It's St. Patrick's Day, and for Celtic punk bands like L.A.'s Flogging Molly and local boyos Keltic Cowboys, today is the biggest day of the year.
Each March 17, mobs of frat boys, sorority girls, punkers, and 9- to 5-ers get the Irish itch, tossing on as much emerald as can be found, eager to celebrate a culture often reduced to drunken stereotypes by getting hosed on dyed-green domestic and Guinness.
It's a peculiar situation, and one that needs the appropriate soundtrack. That Flogging Molly, arguably the biggest Celtic punk band in America, has landed in Phoenix for their St. Paddy's Day gig seven times in the past decade is no accident.
"When we went out on our first tour, we played Phoenix and there was more people at that show than any other," says Flogging Molly guitarist Dennis Casey. "We found out that the Edge [103.9] was playing our songs, and it [the support from Phoenix] just kept growing and growing."
The band's Phoenix fans and strong ties to Valley promoters Luckyman Productions made it a natural fit for Tempe's St. Paddy's Day party.
"People stereotype a lot and think you should play on the East Coast or Chicago — one of those kinds of places," says Casey. "The great thing about it is in New York City you have The Pogues, Dropkick Murphy's play Boston, The Tossers play Chicago, and, you know, Flogging Molly plays Phoenix. You guys always have great weather there, so we can do it outside. More people can go, which I think is great, because if you're playing in a cold city, you aren't playing outside [to as many people.]"
Patrick Flanagan plays guitar in Keltic Cowboys, a local Celtic rock band led by songwriter Frank Mackey that has been kicking around the local roots scene "on and off for the past 10 years." Their website proudly proclaims the band as "Arizona's Premier Irish Rock," and Flanagan says the band plays nearly every weekend.
"There's a good number of Irish pubs through out the Valley, from all corners of the Valley. In downtown Tempe you've got Robbie Fox's Public House and Rúla Búla, the Dubliner in North Phoenix, Fibber McGees in Chandler, Tim Finnegan's up by Metrocenter, Irish Wolfhound out on the west side, and more. There are plenty of Irish pubs to play it. We're booked every weekend at a different pub somewhere in the Phoenix area."
St. Patrick's Day is far bigger than a normal weekend gig, Flanagan says. The band opened for Flogging Molly at Tempe Beach Park last year as well, and the response was bigger than they expected. "I can't even tell you all the attention last year's show brought to the band," Flanagan says.
"We usually don't end up doing anything different," says Casey of his band's St. Paddy's Day sets. "The audience lets loose a bit more and wears more green, but, yeah, it is the biggest day, playing-wise, when you are an Irish rock band or any kind of Irish band."
Flanagan says the band definitely delivers what people expect from an "Irish rock band."
"We do [Irish standards] 'Drunken Sailor' and 'Whiskey in the Jar,' but we try and do our own version, take it over. It might be something you'd expect from the Dropkick Murphys or Flogging Molly, but we take traditional songs and put our own spin on them. We do covers from bands we admire, like Flogging Molly, The Waterboys, and The Pogues. [Those are bands] that have been doing it a long time and inspired us to take a stab at his music."
To the cynic, it all sounds packaged: Bands sprinkle their punk tunes with some fiddle and mandolin, a few references to "dear ol' dad," "raising a glass," and the fortitude afforded by Guinness Stout, and they play them on a sure-fire cash-in day, when people want exactly what they are selling, a product that is casually Irish enough but still loud and unruly, unlike their parents' Irish Rovers folk LPs.
Both Casey and Flanagan insist the combination of traditional folk and punk is far less calculated.
"If you go way back," says Casey, "Irish people would play in their living rooms or pubs, before radio or TV. This music is hundreds of years old, and that's the way people entertained themselves. People would just sit around and play these Irish tunes and drink and laugh and have a good time. You put some guitar and bass and drums behind that, and speed it up, put some balls to it. Folk music is the oldest music there is. It's very basic and real, and it just speaks to the working class [like punk does.]"
"I think it's just music for working-class people," says Flanagan. "It's very raw, just a real basic kind of music that speaks for itself."
Though punkier, Flanagan says, the band often invites traditional musicians on stage, as well as guests from the rock end of the spectrum. Playing the Phoenix St. Patrick's Day Fair found the band performing alongside mostly traditional folk acts.
"You see a lot of unique, really folky stuff, traditional bands with bodhrán and harps, and it's really amazing to witness some very traditional stuff. And then you get bands like The Brazen Heads or us up there. We will get guests to come up, [like] Jason Devore [of Authority Zero and his own Irish side project, The Bollox], to take the stage, and it works both ways — we'll have traditional-folk folks come up and play with us. We love it all."
Flanagan says that fans of traditional Irish folk can sometimes be put off by the band's aggressive sound. "The older version of Cowboys was a lot more reserved than what you get now, and fans who got used to them the way they were. When Frank assembled this set of musicians to do what we do now, it really threw them off. Some of those fans came up and told us, 'Hey, we tried, but we just can't get into it,' and we just tell them, 'Hey, you can't make everyone happy.' But I know we appeal a lot to the younger crowd or the club-going crowd, and the results speak for themselves: We are booked week in and week out, all through 2011, and we know we're going to be solid."
Cash grab or not, both bands stand a shot at winning listeners over on March 17. "We gained a lot of fans last St. Patrick's Day," says Flanagan. "We are looking to do even better this year. We have been getting ready the past couple of weeks just getting our game plan down, and we're coming out all guns blazing."
Cynicism and skepticism aside, it's hard to deny the connection both bands get to make with their audience at least one day out of the year, and the dedication Irish bands put forth to making each St. Paddy's Day a good one. "We used to do three shows [on St. Patrick's Day], which was really hard to do," says Casey. "Mostly hard to get drunk that many times that day — well, we didn't have to get drunk — but it's St. Patrick's Day, so you start the day drinking and pretty much end the day the same way. Yeah, it's the biggest day of the year for an Irish rock band."