Social Distancing Spins, Day 5

By Joel Francis

In observance of St. Patrick’s Day, here are some of my finest albums with Irish ties.

The Pogues – If I Should Fall From Grace with God (1988) The only thing wrong with this album is that the title song is too short. The extended 12-inch version on the Pogues box set solves this problem. Mentioning the highlights is like reading the track listing, but I’ll narrow it down to the absolute best. “Fairytale of New York” is my absolute favorite Christmas song and is just as powerful in August as it is in December. Hearing Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan trade stanzas in the final verse always crushes me. This song’s all-time status was cemented in my soul when Bill Murray slurred his way through it with David Johansen and Jenny Lewis in his Christmas special.

There may be no finer tribute to the hope and heartbreak of the 19th century immigrants who traveled to the United States to start a new life than “Thousands are Sailing.” And that’s just side one. We’d better move on or I’ll be here all day.

Stiff Little Fingers – Greatest Hits Live in London (2017) The glory days of this Belfast-born punk band were long over when this live set came out. Although most of the material here pulls from the groups mighty four-album run in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the fire on this inflammable material has dimmed. I really bought this album because it was marked down on a Black Friday sale and signed by the current musicians. As it’s the only SLF I currently own, it will be what I spin when I need to hear “Tin Soldiers” or “Suspect Device.” Oh, one more thing: “Alternative Ulster” makes a great alarm song on your phone. It’s hard not to want to kick the day’s butt after hearing that first thing.

Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak (1976) Yeah, this is the album with “The Boys are Back in Town,” the only song that classic rock radio deigns to circulate, but this is a solid slab of rock from start to finish. “Jailbreak” blows out the speakers like a lost AC/DC song. “Cowboy Song” starts off like a campfire ballad before Phil Lynott’s storytelling takes over and the guitars plug in. Can we talk about Lynott’s lyrics for a moment? “Emerald” reads like a preview to a great lost epic poem. The story in “Romeo and the Lonely Girl” is just as majestic as Mark Knopfler’s masterpiece “Romeo and Juliet.” All with those dual guitars that can sting like a scorpion out of nowhere. Thin Lizzy gets nowhere near the respect they deserve.

The Chieftains – 3 (1971)

Van Morrison and the Chieftains – Irish Heartbeat (1988) If you blindfolded me and played me any one of the Chieftains first half-dozen albums, I’m fairly confident I couldn’t tell them apart. The traditional Irish troupe expanded their sound when they started adding guest artists and gimmicks in the ‘90s. (The Chieftains play movie themes! The Chieftains go to Nashville!) There are many moments to savor on those albums, but I like the unvarnished simplicity of the jigs and reels on their initial run.

Ironically, it was the success of Irish Heartbeat that paved the way for these cross-genre exercises. I don’t begrudge the Chieftains for trying to reach a broader audience but to my ears they’ve never found a better partner than fellow Irishman Van Morrison. For proof, take a look at the group’s star-studded release Long Black Veil from 1995. Everyone from Sting to the Stones shows up, but Morrison steals the album with his own “Have I Told You Lately.” Irish Heartbeat brings out a playful side of Morrison rarely heard, particularly on “I’ll Tell Me Ma” and “Marie’s Wedding.” Hoist a pint and turn it up.

Dropkick Murphys – The Meanest of Times (2007) Irish by way of Boston, the Dropkick Murphys combine the traditional feel of the Chieftains with Thin Lizzy’s hard rock and Stiff Little Finger’s punk attitude. When I played this album in the morning my son announced that he didn’t like it and left the room. That evening he was captivated by the Murphys’ live performance online. I tried to tell him they were the same band from earlier, but he didn’t believe me. I guess some things need to be seen to be believed. (By the way, streaming this concert was a brilliant idea and really seems to be taking off while all of us are stuck at home. According to the counter in the corner, 128,000 people were watching live. That’s a far bigger crowd than they ever could have hoped to reach by playing a St. Patrick’s Day show in Beantown.)

Flogging Molly – Within a Mile of Home (2004) It’s hard to imagine a Dropkick Murphys fan not liking Flogging Molly as well. Molly are slightly less hardcore than the Murphys on record but both acts generate a considerable mosh pit in concert. I found Within a Mile of Home at a ridiculously cheap price on CD shortly after its release. Seeing Lucinda Williams was featured on one track, I picked it up. A couple years later, I found Whiskey on a Sunday, the follow-up EP/DVD under the same circumstances. Watching those live performances convinced me I absolutely had to see this band in concert. While Within a Mile from Home is the only Molly vinyl I own, I’ve seen them a handful of times in person and never been disappointed.

