, under the sweaty tarp, and have eagerly followed Molly ever since as she’s flogged a colorful procession of venues, including an MLS soccer stadium. No matter how many were ever watching, or where, or, occasionally, in what kind of torrential rain, the band deployed its gift for making even the grandest gathering feel like an Irish house party.

It’s what keeps the fans coming back, this implied sense of community and instilled feeling of intimacy. It’s what brought me to the L.C., as it had so many times before. I know people, a great many in fact, who, seemingly on principle, refuse to rewatch a movie, even a great one, once they’ve seen it. Perhaps their time is too precious, or the aesthetic and emotional benefits of daydreaming too fleeting or undefined. And though one could argue music is not merely intended but engineered to be listened to multiple times, you can forget about them seeing a specific act in concert more than once. One evening of memories is not only sufficient to last a lifetime, apparently, it neatly encapsulates everything useful or interesting or entertaining this artist will ever do. It’s kind of amazing they went at all, frankly. Such notions, of course, run counter to much of the childhood programming, learned at the feet of HBO and MTV, plus years of enthusiastic video piracy, that still inordinately influences my thinking today, and many touring musicians worth their salt spend their careers systematically debunking like nonsense through the power of individual, nightly examples to the contrary. I understand intellectually why the news that I have seen Flogging Molly at least twelve (and probably more) times in my life** might involuntarily cross the hearer’s eyes or furrow his or her brow irrevocably. Shows cost time and money, after all, and didn’t you already see that band before? I’d feel like countering with a respectful, slightly snarky question of my own, just as tactfully asked: The first time you ever experienced a wonderful emotion, was it enough for you? Think of something you love. Whether you happened to be at the head of a rollercoaster or the foot of an altar, maybe witnessing a glorious sunrise, or a breathtaking view, or watching your baby laugh, or just cruising down a moonlit street in perfect weather, windows down, music bumping…did you know at that beautiful moment that you could never feel this way again and would yet be satisfied forever? Not simply grateful, I mean, but utterly satisfied? Yeah, me neither.

**Basically every time the band has hit town in the past decade, with one heartbreaking exception I’ll do you the favor of keeping to myself. Enough times that I’ve lost proper count, at any rate.

Some eighteen years into the game now, and as reliable (and, occasionally, invigorating) as that sunrise, Flogging Molly’s default musical posture remains that of a green-hued, double-time sonic whirlwind, with Regan’s dexterous, evocative fiddle at the center and the band’s clever, full-bodied instrumentation (bass, drums, punk guitar, acoustic guitar, accordion, banjo) swirling around it. Lyrically, I’ve described the band more than once as blue collar punk romanticism with a heavy Irish brogue. It’s the sort of music that just grabs hold of me emotionally, shakes and spurs me forward, and doesn’t let go, though to paraphrase King, “surely, would I want that?” This latest show was a winning deployment of almost everything that makes FM a superlative live band, a mixture of tried and true fist-pumping anthems (the stirring “Requiem for a Dying Song”, the driving “Drunken Lullabies”, with its indelible banjo intro), bouncy, rubbernecked shout-alongs (the deliriously aimless “Swagger”, the rollicking Irish wake of “The Likes of You Again”), and contemplative pseudo-ballads (the wistful, lovely “Whistles the Wind”, the determined “Float”), plus allowances for a surprise or two, even at this late date. Opener “Screaming at the Wailing Wall” made a welcome return to the live rotation after what seemed a lifetime away, as did the insubordinate Catholic school boy manifesto “Rebels of the Sacred Heart”. The soaring deep cut “Kilburn High Road” appeared for the first time in my encylcopedic, though, admittedly, increasingly clouded, concert-going memory. The band brought out a member of opener Mariachi El Bronx to play trumpet on “Revolution,” and even unveiled a new song, the slow burning but rewarding “Guns of Jericho”, from its forthcoming 2016 album.

At center stage, Dave King, though sheer force of personality, ensures that every show is a righteous celebration, or, if you prefer (and I do), a self-contained mini-Irish Fest. His warmth and fervor is not a feature of Flogging Molly’s set that tends to vary from night to night. King’s childhood roots in the far more famous Dublin remain the band’s prevailing influence, and the worldview he crafted there as a young Irishman coming of age in a war torn but historic and still almost mystically beautiful homeland, however filtered it might have come to be through years of living in America, makes all the difference when comparing Molly to fellow worthy pugs like, say, Boston’s Dropkick Murphys. When King sings an early FM song like “Black Friday Rule” or “Life in a Tenement Square”, it has an effortless ring of extra authenticity that trickles down to and informs the band as a whole, which is comprised otherwise of American wanderers that just so happened to regularly congregate in the same Los Angeles dive bar (Molly Malone’s) back in the mid-late ‘90s. That feeling of camaraderie is something the band has carried and fed off its entire career, and in a room of like minds, the good vibes are contagious. Relating the story of his recent Facebook interaction with a disparaging fan in the wake of the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling and the seeming subsequent recasting of 75% of all social media pictures in the colors of the rainbow, including, apparently, FM’s profile pic, King railed, “haven’t you ever read a Flogging Molly lyric? We’re about freedom for everyone!” then flipped the former fan a helpful parting bird before moving on to the next song. Part of Molly’s success (and charm) musically lies in its ability to imbue even the most taut or melancholy subjects with the breath of life still clearly and defiantly in the process of being lived.

To that end, the main set closed perfectly, to the concussive cannonfire of “Devil’s Dance Floor”, with its slippery tin whistle lead, and the boisterous “rockers as pirates” fantasy, “The Seven Deadly Sins”, which left the crowd raw-throated and breathless from cheering. Somehow, the encore upped the ante. Longtime climactic staple “What’s Left of the Flag” begins as a mournful meditation on the loss of King’s father, and, in part, his own Irish heritage, yet springs to life with kick drum hits as “the rosary beads – count them, 1, 2, 3 – fell apart as they hit the floor” and Dennis Casey’s guitar volleys chart a raucous, messy, yet no less affecting path forward. The encore’s second song, the joyous, hopeful “If I Ever Leave This World Alive” was the night’s loudest front to back singalong, if hardly its first, and sent the crowd home on an organic high note. To the degree that any song which, by coincidence/happy accident, might well end up among the most played funeral remembrances of my generation (when its time comes) can be lauded for its rich, life-affirming qualities, with no weirdness or push/pull tension to speak of, this was it. This is it. Fans just long to be a part of that feeling, that community, that swelling mass chorus, and they long to do so again and again, as I have, as I did, and as I will again. If, in the end, there exists little to differentiate, or elevate, a truly exceptional Flogging Molly concert from the comparative also-rans, it’s not because the band lacks greatness, but rather, conversely, because it delivers the goods so lustily, thoroughly, and dependably. I ask you: who in his or her right mind could be satisfied with seeing them only once?

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