August 3, 2012
Tommy Fleming, whose powerful, passionate interpretations of songs old and new, traditional and contemporary, have made him one of Ireland’s most popular vocalists, will perform two shows next month at Peabody City Hall.
Fleming will give concerts on Sept. 7 and 8, both at 7 p.m., in city hall’s Frank L. Wiggin Auditorium. Tickets for the shows are $30 (orchestra tables), $25 (balcony tables) and $20 (balcony seats). For information, call the Office of the Mayor at 978-538-5704.
An international success whose albums have consistently gone platinum, multi-platinum and gold, Fleming – Irish Music Magazine’s “Best Irish Male Singer” in 2005 – has played in sold-out concert halls around the world and made frequent radio and television appearances, including on PBS, for whom he is recording a new TV special. The Sligo native and youngest of six children also has seen his life shaped by forces other than music, including a near-tragedy early in his solo career and a formational six-month sojourn in Africa at a time when he was enjoying major popularity.
Fleming came to the attention of many Irish music fans in the 1990s while touring with composer, songwriter, and producer Phil Coulter, whom he’d met while performing at a charity event. It was during his association with Coulter that Fleming made his first visit to Boston.
“I performed in Symphony Hall in 1993 – one of the most memorable performances of my life at one of the biggest venues on that tour,” he recalls. “When I returned again with Phil in 1996, I had some time to get to know the place better. I loved the architecture of Boston and spent hours exploring around the city. I even met with a school friend and paid a visit to the ‘Cheers’ bar. I have returned to Boston a few times since, but not nearly enough, so the opportunity to perform in Peabody was a welcome request – I promise to do many more concerts in Boston!”
Fleming went on to do a stint as part of the traditional band De Dannan, appearing on their album “Hibernian Rhapsody.” He became a solo act in 1996 and over the next two years recorded his first two albums, the second of which (“Restless Spirit,” released in 1998) entered the Irish charts at number five and went on to achieve double platinum sales.
But having established his solo career, he spent most of 1999 recovering from an auto accident that had left him with a broken neck and other serious injuries, forcing the cancellation of a string of concert dates. It was an experience that provided him with some important lessons, says Fleming.
“The car accident made me realize the value of life and how important that is. I stopped focusing on things that didn’t really matter and began to appreciate the special things in life and, most importantly, health. I had no idea for quite some time if I would ever walk again. I certainly didn’t think I would be able to resume a singing career, and luckily I have been given a chance at both. It took me at least five years to get back to the point I was at before the accident, but I didn’t rush it; I appreciated the fact that I had another chance.”
Fleming recently got a fresh perspective on that period of his life when his mother died earlier this year. Looking through her prayer book, Fleming came across a photo that had been taken of his wrecked car after the accident. “I can’t imagine why she kept it. I thought all evidence from this time was gone,” he says. “But maybe she was reminding herself and thanking God for my recovery.”
Finally, he recovered enough to begin recording his next album, “The Contender,” a return to his folkier, more traditional roots, with songs by Irish writers such as Jimmy McCarthy, Christy Hennessy, Micky O Connell, and John Hurley, and classic numbers like “Danny Boy,” Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” and “Black is the Colour.” Released in 2000, the album went multi-platinum, launching tours of Japan, the US, and Europe.
After completing work on his next album, “Sand and Water” – which included his renditions of songs by Paul Brady, Tom Waits, and Dan Fogelberg, among others – Fleming made a decision that surprised even close family members and friends. He spent six months working as a field operative for an aid agency in Sudan, helping to provide food and medical assistance to malnourished people, especially children, caught up in war and famine.
“I really went to just simply get away, because I felt things were at an all-time low in my career and that I was surrounded by all the wrong people,” he says. His odyssey to Africa began less than fortuitously – he started his trip the day after 9/11 – but after a few days he felt certain he had done the right thing. “I fell in love with Africa, and the time I spent there was the most rewarding in my life. I learned a lot of lessons about how happy people can be, even when they have nothing but the clothes they stand up in. It makes you appreciate small things in life. I have promised myself I will go back there, and that I will do.”
Fleming returned from Sudan in time for the release of “Sand and Water,” and resumed his singing career. In December of 2004, he staged a one-of-a-kind event at the Basilica in Knock, Co. Mayo, which has played host to Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, as well as millions of pilgrims for more than a century. The CD recording of the “Voice of Hope” concert, which featured Fleming’s renditions of uplifting songs like “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “From a Distance,” and “Bright Blue Hope,” went platinum, and the concert DVD was shown in Ireland and across the United States.
He has continued to tour and record since then, to the delight of a world-wide contingent of listeners, his appearances including a performance at the 2007 ICONS Festival at the Irish Cultural Centre of New England. That same year saw Fleming record another live concert extravaganza, “A Journey Home,” a double CD-DVD tracing the evolution of Irish music from Thomas Moore to U2. The production was aired on PBS in the US in 2007 and 2008.
Fleming is slated to record a TV special for PBS this coming February for broadcast next June. The show will be “The Irish-American Songbook,” he explains, comprising American and Irish songs and featuring old classics from both sides of the Atlantic as well as some new, contemporary material. At the moment, special guests for the show are being confirmed – he promises they will be “very special.”
More information on Tommy Fleming is available at his website, tommyfleming.net.