U2 – Boy (1980) If it is possible to think about this divisive Irish quartet without the hype, bombasity and preening it has accumulated over the years, then Boy is it. With the exception of opening track “I Will Follow,” the rest of the album has been excluded from setlists and compilations (although some songs have gradually crept back onstage). The menacing “An Cat Dubh” almost sounds like an anthemic early Cure outtake (with glockenspiel!) that slides into The Edge’s wonderful guitar textures of “Into the Heart.” (Along with Bono’s earnest vocals. U2 were never not-earnest.) There aren’t many hints of The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby here, yet all the essential elements of those albums are present. Sometimes spending time with the boy is more revelatory than hanging out with the man.

A Shooting Star finds home with the Young Dubliners

(Above: “Nobody’s getting any money for this one.” The Young Dubliners bring a little bit of Ireland to the CBS Early Show in 2007.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first thing Chas Waltz does when he returns to Kansas City is check in with friends and family then head straight over to Gates BBQ for a slab of ribs. Waltz has been living in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years, but hasn’t forgotten the great tastes of his hometown.

As the violin player in Shooting Star, Waltz was part of one of the first major rock bands emerge of Kansas City. From 1977 to 1987, Shooting Star rubbed elbows with ZZ Top, Cheap Trick, REO Speedwagon, Jefferson Starship, Kansas and Journey.  They helped put the local music scene on the radar of the powerful coastal labels.

“Whenever people learned we were from Kansas City they always kind of perked up, especially people on the coasts,” Waltz said. “People knew our town from the legendary reggae group the Blue Riddim Band, who were big at the time, but we were the first rock band. It made people take notice.”

After the demise of Shooting Star in the late ‘80s, Waltz relocated to Los Angeles. His violin skills inadvertently put him at the heart of the burgeoning Irish rock scene. The success of U2 and the Pogues had brought a new generation of Irish songwriters to America.

“Shortly after I moved to Los Angeles I hooked up with a friend of mine who was a producer out there, but grew up in Springfield, Mo.,” Waltz said. “He introduced me to that world, and particularly to Dave King, who would later form the group Flogging Molly. I joined his band, which got me into the whole scene. Through that I met the Dubliners.”

Above: The Young Dubliners play tonight at Davy's Uptown Rambler's Club. Show starts at 8 and tickets are $12. Visit http://www.daveysuptown.com/ for more information.

The Dubliners were informal group centered around Dublin natives Keith Roberts and Paul O’Toole who started tweaking and recording their favorite songs from back home. When Roberts and O’Toole lost their fiddle player In the mid-‘90s, they asked Waltz to join their band, now known as the Young Dubliners.

“I didn’t know any of this music when I started out. I was a rock and roll guy,” Waltz said. “But through the festivals we’ve been booked to play, I’ve gotten to learn from a lot of the best fiddle players from Scotland and Ireland.”

Waltz was present for the band’s first full-length album, 1995’s “Reach,” but was gone by the time the second record materialized.

“I was in the band for three years, left to front another band and was back in 2001,” Waltz said. “The timing was right. The band I was in wasn’t working out. Our bass player was also from Kansas City, and he wanted to go back and start a family. That was Norm Dahlor, who now plays with the Elders.”

When Waltz returned, the Dubliners’ lineup finally stabilized. O’Toole had left around the same time as Waltz, but the current crop of players has stayed together, more or less, until today.

“Touring is hard work and not everyone is cut out for it,” Young Dubliners founder Keith Roberts said. “It took a while to find the right mix of people, but the band we have today is the best group I’ve worked with.”

The past 10 years have taken the quintet around the world several times, performing at both Irish and rock festivals and opening for Jethro Tull and Jonny Lang. In 2006, Roberts hastily assembled the band to record a quick follow-up to their biggest record to date, “Real World.” The resulting album, “With All Due Respect,” a baker’s dozen of their favorite Irish songs, has surpassed everything else in their catalog.

“We did that in 17 days,” Roberts said. “The beauty of that album is that we didn’t have much time to over (mess) with it. It was like in our bar band days.

“No matter where we play, we’ll sell as many copies of that album as the new one,” Roberts continued. “It’s timeless. We might do it again.”

It might be a while before that happens, though. The band is feeling the itch to write some more original songs to complement “Saints and Sinners,” the all-new album that followed “Respect.”

“I’m looking forward to getting some new material going,” Waltz said. “I’m writing all the time and I have a lot of stuff wanting to be finished. I can’t wait to hear what the guys will do with it.”

