You know the saying -- the only difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral is one less drunk.
Both occasions are known for their riotous partying, as many Irish believe that a proper sendoff for a good person that has achieved their eternal reward is a good party. On the new CD by Cruel Seamus, 'The Irish Wake of Cruel Seamus', a musical party ensues to give the cruel bugger a right sendoff!
There’s no wearing of the black here. The music is a colorful mélange of styles, with traditional Irish melodies playing alongside a tropical shoreline of reggae and ska beats.
“With this voice I will sing/with this life you’ve given me I will live/ the beauty of your creation,” sings drummer John Shea on “The Beauty of Your Creation,” an exuberant track that blends playful fiddling with a blistering “rude boy” ska beat.
“I don’t know that I do see a correlation between Irish music and reggae, other than the fact that it’s all about the groove,” says Cruel Seamus bassist Tom Dunphy.
Long time readers of “Off the Record” will recognize the name. Dunphy wrote this column in the two years before I took it over in 1999 (or somewhere thereabouts—we were both fuzzy on our timelines!)
“If something grooves and it’s authentic, it moves me. My parents are Irish-born and that music is close to me. I listened to WFUV on Sunday afternoons went to dances in Gaelic Park,” says Dunphy.
“But when you’re a New Yorker, you can’t help but get wrapped up in different music. You’re like tumbleweed picking up things along the way.”
The tumbleweed approach serves the music well, and the band strikes a nice balance of welding influences on both sides of the Atlantic to create something refreshing, like tipping a pint of Guinness while bathed in a Jamaican sunset.
“Our sound is definitely rooted in the Irish rock sound synonymous with the wave of immigration that created our scene in the nineties,” says Dunphy.
“Our twist on this is that we are really big fans of reggae, ska and country. I am a real dub head and I am a fan of King Tubby, Lee “Scratch” Perry. That’s my bag. The other band members have other influences and it just comes together nicely to make this unique take on our heritage.”
That Irish heritage shines through on the modern rock reel of “Neil Gow’s Lament/Made Behind the Bar/Captain Alex Fraser,” a suite of traditional songs that starts off with a sweet air and builds into a solid wall of modern rock muscle.
Amy Beshara is a tremendous fiddler, raising the dead ghosts in the “Morrison’s/Swallowtail/Apples in Winter” series of jigs. The band, which also includes Kevin Doyle on guitars, creates a glorious ruckus behind Beshara throughout the disc. Dunphy credits Beshara’s fiddle with allowing the band to strike the right balance of old and new in their set lists.
“We give the people what they want, which are the songs they know, and we just drop our original songs into the mix,” he explains.
“Amy joining the band gives us some great energy and when the energy level is up in the room, people are more open to trying on the new song. It peaks their interest when they hear a fiddle at the gig; it’s a warm, friendly vibe that draws people in. From there, you can play a lot of different things when the audience is hooked on that vibe.”
“Kevin Doyle and I had played together for years in a New Jersey based band, ERNIE,” explains drummer and founding Cruel Seamus member John Shea.
“Different elements led to the sad demise of that band. I was kicking around on drums for some other bands, playing other people's tunes, but really wanting to get back the originality and creativity of ERNIE.
“I met up with Tom Dunphy in Rocky Sullivan’s one night, and he was expressing a similar desire. Kevin, Tom and I played for a while as a trio, hooking up with various instrumentalists on occasion. Tom found Amy Beshara on Craigslist and things clicked. She is the greatest thing we've found on Craigslist, other than this futon we found for cheap.”
As if mixing reggae and trad weren’t a tall enough order, Cruel Seamus shifts gears and drops a modern rock rap called “Irish Pride.”
“Got knowledge of my of roots ‘cos I know my roots/firmly planted in the earth ever since my birth,” raps Shea. Irish freestyle normally yields disastrous results, like when an over-served wedding guest takes the mike from the house band, but the raps here are clean and focused with no words wasted.
“I had the lyrics and the beat in mind and asked Kevin to write a riff that sounded like Rage Against the Machine spawned a child with the Wolfe Tones,” says Shea as he explains the origins of the song.
“For the CD, we were lucky enough to have Gavin Rafferty come in the studio with us and put down a verse. We are careful where we play ‘Irish Pride’ live. We've gotten some confused looks in the past playing a hip hop song after ‘The Fields of Athenry.’”
For Dunphy, playing bass in Cruel Seamus allows him a reconnection with his roots that was lost once he stopped writing for the Irish Voice.
“When I was doing ‘Off the Record,’ I was a new father and recently married, and it was hard for me to really get into the scene,” he explains.
“The writing I did was a life line to people like Pierce Turner and Seanchai and the Unity Squad. They are all friends of mine that I really admired.
“At the time I met John about three years ago at Rocky Sullivan’s, we realized we were in the same band in different times. We pooled all of the people we mutually knew in the circles we travelled in and it was pretty easy to put the band together from there. I’m thrilled to be back in the scene again!”
There is much talk about how tough the economy has been on the live Irish music scene, but the lads in Cruel Seamus are upbeat, considering their downbeat band name.
“The Irish music scene a few years back was crazy in New York,” says Shea. “Back then, bands like Black 47, Speir Mor, and Gael Force were packing places. But things are definitely different now.
“The diaspora has had a diaspora, with not as many Irish in New York as there once were and an overall change in musical tastes. So it's not like what it was, but there are still some great bands playing around New York like Jameson's Revenge and Seanchai and the like. It just takes a little more work to find them.
“A lot of pubs are doing the deejay thing these days, but we have our regulars like Hurley's, Legends, Rocky Sullivan's and some pubs out in New Jersey that have been good to us.”
Whatever your tastes, there is something in the Cruel Seamus live set for you. If a traditional air puts a lump in your throat or dance music puts the lump in a more southern direction, this is your band.
“The sound of the band is very eclectic,” says Dunphy. “We all have very different influences in our musical tastes and that's reflected in the choice of covers in our live shows and in the writing of our originals.
“So where we may play some very trad sounding instrumentals and more traditional Irish covers, we also like to play Peter Tosh and the Clash. Where our originals have a lot of Irish influence, we also like to draw on hip hop, reggae, and country to inspire us. We're basically confused.”
For a good time, call Cruel Seamus. To pick up their CD, log onto CruelSeamus.com or catch their show on November 14 at Griffin’s in Creskill, New Jersey or in Manhattan at Legends NYC on November 21.