Going backstage to interview Shilelagh Law is not your typical rock stars-meet-interviewer experience. Rather, it is a time warp that puts the uninitiated back into a high school gym locker room.
The class cut-ups size you up quickly, and soon your waistline and hairline are fair game in a relentless onslaught of jokes.
That same good-natured fun personifies the Shilelagh Law live experience. At their Knitting Factory show over the weekend, the band starts and stops on a dime, with each turn punctuated by mile-wide grins and high fives.
It is impossible not to get caught up in the mischief and malarkey of their show, and the crowd on this night could be observed pumping their fists in the air, screaming soccer stadium chants between songs, and shouting out the words to all the bedrock traditional ditties and original tunes in the band’s repertoire.
“It’s not a listening show,” says Denis McCarthy, a five-time All-Ireland fiddle champion. “It’s not a passive experience. If you’re not there to scream along with us, then you have no business being there.”
His brother Kevin is also in the band, and he is a two-time All-Ireland accordion champion. One is a fireman, one is a policeman; one comes to sound check in a Yankees jersey, the other one sports a Mets Jersey. They are polar opposites who taunt one another mercilessly with good natured, God-given wit.
Terence Brennan (percussion by night, high school teacher by day), Stephen Gardner (firefighter and bass player), and Richard Popovic (guitar, vocals, and carpenter) wear their working class roots on their sleeves and in their songs.
Meaty, workingman hands fly up the fret boards and across the buttons of the accordions as they play and sing songs about their neighborhood.
The band has added a crop of new original tunes to their lineup with “1 and 9,” their fantastic new CD. For the band, this typifies a coming of age that finds the band branching out beyond their Irish cover tune set.
“It's a world of troubles, I've sure had some/I don't know where I'm going but I know where I'm from/ I'm from New York Town, the very best part/With the guts and the grit and the love and the heart,” sings Popovic on the title track, and it sums up the Shilelagh Law experience perfectly.
“We are all middle class people, and I think the appeal of this band is that we play what we know,” reasons Gardner.
“We play the song ‘1 and 9’ that Rich wrote. There are people in the audience that know all about the experience of hanging around 242nd Street under the train. A lot of Irish fans we have settled in Inwood, Washington Heights, and around Manhattan College in the seventies and eighties.
“We sing about them and their experience. Our neighbors and friends are in those songs.”
If the “1 and 9” song is the embodiment of the band’s spirit, then the following track captures the essence of seeing the band live:
“I had a rough night/to cap off a rough week/I woke up spitting blood and a couple of teeth/my swollen right hand ain’t got no more skin,” they sing on “Bare Knuckled Man.” “Whatever life throws at you, the booze will take away,” they advise on “The Liver Song,” a fantastic jug band ditty.
Like the city that birthed them, the songs on “1 and 9” offer a tasty musical melting pot of rock, folk, bluegrass and Irish traditional melodies, all served up with an attitude that would give a cranky Manhattan taxi driver a run for his money.
In fact, the original songs are so good that this reviewer would advise the band to dispense with parochial readings of trad songs like “The Parting Glass” on their next record. It’s the weakest cut in this collection, which is a testament to this great new CD of songs.
“This is a more polished record,” says Brennan. “Instead of doing it over a long weekend, we really worked on these songs for a longer time.
“We recorded and wrote these songs over the last six months. That allows the different influences of the band to come out in a polished and full way. We have heavy Irish playing mixed in with some folk, and I think we really struck a great balance of that on this album.”
“It’s a New York experience,” adds Gardner. “We play songs about the neighborhoods that we live in and work in. We are more of an original band now, not just playing Clancy Brothers and Wolfe Tones tunes.
“Terry and I had a Clancy Brothers/Dubliners mixed tape that we pretty much wore out,” says Gardner. “We would drink beer, hang out, and just listen to the music that our parents and grandparents listen to. That’s what we bring into our music.”
This is a standup group of public servants that keep us safe, so let’s hoist a pint to that! With the great songs on 1 and 9 and their ferocious live performances, Shilelagh Law keeps a love of Irish culture and music alive in Yonkers, Woodlawn, and all of Manhattan. I’ll drink to that as well!
For more information on tour dates and to sample their music, check out http://www.halfthebottle.com/
When they’re not saving lives in their day jobs or chewing up the stage with Shilelagh Law, many of these lads can be seen moonlighting in the trad powerhouse called Jameson’s Revenge.
Their latest album is “Straight From the Bottle,” and in the style of great groups like Flook and Solas, they stretch the boundaries of Irish traditional music. Check out their songs “The Jameson’s Set” or “Brazilian Wax” on iTunes and you’ll see what I mean.
They will be playing the Brooklyn Irish Festival (Floyd Bennet Field on 3159 Flatbush Avenue) on June 27 and 28, along with Patty Smyth, the Wolfe Tones and the Pat McGuire band, and they can be found most Sunday nights hosting an open session at the Rambling House (4292 Katonah Avenue, Woodlawn).
“It’s madness in a pint,” jokes Kilkenny man and guitarist John Walsh. “It’s Irish music with an open attitude, or Irish music for the rest of us, if you like.”
You can catch a video sampling of the furious green ruckus on the pub’s web site, which can be accessed through the jamesonsrevenge.com portal.