Read more:

Review: Flogging Molly

Kansas City Rocks Out

Go green with Stiff Little Fingers

Go green with Stiff Little Fingers

(Above: The Stiff Little Fingers in all their glory. This live footage of “Alternative Ulster” from 1979 features scrolling lyrics so fans can sing along. Good luck.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The original incarnation of Stiff Little Fingers wasn’t around very long, but during their five-year tenure they were the best band to call Ireland home.

The Belfast, punk group formed in the late-‘70s as a cover act with a moniker nicked from one of their favorite songs – “Highway Star.” It wasn’t long, however, until the punk bug that had been sweeping England infiltrated Ireland. After replacing their bass player and swapping guitar solos for gnarled sneers, the quartet rechristened themselves after their new favorite song, the Vibrators’ “Stiff Little Fingers.”

After playing a show at the Glenmachan Hotel, the CBGB’s of the Irish punk scene, Stiff Little Fingers, or SLF, singer Jake Burns introduced the band to a couple of his pen pals, journalists Gordon Ogilvie and Colin McClelland.

"The Irish Clash."

Teaming with Ogilvie to write about their native land’s current violent political climate, the Fingers recorded their first single. “Suspect Device” was packaged to look like a bomb, but a copy managed to find its way to legendary BBC DJ and underground music champion John Peel, who played the song endlessly.

The band’s second single became their biggest hit. Released in 1978, “Alternative Ulster” was an insistent, yet catchy plea for plea for a united Ireland. (“Ulster” is British shorthand for Northern Ireland.)

After the success of “Ulster,” the Fingers recorded their first album, “Inflammable Material.” When a deal with Island Records fell through, the band was forced to release the record on their own. The album sold more than 100,000 copies and became the first independent release to chart in the United Kingdom when it landed at No. 14 on the album chart. That success paved the way for a contract with Chrysalis Records the following year.

Despite this victory, drummer Brian Faloon decided to leave the band. He was replaced by Jim Reilly, who beat the skins on the band’s third single, “Gotta Gettaway.”

In the spring of 1978, Stiff Little Fingers performed alongside the Clash, Buzzcocks, Sham 69 and several other punk acts in the Rock Against Racism concert. This appearance earned SLF the nickname “the Irish Clash.” Intended as a compliment, the handle hurt more than it helped, since the band failed to live up to comparisons. The Clash had the budget and backing of a major label, while SLF were left to their own devices.

The designation isn’t without merit, though. Both groups had a penchant for populist lyrics, disenchantment and reggae. The Fingers didn’t share the Clash’s penchant for experimentalism, but when it came to straight-ahead punk songs, Burns and guitarist Henry Cluney could definitely give Joe Strummer and Mick Jones a run for their money.

Despite their triumphs, the group had trouble capitalizing on their great singles and memorable albums. They released their second and third albums in 1980 and 1981, but the line-up had become a revolving door. When Reilly left the band after the tour for their third album, Brian Taylor became the band’s third drummer in as many years.

This collection is the best place to for neophytes to jump into the SLF catalog.

The other band started fighting about which direction to take the band. The arguments frequently ended in fistfights. In 1982, weeks after releasing their fourth studio album, Burns pulled the plug on Stiff Little Fingers.

Five years later, the band reunited to make some money. After a handful of short tours, Burns decided to take the group into the studio and record some new songs. Despite and impressive lineup that included former Jam bassist Bruce Foxton, the Fingers were basically Burns’ show. From 1991 to 2006, he and Foxton were the only two consistent members of the group.

The reformed Fingers have released four albums, but have been quiet since the original SLF bass player, Ali McMordie, replaced Foxton four years ago. Burns has been promising new material for several years. Until that comes, there are more than enough treasures from the band’s glory days to keep fans happy.

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Review: Flogging Molly

(Above: “Drunken Lullabies.”)

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

It didn’t take much for Flogging Molly to transform Fat Tuesday into St. Patrick’s Day.

The Celtic punk band performed a blazing 90-min. set for a sold-out Uptown Theater crowd Tuesday night. The evening opened at full throttle with “Man With No Country,” a joyous jangle of guitars, violin, banjo and drums.

“The Likes of You Again” started acoustically before exploding into a high-octane jig and reel. It’s a trick Flogging Molly has perfected: take an Irish melody, crank the performance to 11 and drop in an anthemic chorus. Although this leaves the songs sounding similar, there’s enough twiddling with the dynamics that they never get old.

The banjo intro to “Drunken Lullabies” had everyone stomping so hard the balcony was shaking. When the full band finally entered, the crowd ignited in a fury of singing, clapping, dancing and moshing. It was the band’s biggest response of the night, although they came close a couple other times.

