Out of the studio hothouse, the Flowers fade

State Theatre, April 6, 1993

Bruce Elder - The Sydney Morning Herald, April 8(?) 1993


On the evidence of their most recent album, Songs From The Rain, it seemed reasonable to argue that Hothouse Flowers had the potential to become one of the premier rock groups of the 1990s. Sadly, on the evidence of their live performance, it would be impossible to sustain such an argument.

Somewhere between the studio and the stage, the brilliance of this remarkable Irish band fades. The qualities which make for such great recordings - the subtle interplay of rock and folk and soul, the marvellous sense of timing and the effective use of light and shade - are flattened by the dreary juggernaut of live performance. Consequently, a remarkable song such as This Is It (Your Soul), which on record is driven by the dynamic interplay between the full-throttle soul sound of the band and the stop-start precision of Liam O'Maonlai's rich vocals, becomes just another rock song.

Similarly, the band's minor 1988 hit, Don't Go (a predictable encore), becomes ordinary where once it was exceptional.

As the concert progresses, the sense that something is wrong overwhelms even those occasional moments when the band transcends the ordinary. The musicianship is fine and O'Maonlai's vocals are distinctive and passionate, and yet the conjunction of elements which would make the evening special just never happens.

Are the band (who seem to be enjoying themselves) just too self-obsessed? Are Liam O'Maonlai's long static stints behind the piano denying the band a proper visual focus? Are Leo Barnes's saxophone fills (on nearly every song) too perfunctory?

Has the Christ-like, bare-footed O'Maonlai become a caricature, born again hippie with his religious ballads (Stand Beside Me sounds like a hymn) and his homilies to universal understanding (One Tongue) and environmentalism (Giving It All Away)?

Such questions haunt the two-hour performance. The band work their way through a valid cross-section of the best material on their three albums (including a sensational version of Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now) but still there's that nagging feeling that this should, and could, be so much better.

Rumour has it that on their last Australian tour Hothouse Flowers were never less than outstanding. If that is the case, they seem to have seriously lost the plot in the intervening years. Sad! Their new album is so good and they have the material to be a sensational live band.