You know you have experienced a show unlike any other when you leave the theater with strange phrases tumbling around in your head such as “Fatty Liver Blues,” “Sadie and the Sadists” and “Julius Caesar Was a People Person.” But then you realize that you have just been in the presence of Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet and Princeton University professor Paul Muldoon, and all is well with the world again.
In a special presentation to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Hopewell Theater, Muldoon and his musical collaborators Rogue Oliphant took the capacity crowd on a lyrical and musical journey akin to an adventure through the circus of life. Muldoon eloquently delivered some of the lyrics himself over the backdrop of superb musicianship; other songs featured the vocals of the musicians, interpreting Muldoon’s lyrics over their own musical compositions.
On the positive side, this led to a evening of unpredictable twists and turns: Audience members never knew who would take the lead on the next chapter of this free-flowing story. On the other hand, for those who like a map or directions with their show, it could be a bit jarring, with Muldoon leaving the stage and returning intermittently, depending on whether he or a band member was performing his compositions.
But the musicians were so synched throughout the show and their performances were so stellar it is hard to believe that Rogue Oliphant is a collective of changing musicians who come together periodically to collaborate with Muldoon for shows such as this one. On this occasion, the musicians sharing the stage with him were Chris Harford (Three Colors, Band of Changes), David Mansfield (Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue), Cait O’Riordan (The Pogues), Warren Zanes (The Del Fuegos) and — hard to believe — sitting in live for the first time, Sim Cain (The Rollins Band).
One of the most moving moments came early in the show, when Muldoon gave us a stalwart yet poignant recitation of his poem “Got It Made” against a musical backdrop. The desperation of the cascading phrases was almost overwhelming: “Just as I’ve got clean and sober/Just as I’ve got it made/And just as I’m going under/I’ve watched my life replayed/It’s so downbeat it’s a wonder/I ever got it made.” The powerful combination of his lyrics and his delivery left us wanting much more of this from Muldoon throughout the show. It is also worth noting that while the lyrics delivered by Muldoon were always clear and audible, this was not the case for many of the songs performed by the musicians. It would have been helpful to have the lyrics available as a booklet or projected a screen.
Although Muldoon was our master of ceremonies, it was clear that the bandleader was Harford, who orchestrated the musicianship of the show with a firm but gentle hand that presented a unified, tight set. My favorite song of the evening — one that I immediately wanted to hear again — was the Muldoon-Harford composition “Wanted,” beautifully performed by Harford.
Then there was the show-stopping guitar solo from Mansfield on “Lonesome George,” a song apparently written on a plane after Muldoon saw a sign in Dublin Airport saying that you could fly twice a day from Dublin to Dubai. Mansfield also provided some really cool, bluesy guitar on “Nothing on You” which he co-wrote with Muldoon, who delivered a superb performance of this song.
Two of the songs in the show that stood out were written by Muldoon and Zanes. “Service Dog” made mention of prominent Irish poets; Zanes shared that “Paul loves it when the chorus is at the top” before he launched into the catchy, chorus-driven “Rain or Shine.”
The intensity of the show, despite the laid-back vibe from the amazing musicians, left us hoping for an intermission — it was such a feast for the senses, but still such a lot to take in and keep up with. But just when things seemed to sag a bit, coming up on the 90-minute mark of the two-hour show, O’Riordan came out with “Down With That” and blasted us all right back into the show when she went from cool, calm and collected to screaming like a banshee in less than 60 seconds: “You take the bed/And I’ll take the chaise.” What a thrill to see her again stateside years after the early days of The Pogues, when back in Ireland we all thought she was so crazy cool and talented. But clearly nothing has changed; she may be even cooler now, if that is possible.
One of the many highlights of the evening was the song “Comeback” (see video below), a great representation of the vibe of the entire show. This song showcases Muldoon’s beautiful, soulful lyrics against a tapestry of easy-going musicianship. Another great song was “Put Me Down” which took us all to hell and back. I was also taken with “Enough of Me,” which opened with Muldoon’s beautiful delivery of his poem about the shore, followed by the song including the line, “couldn’t get enough of me.”
I couldn’t get enough of this song, I couldn’t get enough of this show, and I truly cannot wait for the next Muldoon adventure!
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