Mick O'Shea's saloon, North Charles Street, Friday night. The Guinness is flowing, thick and black as tar. The college students at the bar are working hard on their buzz, and the older people at the tables are picking at their salads and gazing wistfully at the kids, perhaps remembering a time when they, too, could do Absolut shooters without ending up on the couch for the next two days.
On the cramped stage, the Irish band O'Malley's March is playing a gentle ballad full of exuberance, hope and longing for the auld sod.
Well, maybe not:
You're a bum, you're a punk
You're an old slut on junk.
Lying there in the drip,
Nearly dead in the bed.
This is being delivered by lead singer Martin O'Malley. This would be the same Martin O'Malley who sits on the Baltimore City Council with all the restraint of an ax splintering through a door. Given that he's just come here from his day job, he must feel as if he's entered a parallel universe.
As he bites off each lyric, the crowd sings along with gusto to this cover of Shane MacGowan's "Fairy Tale of New York."
MacGowan was the brilliant lead singer of the Irish punk band the Pogues until they kicked him out for being an "irresponsible drunk" -- apparently to differentiate him from the responsible drunks who still consider it bad form to pass out on stage.
Moments later, O'Malley's March begins a listless version of "Black Velvet Band," a tune every Irish band is practically required by law to do. The first four lines feel as musty as the doilies at your granny's house:
And her eyes, they shone like the diamonds
You'd swear she was queen of the land.
And her hair hung over her sho-o-o-ulders
Tied up with a black velvet band.
Gradually O'Malley's voice trails off, as if he's overcome with ennui. The music stops. Then, in possibly the worst Elvis imitation ever heard, he mutters: "That don't do nothin' for me."
Whereupon the band -- bass guitarist Bob Baum, drummer Jamie Wilson, piper Paul Levin, trombonist Jared Denhard and O'Malley on acoustic guitar -- suddenly kicks into some sort of driving, Celtic-boogie version of the same song that soon has the joint rocking out big-time.
In many ways, the two songs represent the essence of O'Malley's March and Martin O'Malley, the city councilman from northeast Baltimore who, on this chilly spring evening, is wearing jeans, boots and a black sleeveless T-shirt and looks more like a clean-cut Springsteen than someone you'd call about a pothole.
When people call O'Malley a politician, spitting the word at him like an obscenity, he replies: "I'm not a politician, I'm a reformer."
The Two Lives of Martin O'Malley
Whether he's wailing passionate lyrics at an Irish pub or railing against tax hikes at a Baltimore City Council meeting, Martin O'Malley is always onstage. And always on a crusade.
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