A little less joy in the mayor's band

August 01, 2002|By KEVIN COWHERD

It was a little before 7 on a steamy Baltimore evening when I found Martin O'Malley behind a stage on Mount Royal Avenue, tuning his guitar and making the mental transition from his day job to his night gig.

"How's it going?" I said.

"OK," he said, smiling. "You should get a beer."

This, of course, is one of O'Malley's great strengths as a politician, the ability to take a question from the media while simultaneously dispensing excellent, non-partisan advice, even if it's off the subject.

For a moment, I wondered how George W. Bush would fare if he employed a similar strategy, if after a shouted question about, say, unloading his Harken Energy stock, he gave the thumbs-up sign and said to the reporter: "OK. You should get a beer."

My guess: It would cut the tension between him and the Washington press corps in half. Those press people can get kind of snippy. But, hell, how snippy can you get when the president of the United States is actually looking out for you, recommending that you get a beer?

Anyway, this scene with O'Malley took place last weekend at Artscape, the city's annual arts and music festival, just before the mayor and his Irish rock band, O'Malley's March, launched into a 50-minute set that was, by their standards, understandably subdued.

It was, after all, one of their first gigs since the deaths of two longtime members: Paul Levin, the classy uilleann piper who died in late May of a brain tumor, and Bob Baum, the gregarious bass guitarist, who died of a stroke in late March.

So even though O'Malley, the lead singer, said things were going OK, it was clear the band members were still coming to terms with these two huge losses in their lives and still wrestling with how to carry on, musically.

"Paul and Bob were like the soul of the band," said Ralph Reinoldi, the band's electric guitarist. "Martin's the heart ... he definitely misses those guys."

So many strong, wonderful links had formed around Levin and Baum over the years. O'Malley and Levin were great friends; bonded by their love of Celtic music, they were two of the founding members of O'Malley's March some 14 years ago.

Levin and Jared Denhard, the band's trombonist and Celtic harpist, had played together for 10 years and shared a fascination with Celtic mythology. Reinoldi and Baum had played together since they were teen-agers.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride," Jamie Wilson, the drummer, said of the band's emotions the past two months. "We're just trying to keep going."

Still, last weekend's gig at Artscape was not quite as difficult, or surreal, for the band as their very first gig without Levin and Baum, at a joint called Shenanigans down in Ocean City.

Jamie Wilson had missed that gig, too, after the death of the aunt that had raised him. So when O'Malley first took the stage that night, surrounded by all these replacement players, he could be forgiven for wondering what in God's name had happened to his band, what freakish squall of bad luck had slammed into the lads of O'Malley's March.

"It was kind of hinky, that first one," O'Malley said of the Shenanigans gig. "All of us were a little nervous. We wondered whether we'd feel like playing, or whether we should be playing. But we all sounded good. It was like [Levin's and Baum's] spirits were with us."

So at Artscape, despite the withering heat and a bum microphone and the fact that it was too early for the crowd to be good and beered-up, which tends to help audience enthusiasm levels, O'Malley's March put its grief aside again and gamely played on.

They played a tune by the Irish band the Saw Doctors and then "Streets of Baltimore," the song off their first CD that chronicles the arrival of Irish immigrants to this state during the infamous potato famine of 1847.

They played "Wait for Me" off their second CD and an old Clancy Brothers song that, O'Malley announced, "has been pounded into a coma by O'Malley's March."

Maybe Paul Levin and Bob Baum weren't there, maybe this wasn't the most raucous, joyful show the band had ever put on. But a lot of the old signature touches were there.

O'Malley peeled down to his trademark black muscle T-shirt, the one that makes women perspire even when the streets don't sizzle like Panama City. He swilled a couple of Guinness. ("This is chocolate milk, for anyone keeping track," he told the crowd.) He talked up Baltimore and leaped around the stage. The music filled the streets, where men clapped their hands and women danced little jigs.

Still, watching this version of O'Malley`s March felt a little like looking at an old group snapshot, except now a couple of people you knew had been air-brushed out of the picture.

A man named Pete Miller played bass guitar, and the band will add Jimmy Eagan, a young fiddler, and Sean McComiskey, a young accordion player, to the mix. But there will be no one playing the uilleann pipes, at least for now. OMalley's March without the haunting sound of the uilleann pipes? It's almost unthinkable.

"It would have made me too sad to get another piper," O'Malley said. "So we just kind of changed the sound a little."

The Artscape set ended with a spirited version of "Streams of Whiskey" by the great Shane MacGowan and the Pogues, and then a cover of Green Day's "Time of Your Life."

O'Malley and the rest of the band looked energized when it was all over. But it was clear that it would be a long time before the band plays with carefree, unbridled joy again.

"It's weird," O'Malley said of being on stage yet again without Levin and Baum, his old friends. "You look to your left and to your right for familiar faces, and they're not there."

For a moment he was quiet. Then he let out a long sigh and smiled softly.

"You gotta mourn," he said at last. "But it's disrespectful to mourn too long."

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