After “Lullabies” it was impossible to go any higher, so the band dialed it down with a three-song acoustic set. “The Son Never Shines (On Closed Doors)” was dedicated to singer Dave King’s 87-year-old Irish mother. Dressed with a banjo melody and nifty slide guitar solo, the ode to a home that isn’t visited frequently enough was just as affecting as the full-bore material.

The 90-minute set was split evenly between the band’s first two and most recent studio albums. Early in the set, King promised they would perform several more obscure songs, like “The Worst Day Since Yesteday,” but they didn’t seem to stump anyone signing along.

With the house lights up, the crowd launched into the chorus of “Rebels of the Sacred Heart” after the opening chord. If that song felt like a soccer anthem, the next number, “If I Ever Leave This World Alive,” transformed the Uptown into an Irish pub. With cups hoisted and lyrics belted it was the second biggest response of the night.

The band stood six abreast across the front of the stage, with the drummer on risers behind. Acknowledging their previous shows at the Beaumont Club and growing audience, King noted they were “a long way from the old mechanical bull days.”

The Los Angeles-based Aggrolites set the bar high with their amazing 45-minute opening set. The quintet’s “dirty reggae” sounded like Kingston via Aztlan, or Los Lobos paying tribute to the Specials, sans horns. The band’s not-so-secret weapon was organist Roger Rivas, who propelled the most numbers with his mighty B3. Rarely pausing between songs, the band kept the energy high and the crowd moving. They closed with an optimistic, doubletime cover of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” that found two members of Flogging Molly onstage contributing backing vocals onstage.

Setlist: Man With No Country/The Likes of You Again/Requiem for a Dying Song/Selfish Man/The Worst Day Since Yesterday/You Won’t Make a Fool Out of Me/(No More) Paddy’s Lament/Drunken Lullabies/Us of Lesser Gods/The Son Never Shines (On Closed Doors)/Float/Tobacco Island/The Kilburn High Road/Rebels of the Sacred Heart/If I Ever Leave This World Alive/The Lightning Storm/What’s Left of the Flag/Seven Deadly Sins/The Story So Far//encore//Grace of God Go I/Devil’s Dance Floor/Salty Dog

Review: Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” at the Hollywood Bowl

Above: Van the Man’s down on “Cypress Avenue.”

By Joel Francis

If Van Morrison’s 1968 release “Astral Weeks” is the album of a lifetime, then watching him perform it live in its entirety is the chance of a lifetime.

Kansas City’s own Irish troubadour Eddie Delahunt took advantage of that opportunity and booked a trip to see Van Morrison perform his seminal album on November 8, the last of two nights at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

“It was historic,” Delahunt said. “I’ve seen Van before, and sometimes he can be grumpy with the material. This was the best I’d seen him. He played it straight and true. You could see he was real with it.”

Morrison opened the night by revisiting some of his bigger numbers, like “Gloria” and “Brown Eyed Girl” and lesser-known album cuts like “And the Healing Has Begun” and “Summertime in England.”

“‘Caravan’ was great, but there were no leg kicks like in ‘The Last Waltz,'” Delahunt said with a laugh, referring to Morrison’s performance in the 1978 Martin Scorsese film about The Band. “During ‘The Healing Game’ he did a little back-and-forth (call and response) with Richie Buckley on sax, trying to trip him up.”

Delahunt’s $250 terrace seats placed him dead center, about 40 yards from the stage. He said the high prices – tickets started at $350 – kept the crowd over 30 years old and the bowl under capacity.

“Van had the crowd in his hands for the first set,” Delahunt said. “Then they took a 15 minute break to rearrange the stage for ‘Astral Weeks’ and Van ran it straight through.”

For “Astral Weeks,” Morrison’s band, which was assembled in a semi-circle around him, was augmented by a three-piece string section and “Astral Weeks” album guitarist Jay Berliner. Original session bassist Richard Davis was also scheduled to join the group, but a last-minute family emergency kept him away.

Morrison shuffled the album’s order, slipping the closer “Slim Slow Slider” into the third spot and coupling the upbeat jazz numbers “Sweet Thing” and “The Way Young Lovers Do” into a powerful one-two punch.

“Everyone loved ‘Madame George,’ but ‘Cypress Avenue’ was the best for me. He played it closest to the album and you could see he was enjoying it,” Delahunt said. “During a song like ‘Slim Slow Slider,’ he wasn’t just playing the harmonica, but humming into it.”

Morrison closed the evening with an one-song encore of “Listen To the Lion” and a twist on an old phrase.

“As Van said at the end,” Delahunt recalled, “‘You made a happy man very old.'”

Note: The performance was filmed for future release on DVD. Catch Eddie Delahunt in concert by checking out his concert calendar.