folk that rocks… not folk rock!
Featuring over 75 years of artistry in Boston punk and hardcore bands playing old time Celtic pub music
Tin Can Hooley are a Boston Irish band right out of the Boston Irish community. Despite never having set foot there I feel I know Boston well what with the Dropkick Murphys and films like The Departed or TV shows like The Black Donnellys or Cheers and a multitude of factual programmes raking over the Irish mafia/ mob that have ruled in Boston up to the present day. Therefore it should come as no surprise to anyone that the Irish do indeed run Boston. Perhaps not as blatantly as in years gone by, and certainly no longer with guns and muscle, but Boston is still to this day an Irish city with over 20% proclaiming their Irishness. The Irish first arrived in the early 17th century as indentured servants, merchants, sailors or tradesmen. Catholicism was still illegal so many hid their religion but it was the years of The Great Hunger that saw the Irish population explode. Between 1845 and 1849, 100,000 Irish refugees arrived in Boston, fleeing starvation and pestilence. They transformed Boston into a distinctly Irish city and by the end of the 19th century, Boston’s core neighbourhoods had become enclaves of ethnically distinct immigrants with the Irish dominating, for example, the whole of South Boston. It wasn’t all plain sailing though and the Irish were met with considerable discrimination. From the first moment of their arrival, the Irish occupied the basement of American society. Much of this discrimination was the result of anti-Catholic sentiment. Catholicism was extremely important to the Irish community. Attending church was mandatory and defined what made a good citizen. No single group of individuals did more to change the face of Irish-Americans than the Kennedy family. Through their military service and political careers, Joe Kennedy and his sons became American royalty. The entrance of the Irish into politics marked the turning point and the end of blatant Irish discrimination. Famous actors and TV stars- Denis Leary, Ben and Casey Affleck, Mark Wahlberg, Mike O’Malley, Conan O’Brien, Politicians- The Kennedy’s, Tip O’Neal, and sportsman like John L.Sullivan, Micky ‘Irish’ Ward, Kevin McHale, and its basketball team- The Boston Celtics, and its infamous gangsters like James J ‘Whitey’ Bulger and James ‘Spike’ O’Toole all show the pride that Bostonians have in their Irish roots. A walk around the working class Irish areas of Boston and you could be back in Ireland or even Kilburn of the 70’s/ 80’s and you can see why Boston is known as America’s most Irish town. Added to these is perhaps the reason we are here at all, The Dropkick Murphys! I am sure they need no introduction other than to say that it was their Irish-American background growing up that inspired them to become a band fusing punk and Oi! and traditional Irish music and lyrics.
(photo credit Billy Calmovita)
With all this in mind it’s no surprise then music has figured high in the culture of the Boston Irish. As well as the celtic-punk bands that have emerged from the city from the Murphys and The Street Dogs to bands like The Larkin Brigade and The Gobshites who took over and newer bands like Mickey Rickshaw and The Welch Boys, Boston has been at the very forefront of blending traditional Irish music and rock and punk and other music too. Punk bands like Negative FX, Death Before Dishonor and Gang Green have also all given a fair nod to their celtic roots while playing the uncompromising music you would associate with ‘Boston Hardcore’.
Left to right: Will “Sully” Toxic (guitars, bouzouki, vocals), Heavyset Joe (fiddle, vocals), Dynamite Jack (drums), Paddy Keys (piano, vocals), Benny the Fireman (accordion, vocals, tin whistle, harmonica, bagpipes)
So with all that history behind them how can a relatively new band make a name for themselves? Well one way is to make a shit-kicking album of traditional folk standards, jigs and reels that is high on energy and expertly played instruments with enough of a punk rock edge to prevent it going into ‘finger-in-the-ear’ folk territory. This is what Tin Can Hooley have managed to do with ‘Racket In The Parlor’. Fifteen songs clocking in at just under an hour’s worth of top notch punky Irish folk music.
