Although hardly on the level of combat reporting, music reviewing is not without its perils.
Over the years, I've been threatened by musicians, their managers and their girlfriends. I've been denounced from the stage, and ridiculed on the Internet. Once, a review of mine was reprinted in the Barry Manilow Fan Club newsletter, and I got hate mail from across the country for months.
That was before my editors came up with the idea that I review O'Malley's March. Everybody knows that this is Mayor Martin O'Malley's band, they said.
What people don't know is whether the guy is any good or not. It's your job to tell them.
Thus, I found myself standing in the crowd at Fletcher's Friday, watching O'Malley's March work through songs from its just-released CD, "Wait for Me." And, as the mayor sang and strummed his acoustic guitar, with a bagpipe keening and an electric guitar wailing behind him, one thought gripped my mind: "You know, I could always move to the county ..."
It's not that O'Malley's March is bad, exactly. It's just not very good. Your basic semi-pro, rebel song-singing, reel and jig-playing Celtic rock band, it's the sort of act that has more enthusiasm than skill, more heart than polish.
There are six of them altogether. O'Malley -- looking quite buff, thanks to a sleeveless T-shirt that showed off his muscular arms -- handles vocals and acoustic guitar, and is joined by bassist Bob Baum, drummer Jamie Wilson, flutist and piper Paul Levin, multi-instrumentalist (trombone, Celtic harp and Scottish pipes) Jared Denhard, and electric guitarist Ralph Reinoldi. Singer/saxophonist Maureen McCusker sat in for half the set.
Were you to catch them at a local Irish bar, you'd probably think they're grand after two or three pints of Guinness. Heck, after six or seven, you'd want to book them for your daughter's wedding.
But because the editors here take a dim view of drinking on the job, the Guinness Appreciation Route was not an option. Distressingly sober, it was hard not to note the fumbled licks, missed cues and occasional lack of cohesion that dotted the band's two-hour, 20-minute set.
Although the band offered a smattering of originals, most of the songs were covers, a motley assortment ranging from such traditional tunes as "Black Velvet Band" to such classic rockers as Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," and from Sinead O'Connor's Irish history rap "Famine" to Paul McCartney's sole protest song, "Give Ireland Back to the Irish."
To its credit, O'Malley's March added its own twist to many of the borrowed tunes, slipping uilleann pipes into some of the rockers, and trombone and tenor sax to a few of the reels. Its version of Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army," which excised the "N" word from the second verse, was admirably P.C. but annoyingly off-pitch, as Wilson, handling the vocals, seemed unable to hear himself in the onstage monitors.
P.A. problems were an ongoing annoyance, unfortunately. O'Malley seemed unfazed by the howling feedback and unresponsive microphones -- after dealing with the City Council, he's probably used to howling and unresponsiveness -- but the band's sound suffered nonetheless, as instruments drifted in and out of audibility.
All members can be heard quite clearly on the CD, "Wait for Me," but that isn't quite the advantage you'd think. Although Levin's flute, pipes and tin whistle add atmosphere and color, his muddy articulation and occasionally slipshod technique take some of the sheen off such reels as "Sportin' Paddy."
Reinoldi doesn't seem quite sure how his electric should fit into the band's sound, and as such alternates between invisibility and intrusiveness. Wilson and Baum both have a tendency to rush -- although not, unfortunately, at the same pace -- and Denhard's trombone parts often leave the impression he thinks he's in the Irish Blood, Sweat & Tears.
As for our man the mayor, how he comes off depends upon whether he's heard
onstage, or on disc.
At Fletcher's, his performance recalled former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, as O'Malley came across as gruff but likable, his missteps and occasional bad taste mitigated by infectious enthusiasm and sterling intentions. Above all, he was confident enough to know that if he sang out of key, he'd get by with some help from his friends.
On disc, however, O'Malley has more in common with his immediate predecessor, Kurt Schmoke. Sure, he seems smart and skilled, but there's not a lot of substance there. His voice is cut from the right cloth -- a light, clear Irish tenor -- but his delivery is too mannered and self-conscious to be effective.
And while there are some good ideas in his songs, particularly the Midnight Oil-ish "Native People," the execution is too artless and heavy-handed to really win listeners over.
In short, Mr. Mayor, please keep your day job. And if you ever find yourself over by the tax assessment office, forget you ever saw this.