Barleyjuice is a rowdy collection of gloriously scruffy musicians from Philadelphia that have developed a legendary fan base by whipping up frantic crowds at Irish festivals. Kyf Brewer (lead vocals, guitar, accordion, mouth organ, bagpipes, piano), Keith Swanson (lead vocals, mandolin, bouzouki, bagpipes, whistle), Billy Dominick (fiddle), Carbomb (whistle, banjo), Eric Worthington (bass, backing vocals) and Greg Shroeder (drums) play their instruments with the urgency of a knife fight---a distinct possibility on the rowdy lane known as Skulduggery Street. Over 14 songs, the band tells the story of life on their disc Skulduggery Street, a piece of real estate that demands frequent visits.
The collection starts up with “Prettiest Girl At the Fair,” time is a hobo with dirt on his face/you can dress him in tails but you can’t take him anywhere,” Brewer sings, his voice scurrying in the darkness before the sun comes up after a long night of partying. By the time the chorus tun round and there she was/drifting on air she was/with ribbons and braids on her hair she was/the prettiest girl at the fair,” you wish you had your mates at the bar singing along with you.
Barleyjuice takes you back into the corner of the pub with “The Postman Always Jigs Twice,” a stellar traditional workout that showcase the band’s nimble musical chops.
The band two-steps through “Get Your Irish On,” a union of thundering rock drums and hayseed riffs. “A man takes a wife/teaches her to whistle/and he picks up a fiddle in the wild/and the people come around and they bang in the house/singing songs of the devil in sky,” Brewer sings over sassy fiddling. “Drunk Sailor” starts out with a jittery harmonica and a Johnny Cash coke-fueled boxcar beat that beats the Irish fiddle into a country outlaw.
Just when you didn’t think your eardrums couldn’t take more of a pounding, the band closes the set with the gorgeous “Generations,” a wistful look back at the Irish roots that found fertile American soil.
Brewer brings his experience acting in such cult films as Serial Mom and Fahrenheit 911, as well as playing a cop in NBC's Homicide and a sleazy photographer in CBS' Hack, to bring a certain dramatic flair to Skulduggery Street. I spoke with Brewer about how he created the best thing I’ve heard all year and asked the proud dad about Raining Hearts, the band of his daughters that sometimes warm the crowd up before Barleyjuice hit the stage. Here’s how it went. How would you describe the Barleyjuice sound to someone who has never heard of you?
Well, the easiest way is to start with The Pogues and work forward. By that I mean, if they've heard The Pogues and like them, I know they'll understand us. Then I describe it as original acoustically played rock songs with stolen traditional melodies. After that, they just need to listen for themselves!How would you describe this album to a die-hard Barleyjuice fan who might not have heard this yet?
I wanted the songs to bleed together and create a story, to take the listener away to Skulduggery Street and make it like a play or a film.I hear alt-country and blues on this...."Get your Irish On" has it all in one song. What were you listening to at the time when you wrote the album?
Probably everything, nothing in particular. I grew up playing blues harmonica and singing blues licks. The alt country comes from bands like the Rolling Stones or The Faces, who came over here and tried to copy our country artists. They were sloppy and beautiful, and it's always been my favorite sound.What was the best part of recording? What was the biggest drag?
The best part was gettin' it down! Also the biggest drag because it took over a year. Everybody was busy, whether it was with trying to make a buck, or just plain casualties of life, but it took forever. The studio was at my place and sometimes I would get up with all good intentions to carve something and just say f**k it for today. i didn't push it. There was a lot going on in my life and I just sorta fed off of it and used it as an outlet.How are the fans responding to this? What are the biggest surprises about their reaction?
Our biggest fans love it. It's controversial; there are some real different comments online due to the fact that this is more of a rock album than our other ones. If you watch our Facebook page you read some funny and critical stuff. There was a big discussion about me using the f word in the hook of “Pour That Whiskey,” and how if I'd just used an "e" instead of a "u" everything would have been fine.How did you react to that criticism?
That cracked me up. Listen, that's the way I talk---and other Irish as well. "Whiskey Maid" has that great 69-71 Stones country-rock vibe to it, which I really love. How did that come about?
That was exactly what I heard when I came up with the first line and the rest just poured out, staying within those nice honky parameters. The song's about two years old, but it seemed to fit here."Pour that Whiskey" sounds like you broke into Charlie Daniels' tour bus in the middle of the night and stole it. Love it! Explain how this came about.
In the early days when we needed to take up some time we used to let Billy's bluegrass roots loose on a Vassar Clements tune called “Lonesome Fiddle Blues.” We renamed “Billy D's Goat” or something. I always wanted to include that jam in an album because that's bill's forte and he plays great stuff. Kay and I wrote a hard-drinking song around it to give it a bed.
I love the tender and the terrorizing vibe. "Generations" and "Prettiest Girl at the Fair" are very sweet in the middle of the hard driving drinking/rebel songs. What was your rationale in mixing these songs?
“Generations” was a tune I knew the sentimentalists and the fans of the lovely Irish ballads would fall in love with. I decided to place it at the end because it sorta felt right there, nestled down after the overload of everything else. I picture “Generations” as the old folks bar down at the end of Skulduggery Street, where Molly goes when she wants to get away from the noise of the Fox and Crown and hear her family tune played by a local minstrel on the low whistle.
“Prettiest Girl” is a tip of the hat to what was and would could never be again, a sort of hard edged glimpse of fleeting youth. Ivan blurts out this tune one afternoon from his barside throne to a sparse afternoon gathering of souls on the dole and brings them to waltz around him. I'm having visions of Oliver all grown up meets My Fair Lady before the transformation, and they go a different path.
How do you feel when you see Raining Hearts play as their dad? What are the band's plans?
I'm still fascinated that we created three musicians. Had they gone into sports, I'd have been lost to offer them much of any guidance. We're very proud of them, naturally, and each time one of them plays or sings something amazing the tears come. I'm on a little tour of the Netherlands with Scotlyn as we speak, watching my 16 year old blow the audience away night after night, city after city. As far as their plans for the future, it changes every day, as it did when you and I were teens. They're all about music, but they wanna do it all - not just Celtic. it has to come full circle.
Skulduggery Street is available online at Itunes. Barleyjuice has organized a Skulduggery Street Tour of Ireland, March 4-11, 2011. Those interested in joining the band can find out more can go on HammondTours.com or visit the band at barleyjuice.com.