In this evening’s sold out concert, Limerick’s Liam O’Brien celebrates his 14th year spreading Christmas cheer to the people of Limerick and further afield. In this interview he tells me about the background to Crooning.
Liam came up with the idea in 2004, at a time when he had been keen to come back to Ireland to do something on the only break he’d get from Emmerdale which was Christmas.
“I’d actually been asked to be the guest star in Limerick Pantomime but my contract wouldn’t let me and my window of time off was too tight to do shows in January regardless”, he remembers.
“So I talked to Dave Irwin about doing a small show, upstairs in No.2 Pery Square which (now Culture House) as we’d done a Gershwin show together there the year before. Between us we came up the concept, and my late Dad Tim was instrumental in putting it altogether via email and phone as I wasn’t back a lot at that stage”.
Liam tells me that the most interesting aspect of the show down through the years has been the touring he has managed to do.
“I adore performing at home at Christmas but I’m aware that shows can’t live on forever unless they grow, develop and reach new audiences. I dipped my toe in the water with 2 Dublin dates in 2012. They were tremendously successful and it allowed me to tour to other venues across the country in 2014 again and every year since.
It also means I can block book off December from other work, and focus solely on a show the provides employment not only for myself, but for musicians, guests and technicians. While also affording the opportunity to grow an indigenous Limerick brand nationwide”.
Liam first became taken by the Crooning style back in 1998 just after the passing of Frank Sinatra. Like most 90’s kids he describes his musical taste as ‘eclectic’ – everything from Nirvana to Garth Brooks.
“When Sinatra passed away, I’d only been familiar with New York, New York and My Way so I started discovering all his classic albums – Columbia era into Capitol and Reprise. His movies. His radio appearance. I just ate it all up.
Like many young people I guess are now doing with Bowie and Prince. Sad, but some good comes of reminding us all that all things are temporary but true art like music and literature live on. I started emulating that style, that repertoire and that delivery. I feel I’ve found my own voice, but it’s incredibly influenced by Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Harry Connick Jnr more than anyone else.
Touring Crooning at Christmas outside Ireland is a challenge due to overhead costs but certainly not something Liam has ruled out. However, he did spend 2008 touring with the Olivier nominated ‘Rat Pack – Live from Las Vegas’ alternating the role of Dean Martin.
“We toured the UK and right across the USA and some dates in Europe. I was then given the full time lead role in 2009 touring specifically in the Christmas version and that was dream come true. I’ve also toured the Kings of Swing show across the UK with a fantastic live big band and was due to do an American tour for a month when I got a year-long Shakespeare contract with Propeller touring so had to hang that up for the time being. Work in my line comes along like buses – nothing for an hour then three at once”.
Liam is keen to stress his late father Tim’s influence when it comes to the history of Crooning.
“It’s perhaps twee to say, but the very first year we ended up doing 3 nights at No.2 Pery Square and my Dad watched every single one. But he always stayed at the back because he’d rather any seat we could sell be sold. The first year I covered all the band costs, but the whole box office after then went to charity so he was doing that so we could make as much as possible.
I always knew my Dad had great integrity, but he did it in quiet ways which I think speaks volumes ironically. I remember watching him watch the show from the back each night and there was just immense pride in his eyes. We lost him a year later. You can’t put a price on those memories.
It’s no surprise that Liam cites Tony Bennett as his favourite all-time singer.
“Sinatra was the chairman, but for me its Tony Bennett. Just because of his longevity. He never stopped gigging. He was out of spotlight in 70s and 80s but was playing every club and bar going. He didn’t sit around lamenting the loss of the spotlight he had in 50s and 60s, he got out there and kept his instrument fresh and alive.
He’s a true jazz singer. He plays with small ensembles so that the music is improvised. Too much orchestration can kill that kind of music unless its a big band. And that inspires me. Truly does. I saw him live in 1999 in the NCH. Blew me away. he just turned 90 and sounds better than Frank did in late 60s. Inspirational”.
So what does Christmas mean to Liam?
“It’s about family. It’s about friends. It’s about home. Crooning now allows me to be around home for Christmas each year while also keeping me working to provide for what can be cold and quieter start to the year. That’s important to me. And as long as I can keep working at what I’ve dedicated myself to and make a living, then that is the greatest Christmas blessing”.
Liam credits his loyal and ‘incredible’ Limerick audiences as the key factor that makes Crooning work.
“I often wondered if I’d be able to bring audiences back each year who’d seen the show. But it’s now become a tradition for many people. Just like singing the same carols at church, they come to Dolan’s to sing the same crooners! My friends my family all come. Every year. Some do the same.
Some drop in every couple of years but we usually sell out which tells me we’ve established something homegrown, that local people like to celebrate and support and that not only employs but showcases local talent from technicians to musicians to guest vocalists of whom we’ve had over a dozen over the years.
A good friend of mine who supports everything that’s on in town simply says “If you go to things, more things will happen” I believe that, and feel if we build it they will come. We just have also encourage those to do so.
Liam also notes the input made by people like Mick and Valerie Dolan as key to promoting Limerick’s music scene as well as crediting everyone who gets off the couch and buys a ticket.
“In Limerick we are not funded in the arts as well as other cities in Ireland, and so the public shoulders that burned. That they do so well in regard to this show, tells me they are among the most supportive audiences in Ireland and they value live entertainment”.