by Paul DeCamp
11 P.M. on the northwest side of Chicago, a corner at one of the city’s famous five way intersections. Or maybe its 6. Your sharpness with numbers has been dulling over the last few hours. The air is frigid and still, save for some laughs and chatter coming from the small group you’re standing with outside the bar where a trio that makes up the core of a local Irish punk band have just finished their first set of the night. The front man holds court as the unofficial discussion leader for the people taking cigarette breaks. He regales the crowd with stories about being sent champagne and Guinness to make Black Velvets by Bono in Dublin, or meeting Shane and the boys while opening for The Pogues. Perhaps a childhood memory of discovering an old Clancy Brothers record. You’re in Chicago, so a quip about Rahm or the governor makes it in too. This is perfect interlude to what you’ve been watching already this evening, you think, this sidebar on the sidewalk.
The place is the Abbey Pub in Chicago’s Avondale neighbourhood. The band is The Tossers.
For the last several years, front man Tony Duggins, Rebecca Manthe, and Tony’s brother Aaron, have played a free acoustic show at the Abbey the first Friday of each month. The trio offers up a mix of old Irish folk songs and their own punk-tinged material to a crowd of mixed age and background. Friends of the band who have made the journey from Tinley Park and other points south pepper the audience, which ranges from young punks to older Irish folk aficionados. All tend to sing along and yell requests freely, with Duggins and company usually happy to oblige.
With St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon, March always sees an increase in tour dates from bands marketing themselves as ‘Irish rock’, ‘celtic punk’, ‘rebel music’ and the like. It’s a necessity for the sort of bars that make significant profits from the holiday. Only a handful of groups have been able to distinguish themselves and make a go of it outside of the St Patrick’s Day season.
Dropkick Murphys has enjoyed huge success in recent years after being featured in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and becoming associated with the Boston Red Sox. On the West Coast, Flogging Molly managed to entice the local skate punks with their ‘oirish’ bravado and now have gone national. But the Dropkicks have since become better at selling t-shirts than spinning yarns, and Flogging Molly has taken a few sonic left turns and lost the swagger that distinguished their early records. In the middle of the country, in Chicago, one Irish punk organization has remained committed to not selling out.
In the Irish rock scene, which does not lack for hackneyed acts, The Tossers stand apart.
Duggins is the sole remaining poet in Irish punk and the inheritor of the tradition of Shane MacGowan, whose work with The Pogues set the precedent for all Celtic-infused rock to come. From politically-charged ballads to rousing barroom anthems, lamentations, and benedictions featuring the likes of Dee Dee Ramone and Brendan Behan, Duggins’ songwriting contains great depth and sincerity, as well as a deep understanding of history and the human condition.
While the affectations are there, such as the whistles and fiddle and Duggins’ accent, they do not distract from the strength of the music. The band is aware of the dangers of falling into kitsch, of playing too much at being drunken Paddies and singing about going out to Cal-i-forn-i-ay. The track ‘USA’ from their most recent album, last year’s The Emerald City, displays this awareness from the outset, with Duggins proclaiming
“We were born in the U.S.A.”
It goes on to document family life, teenage antics, and the loss and suffering of wartime experienced by the working class. The video features Duggins walking through Chicago’s Chinatown, interspersed with bar scenes and shots of the band playing, offering an example of how Duggins’ tunes highlight the aspects of Irish music and experience that transcend decades and borders.
A waitress assembles a line of Guinness pints, three or four of them, on the stage next to Duggins near the beginning of most Friday night gigs at the Abbey. However incapacitated he might become, Duggins will raise his pint and sing ‘The Parting Glass’ to end the evening. No matter the size of the room, the song will bring the crowd to a somber and reflective silence, the kind you might find during prayer at a wake, where it is typically sung.
It is moments like this that distinguish The Tossers from their contemporaries.
Moments where we find that there might be a mystical quality to growing up Irish and Catholic on the South Side of Chicago, living in a world where the dead never really leave us and loss and suffering remain as a reminder that we should savor the joy we find in our companions. Love, loyalty, and friendship, the Irish virtues extolled on the claddagh ring, abide in these moments and we find that they are not solely Irish, but wholly human. And perhaps that is the great gift the Irish have given us in their literature and music, a gift Duggins and The Tossers continue to give us, whether to a small barroom in Avondale or a festival stage in Germany.
Chicago is their home, Ireland is their heritage, but The Tossers make music that is for all of us and is not meant to be listened to just one month out of year.
I leave you with Duggins performing ‘The Parting Glass’
this article first appeared on ‘We Started A Band’ blog and thanks to the guys for letting us show it again… check out their great blog here
for our review of The Tossers album from last year ‘The Emerald City’ go here
another equally great Chicago celtic-punk band are Kevin Flynn And The Avondale Ramblers and our review of their last album is here