By Karen Butler
New Prodigals singer and guitarist Colm O’Brien was welcomed with thunderous applause from the crowd at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar in Manhattan Friday night.
“I’m very excited to be here,” O’Brien said before the show. “I was delighted when I got the call [to join the band.]”
Declaring that they are equally “delighted to have him join the family,” the band described their newest member as “an extraordinary talent, with a voice that resembles a cross between Ronnie Drew and a Dublin Tom Waits, as well a truly outstanding guitarist who can move from the subtlest traditional stylings to the most passionate rock intensity.”
“He’s a brilliant singer and a phenomenal guitar player and he’s bringing a whole new element to the group, which is just incredibly exciting,” said Gregory Grene, vocalist-accordionist-songwriter for the rock foursome.
“The first gig is always, particularly when it’s your home gig, the first gig is always a bit strange when there’s a new member, not only for the band, but for the crowd, too,” the long-haired O’Brien explained. “Hopefully, this time around, they’ll be a bit more used to seeing a hairy monkey up on the stage.”
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O’Brien, a Dublin-born and Boston-based guitarist, recently replaced guitar player and singer Ray Kelly, who left The Prodigals to open a bar in Connecticut. O’Brien joined the band in the midst of its current tour, for which they are promoting their hit album “Dreaming in Hell’s Kitchen.” The gig at Paddy Reilly’s marked O’Brien’s second performance with the New York-based band on their “home turf.” The band said the first time they played the bar with O’Brien was basically to test the equipment and familiarize themselves with the space. Last weekend’s performance was O’Brien’s “formal” introduction to the Big Apple.
Speaking before the group began its set, Grene said that the warm reception O’Brien had received at other performances made Grene confident that Prodigal fans in New York would welcome him with open arms. Recalling The Prodigals’ success at last month’s Memorial Day concert in Pennsylvania, Grene said, “The crowd got up on their feet en masse within the first song and they never left them.”
Although he regards joining The Prodigals as a huge leap in his career, O’Brien is not exactly a rookie. He established himself on the Dublin music scene with a three-piece band called Fatal Flower, for whom he was the lead singer, the guitarist and the songwriter. Within six months of forming, the band performed at the Heineken Green Energy Festival and was invited to play the Bacardi/Hot Press Band of the ear concert. They then released a debut CD, which immediately made the playlist of the Larry Gogan Show on 2FM, and, all without label support, reached the top 70 in the competitive Irish charts. The album was put into steady rotation on Ireland’s National Radio peak shows and the group made a TV appearance on “Teilifis na G’ilge’s Bernie Beo Show.” On the heels of those accomplishments, O’Brien toured throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom, performing at Liverpool’s International Guitar Festival and enjoying three appearances at the legendary Cavern Club.
Best wishes for Ray
Grene said he was sorry to see Kelly leave, but wished his old friend the best of luck in his latest endeavor.
“[Kelly] really felt like this was kind of an amazing opportunity,” Grene said. “It was a really very, very nice, warm parting of the ways. He said as long as it took to find somebody else, he’d be there and . . . he said: ‘God bless you and good luck.’ ”
Once they knew Kelly planned to leave the group, the remaining band members contacted O’Brien, whom they had met about a year ago and who had opened for them occasionally while they were on tour.
“Just in terms of Colm, I’d say he is pretty much the exact opposite to me in every way in regards to, if it’s Dublin, he’s a Southsider and I’m a Northsider. If it’s America, he’s from Boston and I’m from New York. If it’s football, he supports Liverpool and I support United,” joked bass player Andrew Harkin.
“See, I get it right all the time,” O’Brien interrupted.
“So, I can only say that’s a mark to how great a musician he is to work with somebody who is just got earmarked not to mix up with you at all,” Harkin concluded.
New voice, same spirit
In addition to the “extraordinary talent” he brings to the band, O’Brien also lends a new perspective on music. Diehard Prodigals fans needn’t worry, however. Grene promises that the spirit of the band will remain the same.
“Everything’s a process of development,” Grene explained. “I was very excited where we were in our last incarnation. It’s just that each incarnation opens fresh doors and this is like an infusion of a whole fresh angle. . . . Colm is a fairly devilish guitar player and it’s enabling us to do a whole bunch of really pretty interesting interplay between Andrew and Colm and myself.”
Grene added that the band has a “backbone” of music they play — almost entirely their own with some traditional Irish songs thrown in — but will be incorporating some of O’Brien’s original work as well.
“In addition to all of his other things, he’s a fairly heavy songwriter and so that’s also really exciting . . . he’s got a bunch of his own songs, in fact,” Grene noted.
The band agreed that they work as a democracy and typically write as a unit.
“We write in a group,” Grene explained. “So, once again, [Colm]’s a new voice.”
“I don’t think the essence of it is going to change all that much,” O’Brien interjected. “It’s not going to be a dramatic change essentially, you know what I mean? As far as long-time Prodigals supporters are concerned, it’s still going to be a hell of a rocking show.”
New CD in works
Grene said that promoting an album the band recorded with a different musician isn’t as difficult as it may sound.
“Colm is taking those songs and putting his own imprint on them, plus we’re shooting for recording a new CD in November, so that will be a new one out, as well,” he said, adding that even though O’Brien “started out dead on,” “he’s really started owning the material” now.
“It’s really tough to walk into somebody else’s shoes, but it’s harder yet to walk in someone else’s shoes and make them your own shoes within such a short amount of time,” Grene said.
He went on to say the band is “rolling right along” in developing material for a new album and hinted that it may contain a song he wrote shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“We’ll see,” he said of the song. “Everything goes through a process of filtering through band rehearsals.”
Asked if they had ever had a song they truly loved that didn’t make the cut, the band members agreed with Grene when he said: “It’s not a ‘shoot-down’ kind of environment. It’s really much more of a collaborative [environment.] People really build. It’s really fairly nurturing and playful environment. It’s very unusual that someone comes in and says, ‘Oh, my gosh, get that thing out of here.’ I would say it just about never happens and even if there is like an initial reaction that ‘something here isn’t working,’ the reaction is ‘something here isn’t working, let’s fix it,’ not ‘something here isn’t working, let’s junk it.’ ”
The band is still on tour with upcoming appearances planned for Colorado, San Diego and Los Angeles. Sadly for many local fans, they will not be playing at Hunter Mountain this year.