Playing together on and off since 1999 Tin Can Hooley are a combination of two distinct Boston Irish bands. Firstly the legendary punk band Toxic Narcotic, who played a style of hardcore punk known as crust who were not for the sensitive or faint hearted. They were the real deal, working class anarchist punk rock with a ‘F’The World’ attitude and absolutely no compromises. The other band was The Larkin Brigade, who actually happen to be one of my all time favourite celtic-punk bands, and who would, I am sure, have gone onto much better and bigger things if they had managed a follow up to the brilliant ‘Paddy Keys For Mayor!’ album and managed to tour a bit more. They were described, brilliantly, as
“if the Wolfe Tones had sex with Ben Folds Five, and then, nine months later, a tearful Ben Folds Five left a bassinet on the doorstep of a bewildered Minor Threat, who, after attempting to raise the little bundle itself, passed the kid off into the social services system, where it went through a series of foster homes including the Pogues and Blood for Blood, before it was taken under the wing of the Rolling Stones, who paid for it to take piano lessons from Scott Joplin and then Jerry Lee Lewis, each of whom in turn kicked the kid out of class for not practising, and finally the kid ran away and worked in an Irish pub, where it osmotically memorized every song in the book while mopping puke off the floor, until one day the Wolfe Tones walked in to order a pint and recognized its own offspring running cases of Magner’s behind the bar, and, after a brawl that caused thousands of dollars in damage and a bar tab that cost hundreds, bestowed upon the kid a lucky Claddagh ring with special powers, then that kid would grow up to be the Larkin Brigade”
So Tin Can Hooley come from quite a musical heritage themselves and boy they don’t let Boston down one bit as these Bhoys can certainly play! ‘Racket In The Parlor’ clocks in at just under one hour and kicks off with the Irish air/Scots barn dance ‘Loch Na gCaor/Killiecrankie’ and is instantly reminiscent of The Larkin Brigade and that feeling gets stronger when Paddy sings in the next song, ‘Johnsons Motorcar’.
“Well we put that car in motion and filled it to the brim
With guns and bayonets shining which made old Johnston grim
And Barney hoisted a Sinn Fein flag and it fluttered like a star
And we gave three cheers for the IRA and Johnston’s Motor Car”
Based on a real event in 1920 during the Irish War Of Independence when a IRA flying column desperately needed transport to a town over fifty miles away. They called out Henry Johnston, the local doctor, and then ambushed him and his car at a railway bridge and commandeered the car. Humour and real history captured in a great song. A selection of more reels and jigs follow and the wonderful fiddle work drives it along with piano, accordion, bagpipes, bouzouki, tin whistle and harmonica all popping up again and again giving the album a well rounded and full sound. The piano gives it all a music hall feel but there is a respect for the people and musicians who sang these songs first while Tin Can Hooley add to and adapt so these songs can be passed onto the next generation who will perform them and celebrate them.
The usual standards are also here with ‘Tell Me Ma’, McAlpines Fusiliers’ and ‘The Fields Of Athenry’ all getting an airing and though you may have heard them a thousand times don’t be letting that put you off as Tin Can Hooley perform everything with their own personal flair and touch. ‘The Moonshiner’ again shows the bands great sense of humour
“I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler,
I’m a long way from home
And if you don’t like me,
Well, leave me alone
I’ll eat when I’m hungry,
I’ll drink when I’m dry
And if moonshine don’t kill me,
I’ll live till I die”
Tin Can Hooley must go down an absolute storm in the pubs and clubs of Boston and they have transferred their fun and raucous sound onto ‘Racket In The Parlor’ and it doesn’t fail to surprise. There is so much here within the fifteen songs with excerpts of countless songs slotted in unannounced to shock you. Its a brilliant album and chock-a-block with energy and fire to fill your hearts and stomachs. ‘John Ryans Polka/ Wild Colonial Boy’ leads you on a merry dance and this reminds me of The Pogues with their ability to make folk instruments sound as loud and as punk as any punk band. A slow version of ‘Fields Of Athenry’ features the beautiful voice of twelve year old Siobhan Hayes. It seems Tin Can Hooley are already aiding that next generation of Boston Irish. ‘Derry Air/ Gravel Work’ shows the serious traditional side to the band and if anyone would ever accuse them of not being able to play then I’d suggest they shove this in the accuser’s face! ‘Its A Long Way To Tipperary’ ends the album and the music hall favourite written by 2nd generation Irish Brummie Jack Judge in 1912 has never sounded such fun. A great finale and this song shows everything great about Tin Can Hooley.
All in all a wonderful album and one to be filed among the more trad side of celtic-punk. The assortment of punk rockers playing gives it an definite feel of a punk rock record while the music stays within the confines of a folk record. Superb musicianship and some really great adaptations of some classic, and not so, songs from Ireland, Scotland, Cape Breton and America. Would love to hear some originals from this band but with their pedigree it shouldn’t be too long I am sure.
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*interview with Tin Can Hooley here from the excellent celtic-punk web site Shite’n’Onions