A Dose O' Fightin' Irish Alternarock Hails From The Unlikely Village Of Tempe
By Dave McElfresh
SEPTEMBER 8, 1997: OKAY, I'LL ADMIT it: I'm a music snob who automatically dismisses local bands as sub-standard, resulting in saving my bar bucks for the big acts that swing through town. But I happened to catch Tempe's Keltic Cowboys strictly out of prurient interest: My wife used to date one of the singers.
Two hours later, I praised her for her exceptional taste. They're one amazing band, this musical snoot conceded. I'm still singing their sentimental closing tune, "Kiss My Irish Ass." My wife is asking me to stop.
When playing full throttle, the Keltic Cowboys come off like a train wreck between the Clash and the Chieftains, with a heavy nod in the direction of Shane MacGowan and the Pogues. But this is no mindless fraternity party band: Singers Frank Mackey and Brian O'Carroll sing self-penned tunes about dead Irish outlaws and political upheavals in Belfast--not exactly the follow-up for a club's karaoke hour. Couple that with the band's penchant for bagpipes, Celtic surf instrumentals and Irish-flavored reggae, and you've got a group too alternative for the alternative scene.
Mackey and company regularly encounter that problem when soliciting venues. "There's a lot of mediocrity in the Tempe music scene," says Mackey in between sets. "Venues tend to go with bands playing it safe, bands that all use the same amp and play the same feedback noise. It was fine when Nirvana did it, but after a while mainstream alternative music all sounds the same."
Mainstream alternative music has become not only oxymoronic, but the very real preference of club owners who figure the Keltic Cowboys will probably bring in a crowd of three senior citizens wearing kilts.
God knows what this particular bar's owner must have thought when the band took to the stage with a banjo, bagpipes, accordion and Uilleann pipes. It's the setup you've come to expect only on St. Patrick's Day, played by a band that favors sappy, sentimental Irish classics. The Keltic Cowboys' first gig may have been on St. Patrick's Day, 1995, but they definitely weren't playing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." Mackey was hell-bent on taking the country's music far beyond such corny fare.
"Brian had previously been a member of Black Ashling, a band rooted in more traditional Irish music. After leaving the group, he and violinist Christine (Hand) were the opening act for an earlier incarnation of the Keltic Cowboys. I had crossed paths with Brian for the previous decade as we played solo gigs around the Valley. When I found myself frustrated with the band's lineup, I made a few changes and brought Brian and Christine on board."
While some songwriters discourage the input of other bandmembers, Mackey is as supportive of O'Carroll's contributions as he is his own. "I'm more wordy that he is," he admits. "Brian writes more accessible, radio kinds of songs than I do." Mackey's high compliment may be a bit inaccurate on several counts: It's impossible to tell which writer wrote what, so well do they work together, and unless he knows of radio stations I'm missing, they both write with far too much Celtic influence to ever show up on either side of a Gap radio advertisement.
While they'll accommodate the audience by playing the Pogues' "Fairytale In New York," and the Waterboys "Bang On The Ear," their strongest material is their own. Their self-titled CD is an entirely engaging, terminally melodic paean to all things Irish--which means love songs take a back seat to political fight songs like "Sound of a Gun."
Maybe that perspective explains why Mackey brushes off the utterly gorgeous young woman who asks him for a ride to their upcoming gig in Jerome. When it comes to his music, he's a fighter, not a lover.
"I don't want to be what people want me to be," he says of both himself and the band as he heads back for the evening's fourth and last set. If anything, the band may be in the process of alienating themselves even moreso from the so-called alternative venues. They've added a few more Middle Eastern-flavored instrumentals that sound like Dick Dale visits Pakistan by way of Dublin, and a song called "Forty Drinks Below" that portrays the orchestra on the Titanic continuing to play as the ship goes down. "I'm finishing up a song called 'New York Bombing Disaster,' about the Twin Towers terrorists," he adds.
Nonetheless, nearly every venue that's featured the Keltic Cowboys has brought in a full house. One Irish bar in Phoenix was packed with fans two full hours before the show. At 1 a.m., a woman older than your grandmother was clapping and singing lewd lyrics along with the band. Mackey and O'Carroll ducked into the parking lot to learn an Irish ballad someone had requested. David Wuichet played a lengthy bagpipe solo to a converted audience of yelping college students whose closest ties with Ireland were probably an empty pitcher of Guinness.
There's no way you can see the Keltic Cowboys and continue to relegate Irish music to a yearly ritual centering on green beer and sing-alongs to "The Unicorn." Considering the fuck-you attitude Mackey and O'Carroll have regarding such Irish clichés, it wouldn't be surprising if the band refused to play anywhere come next St. Paddy's Day. Best to catch them in the ensuing months, giving pause to crowds who think Irish music is that lame harp stuff played on NPR.
The bandmembers were uniformly pissy following the night's final set. None felt they had sounded up to par, thanks to the bar's worn-out sound system. Evidently they hadn't heard the audience's substantial support over the buzz of the speakers. O'Carroll had impressively howled his way through some hardcore up-tempo cuts (fueled by a few black-and-tans); quiet Hand's violin had conjured up tight duets with Wuichet's mandolin; Tony Masiowicz's bombastic drumming perfectly showcased his punk roots; and Rich Merriman's exemplary bass playing revealed all the dexterity you'd expect from someone with his classical guitar training.
It was also obvious from the club owner's animated praise that he wanted to lock the band in a closet until next Saturday night. The Keltic Cowboys, though, are not for selling their souls to any particular hangout. "It's better not to play at all than to play a place too often," said Mackey, who'd prefer unemployment to becoming a dreaded House Band. He and the others will keep chipping away at the alternative clubs as they've done for years, winning over enough venues in the Phoenix area, Flagstaff, Tucson and Albuquerque to afford them a career with some variety. As for the club owners who only book bands that sound like the last one, the Keltic Cowboys have something special they can kiss.
The Keltic Cowboys play the Third Stone Bar and Grill, 500 N. Fourth Ave., at 10 p.m. Friday, September 5. Cover is a smokin' $3 at the door. Call 628-8844 for information.
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