Summer sunshine may be rare in traditional Irish songs, but that doesn’t much matter to Martin O’Malley. His Celtic-rock band, O’Malley’s March, is performing at BlackRock’s Free Summer Concert Series, and the former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor and presidential candidate thinks summer is a great time for cool, refreshing Irish melodies.
“A lot of these songs conjure up memories of family times,” O’Malley noted, “growing up in households where Irish music was played — and not just on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Growing up in Bethesda and Rockville, O’Malley remembers listening to his mom’s Clancy Brothers records long before he “fell into a band” while at Gonzaga College High School. “At the time, there were seven Irish bars in Washington and only three Irish bands,” he recalled. “So, while we had a very limited repertoire and we weren’t very good, we got paid to get better.”
O’Malley’s March is good enough to have endured for three decades, opening for Shane McGowan of the Pogues, the Sawdoctors and even the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — as well as Tommy Makem, of Clancy Brothers fame. Joining singer-guitarist O’Malley on the outdoor stage at BlackRock will be harper-piper-trombonist Jared Denhard, fiddler Jim Eagan, accordion player Sean McComiskey, bassist Pete Miller, guitarist Mac Walter and drummer Jamie Wilson.
“People can expect a mix of Irish, American and folk-rock music,” said O’Malley. “For many years now, we’ve been playing in the Baltimore-Washington area, and we do a combination of some original things and some traditional things, and we crunch them all up with drums and electric guitar. It should be a good, multigenerational event — something for all ages.”
He added that the band doesn’t get to play as frequently as they used to. “That’s why BlackRock should be a special night, and a special appearance for us.”
Extremely special, according to BlackRock’s Executive Director Alyona Ushe, who joined the arts organization eight months ago and describes her tenure so far as “exciting and rewarding.” Ushe pointed out that hours before O’Malley’s March takes the stage, BlackRock — celebrating its 15th anniversary year — will host a Family Fun Festival featuring face painting and balloons as well as traditional Irish dance performances by the Silver Spring-based Culkin School of Irish Dance and a bagpipe concert by the MacMillan Pipe Band.
“BlackRock is unusual — in a good sense,” Ushe said. “It’s one of the few arts organizations that is driven by the passion of its audience and its residents.”
“As we were looking to create this series, we wanted to reflect the different cultures in our community,” she added. “There’s a huge love for Celtic music at BlackRock; that was kind of the launching pad.”
The five outdoor concerts in the summer series reflect a variety of genres, including soul, reggae and salsa. “We wanted to offer a variety of music for our patrons to enjoy,” Ushe explained, adding that concertgoers can bring blankets, low chairs and picnic baskets, and that food trucks will be on hand for those who wish to purchase meals or snacks. While no outside alcohol is permitted at BlackRock, a Beer & Wine Garden will open at 4 p.m. before the show.
And while it’s clear that this celebration of Celtic culture will be a special day at BlackRock, Ushe wants everyone to know that the venue offers something for everyone, all year round. “We have education, performances, a visual art gallery, and also rentals,” she explained. “We truly address every single need of our residents in this area and beyond.”
Education, she added, “is strong here. We offer a huge array of classes in all kinds of disciplines, from dance to theater and musical theater, to visual arts and painting and sculpture. We’re committed to exploring what’s needed here and providing new concepts for folks to consider.”
Martin O’Malley concurs. “It’s such an awesome venue,” he said. And he is eager to share his Irish heritage with the crowd. “A lot of these songs and these stories are several hundred years old,” he said. “In each of them, there’s that story of the indomitable human spirit.”
“Ireland, for 700 years, was under foreign rule — and yet, she never lost her humanity,” he said. “I think that’s a universal theme that a lot of people can relate to here in the United States. While our own story of independence was different, I’m sure all of us have some ancestor somewhere who risked it all in order to come to the United States. A lot of that is wrapped up in Irish music and the Irish-American perspective.”
Whether they grew up with Irish music or not, O’Malley thinks people will hear things that are familiar to them in O’Malley’s March, whether it is the traditional music the band plays — “the jigs and the reels” — or the sense of longing for a faraway land. And he is sure no one can resist the charms of this Irish-American band. “The musicians in this band are pretty top-notch,” he bragged. “I’m the only generalist.”
That said, no matter where his political career takes him, O’Malley can’t give up the March. “I’ve always kept a hand in it,” he admitted. “Some people like fishing, some people like bowling; I like playing music with my friends.”
O’Malley’s March performs at 5 p.m. Saturday, July 28 at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. Admission is free. Call 301-528-2260 or visit www.blackrockcenter.org