- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2000

The buzz about O'Malley's March is building as fast as the foam on a frosty pint.

Could it be because of the uiellean pipes, wooden flutes and tin whistle of Paul Levin? Maybe it's Peabody grad Jared Denhard's Celtic harp, Highland pipes and blaring trombone.

Perhaps. But the Celtic rock band's main draw is Martin O'Malley, front man and songwriter, and his lilting tenor and muscular biceps.

Oh, yeah, the fact that he's mayor of Baltimore helps, too.

For years, O'Malley's March has played traditional Charm City spots such as the 8X10 Club on Federal Hill or Mick O'Shea's. Since the boy mayor's election last November, however, the band has catapulted to the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage; the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where it played with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; and a high-profile place in last weekend's Artscape in Baltimore.

In some corners of Baltimore, the band's CDs sell faster than you can say "Singing Senators." "The Today Show," National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and David Letterman all have expressed curiosity.

"Our challenge is not to become a backup for a product," says Mr. Denhard, who has played with Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Levin for about eight years. "Martin's fighting that very hard, and the current crop of guys in the band wouldn't put up with that anyway."

• • •

It's a well-known fact that Celtic riffs provide relief for the guitar-slinging mayor. Although Mr. O'Malley has trimmed his singing to a few gigs a month, he still takes advantage of the interest to work his crowds like, well, a politician. With his close-cropped hair, painted-on jeans and killer grin, the 36-year-old Democrat has all kinds of people in the crowd literally swooning.

The man also has a Reaganesque way of connecting with the audience.

"Now we're gonna come down there and have some fun," Mr. O'Malley says with a wink from the cramped stage, ending the musicians' hour-long set.

His stump speech includes lines such as, "God bless you for having such great taste in music" and references to "Wait For Me," the band's second release, as "our smash-hit CD." After the shows, Mr. O'Malley bathes in the glare of TV lights while he signs copies of his CD, or he goes on stage to shake hands with other musicians.

Yet the constraints of City Hall put restraints on the band. Picture-taking is discouraged, particularly if you catch the mayor drinking a beer. The band's Web site, www.omalleysmarch.com, warns, "Due to security reasons, we cannot post whether Martin O'Malley will be at all performances, but you will always get a good show." Mr. Levin says the band has several singers on tap for mayoral absences.

"So the first question we ask is, is this an opportunity with or without the mayor?" says the Pikesville piper. "We found that we as a band are fairly strong and we have plenty to offer and support any singers or guitar players."

Mr. O'Malley turned on the mayoral musical charm last Friday at Artscape '00, artafexus, an outdoor carnival of greasy food, endless vendors and free performances along Baltimore's Mount Royal Avenue. (Or, as the Artscape brochure touts itself, "Baltimore's gift to the region.")

The band opened for macro-diva Patti LaBelle. Joining the mayor, Mr. Levin and Mr. Denhard were bass guitarist Bob Baum, drummer Jamie Wilson and guitarist-mandolin player Ralph Reinoldi.

"This was pretty big time, wouldn't you say?" asked the chuckling, mustachioed Mr. Levin of the few thousand who crowded the Decker Stage for a look even as thunderclouds threatened. "I wouldn't say it was a natural flow from O'Malley's March to Patti LaBelle, but we certainly attracted a lot of attention."

O'Malley's March brought in saxophonist Whit Williams, Afro-Latin percussionist Mark St. Pierre and dozens of orange-clad third- to eighth-graders from the West Baltimore gospel choir Sandtown Children of Praise. ("He has half the city on stage," exclaimed a man in the audience.)

"It was a test to see whether we're more than just a backup for Martin," Mr. Denhard says. "It definitely gave the band a different sound in almost an experimental way, and that was a good sign."

The mayor, however, was definitely center stage, swiveling his hips, kicking up his feet and oozing with the right words.

"You look at those small faces, and you know there's a heck of a lot that's right about this city," Mr. O'Malley said to the crowd as the Children of Praise scampered off. "Mother told us never to follow a children's act."

Then Miss LaBelle's two limousines one black and one white pulled up at the far left of the stage, and a roar ran through the crowd. (Two Baltimore policemen carried Miss LaBelle through the mud as a few more protected her with tarps.)

"Is that Patti LaBelle or the president of the United States?" Mr. O'Malley asked dryly from the stage.

"She's a star," Mr. Levin said later. "Her audience connected to her in every aspect. We're just having fun, y'know?"

Yet the mayor, Baltimore's youngest ever, is himself a rising star. So why wouldn't the music help? The saxophone, after all, paid off for a certain president when he first ran in 1992.

"I think he's goooood," said Linda Cole of Baltimore, who came to see Miss LaBelle but heard Mr. O'Malley for the first time. "He's fun, and he's different. He's got the Celtic thing going for him, but he still rocks."

Mr. Levin laughingly admits that although the community "has embraced that side of Martin, the mayor as musician," detractors find a rock 'n' roll mayor a suitable target.

Yet Mr. Denhard notes that as the mayor has evolved politically, his band has, too, growing from an Irish folk group to a more guitar-driven rock band with "a slight Celtic flair." Baltimorean Barbara Murphy, also in the Artscape audience, has followed the band since the mayor was a city council member.

"First of all, he's a babe," she said. Her male companion concurred, pointing to his own biceps. "I like how he mixes traditional sound with rock. He mixes the troubles of Ireland with the troubles of Baltimore."

Others had their first glimpse of the mayor. Keith West, clutching a just-bought CD, said the band sounded "authentic."

"Ya never know what's going to come out of somebody's mouth in terms of true Irish potency," Mr. West said. "I think he's got it circulating. It takes a lot of spirit to be the mayor during the day and play rock 'n' roll at night."

Yet the partisan constituent emerged from this resident of the Homeland section of North Baltimore.

"I was in a rock band for 20 years, and it takes a lot of energy to do that, but I gotta keep my eyes on 'im to make sure he's not falling asleep on the job with those 2 o'clock closings," Mr. West said. "I think I'll only go see him on stage, assuming he runs the city OK."

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