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Across the Pond

B-Sides analyzes the state of the Irish-punk scene, talks jazz and shoes with Jamie Cullum and shows you where to download some primo tunes this week

In punk's early days, most bands worked with little more than guitar, bass and drums. Yet the Pogues, an Irish band with ferocious punk tendencies, brought traditional Irish instruments onstage with them in the early 1980s, seizing the hearts and imaginations of a cross-section of youth culture whose heritage they shared.

Those inspired by the Pogues' unique musical blend include Tim Brennan, the mandolin, tin whistle, accordion and bouzouki player for hardcore punks the Dropkick Murphys. At the urging of his high school music teacher, the Boston-raised Brennan began accompanying his Pogues tapes with the tin whistle.

"I just wanted to learn how to play along," he says. "I played the drums and the guitar, but with this Pogues stuff, I just didn't know where to begin."

Much to his parents' dismay, Brennan soon brought an accordion home as well. But while he didn't have to keep his accordion playing under wraps to avoid scrutiny from peers, another now-famous accordionist, Matt Hensley of LA's Flogging Molly, was heckled relentlessly for playing such an "uncool" instrument.

"When I first bought [an accordion] my friends, roommates, everybody was like, 'You lost your f-ing mind, dude,'" Hensley says.

Today, however, Irish-punk is flourishing. Bands such as the Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly and Chicago's the Tossers have worked their traditional Irish instruments to the bone with stints on the Warped Tour. When the Pogues announced a handful of East Coast dates for this month (their first U.S. shows in a decade) they quickly sold out. And around the world, bands far removed from Irish culture — like the Clovers, who supported a Dropkick Murphys tour in Japan — have even picked up the style.

"There is definitely a lot more notoriety in what we're doing now," says Tossers vocalist-mandolin player Tony Duggins. "If anything, I think it's gotten harder to do, because we didn't used to have anyone to answer to."

The Tossers formed thirteen years ago out of an Irish folk band that played traditional Irish ballads. Punk influences lay within the founding members from the start, and after they began to write and later perform their own material in South-side Chicago pubs, they gradually drew a contingent of punk followers. However, traditional instruments remained central to their music — unlike the ten-year-old Murphys, whose sound is a thundering, boot-stomping punk that sometimes drowns out the Irish instrumentals. In fact, except for the blaring of Scruffy Wallace's bagpipes, Brennan says it's fairly difficult to make Irish instruments heard over the rest of the Dropkick Murphys' roar — and Brennan "break[s] a lot of [instruments] trying to push them as hard as they'll go."

Although St. Louis is chock full of Irish musicians (one has only to drop into traditional pubs such as the Scottish Arms or John D. McGurk's to catch local or touring acts), few in the area have attempted to fuse their traditional instruments with punk music — save for the folksy (and now-defunct) Whole Sick Crew. But like Brennan, Crew fiddle player Beth Dill (who now plays in the Rats and People with four of her old bandmates) attests to the difficulty of making traditional — and in her case, acoustic — instruments heard on stage.

"I find myself just praying that the sound man will turn me up enough," said the 26-year-old classically trained violin player, who gives violin lessons at Music Folk in Webster Groves.

But even as Irish-punk finds an ever-growing audience nationally, Dill found the genre limiting — so much so that these constraints eventually did her old band in.

"We were getting really pigeonholed," she says. "The name was associated with speaking Gaelic and dressing up as pirates."

Brennan too admits he doesn't listen to many other Irish-punk bands for fear of accidentally becoming too similar or "rip[ping] each other off." And with the ever-burgeoning popularity of the genre, airwave oversaturation is always a possibility. But Duggins sees the genre as much more than just a popular style — and whatever ebbs and flows may come, he intends to keep on playing.

"It's about being in your proper place and trying to get back to where you fucking belong," he says. "It's about roots."

From Chicago to Boston, in cities with Irish heritage as thick as Guinness stout, those roots have grown deep. — Andrea Noble
Dropkick Murphys with the Tossers, 8 p.m. Monday, March 13. Mississippi Nights, 914 North First Street. $19.50. 314-421-3853.

Ol' Soft Shoe

It would seem, to quote another jazz figurehead, that youthful British vocalist-pianist Jamie Cullum has the world on a string. His biggest tour of the States thus far is under way, and his third full-length release, CatchingTales, has been certified gold. But what does the "David Beckham of jazz" really want out of life? Hint: It involves Converse footwear and a mastery over slang.

B-Sides: I imagine you constantly rework material while on the road.

Jamie Cullum: Absolutely. I think it's part of our duty as a bunch of jazz musicians who are messing about with pop music. Often you don't really find if a song's any good until about two, three months into the tour when we're pulling them apart. You don't really know if a car's really good until you pull it apart and put it back together again. Same with a good song, I think.

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