If Liam Clancy grew up listening to Nirvana, it would sound like Rusty Nail.
St.Louis based Celtic-infused celtic-rock originals and traditional Irish Pub songs.
Rusty Nail will be a name new to the vast majority I am sure but with this their new album they deserve a much wider audience and this just may be the one to get them it. Born and bred in the second biggest city of Missouri, St. Louis and when you find out the biggest city in Missouri is Kansas City you begin to realise exactly whereabouts in America you are. Famed through cinema history as the epi-centre of just about any decent cowboy film St Louis was a city founded by the French that transformed into a booming nineteenth-century industrial mecca. Experiencing a massive influx of people beginning in the 1840’s especially from Ireland and also from Germany, in forty years the population grew from 20,000 to 160,00 in 1860. Today the US Census Bureau gives the population of St. Louis as 318,416. Militant societies were formed, and an Irish nationalist rally at the Old Courthouse over 110 years ago filled the place to the rafters. Sadly in recent years the economy of the city has declined and St Louis has the highest percentage loss of residents of any city in the USA losing 62.7% since the 1950 census. It also has one of the highest murder rates in the USA (happily on the decline since 1993) but don’t despair as gentrification has given the business area lots of shiny new buildings for everyone to look at from across the city. Though as usual statistics don’t take into account the heart of a city and St. Louis has plenty of that. The city has also acknowledged their roots with those famine Irish who arrived all that time ago by twinning with both Galway and Donegal and while many of the Catholic churches those Irish built are gone and new residents live where they once lived the Irish community is still vibrant and strong with gaelic games and culture and tradition flourishing. The story of the St. Louis Irish is fascinating and I spent many a late night reading about them for this review. A great place to start is Bob Corbett’s Dogtown Homepage here. Dogtown is the Irish part of St. Louis and the name stems from the time of the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 when poor Irish squatters, living in makeshift shanties in Forest Park, were forced by the fair to move southward to the neighboring hill. As Bob himself says
“When they had to give up their squatters’ rights in the park, many of them moved over here. Most of them had space, so they kept hunting dogs. Quite a few of the people living over here descend from them”
So out of this imperfect (tell me where is?) city comes the latest in a long line of Irish infused celtic-punk bands. Rusty Nail are a seven piece group formed in the winter of 2005 that plays music inspired by the likes of the ususal suspects of The Pogues, The Tossers and Flogging Molly but also of the Clancy Brothers, The Wolfe Tones and even Tom Waits. Their debut album, Ounce And A Half Of Whiskey, released in 2006 showed a band a long way from today’s incarnation. Played as a straight up four piece acoustic band the album stands up extremely well with its mix of mostly self penned ballads and a few trad covers and all with some surprisingly good country’n’western touches. They followed that up in 2011 with the release of Boozers, Bastards, and Bards. It saw the band move away from the acoustic more folkier music they had been playing. As Rusty Nail co-founder Alvan Caby says
“We always wanted to be a full rock band. So about a year into the band’s run, we added drum, bass and guitar slots to make a bigger sound”
With this ‘full sound’, as they put it, the album brought some great reviews and gained them massive exposure and they very soon became firm favourites among the St Louis Irish community and its friends. The album is again a collection of mostly self penned tunes about drunks, unsavory characters and Irish poets chucked into a blender and mixed up with traditional folk sounds, rock and punk. The band take their name from an old-timey alcoholic beverage made with Whiskey and Drambuie Liqueur that gives a nod to the past while keeping it modern and helping along the booze-fueled festivity!
Rusty Nail left to right: Pete McAvity- Electric Guitar * Chris Otto- Tin Whistle, Native American Flute * Dennis Frentzel- Drums * Kelly LaRussa- Violin * Alvan Caby- Mandolin, Guitar, Vocals * Chad Ross- Guitar, Banjo, Dulcimer, Accordion, Bouzouki, EBow, Organ * Mark Hochberg- Bass
So in the 10th anniversary year of the band they have come up trumps again with Bitter Ale, Bitter Heart. The album begins with ‘The Magician’ and fiddle and from the outset sets the tone. You can hear influence from The Tossers here but Rusty Nail are their own band and within the first few bars you can tell this band is something special. Alvan’s lyrics sound like they are ripped straight out from his heart and laid bare for us. He said in a recent interview that
“There’s lots of silly lyrics in our older songs. But for now it’s about the idea of honesty and true-story kind of stuff. I’m a big fan of sad lyrics with happy-sounding music. There are a lot of artists who do a similar sort of thing. It’s about being honest. I don’t know if it will mean as much to the next person as it does to me, but maybe it will. It helps me deal with feelings of failure, feelings of loneliness and feelings of disappointment. But there’s also feelings of love and hope. As dark as the songs get, then there’s still hope”
That thing Alvan said about sad lyrics with happy-sounding music nails the Rusty Nail sound perfectly. ‘Return To The Start’ the next track up gives off an triumphant air with the jolly sound of fiddle and this time the mandolin to the fore but again there’s much more to it.
(not the album version but I like it even more)
Alvan’s voice is not yer perfect croon, that much is true but I very much doubt it could be done any other way and it fits in like no ‘crooner’ ever could. ‘Giving Up’ gives it over to the tin whistle to shine and more lyrics maybe best not to listen to in the dark on your lonesome but by Christ it’d be enough to get you out yer chair and leaping around. As has been said before here on this blog the level of musicianship of some of these celtic-punk bands is incredible.
‘Less Than Angels’ is the first slower song of the album and tells of the Irish that left in those so called ‘famine’ years. Again a real and honest heartfelt song that tells the story in a way I have never quite heard before.
“The hunger drives you to do incredible things
To travel across oceans and cut off all our wings
And be less than angels with sin in our heart
Abandoning our nature, destroying all our art
They say that the famine was the cause for all of this
It’s a hell of a gamble, a swing and a miss
A perishable future amongst gravel and soot
The dust of our harvest is trampled under foot
Will the poor be poor always?
Zero hope and dream is killed
Will the classes and divisions
Become narrower still
No belief in myself
Erasing all our goals
The grave-digging starts tomorrow
Better start digging your hole
The hunger drives you to do unspeakable acts
To lie to your brother, exaggerate the facts
And be less than angels with blood on our hands
The hourglass is emptied of the last grains of sand
I’ll do anything for a job, anything for a life
I’ll suffer for the scraps, for child and for wife
Bill collectors have all taken the dignity I have left
Politicians and the banks are all guilty of theft”
The band are back rocking out with ‘It’s A Shame I Did Nothing’ and gives them the chance to show off their rock credentials but also chucks in a flute to keep it celtic and an acoustic guitar that shines through the rocking loud and clear. ‘Another Story of Unreturned Love’ is by far and away the catchiest song on this album of catchy songs. Telling of a failed relationship and its aftermath.
“I couldn’t talk to you
Standing in front of you
Holding my feelings and biting my tongue
And our “Little Ireland” is what we decided on
Things that I wish that I said when I’m young”
All the band come together in celtic-punk perfection and a wee mention for the superb drumming here too. ‘Hardscrabble Road’ is the tale of a loser told in a slow ballad that speeds up towards the end and the accordion drives it along till Alvan’s voice takes the lead.
Coming to the end and celtic-punks favourite subject pops up in ‘Liquid Miracles’ again telling of a loser who, like many, knows exactly what he’s doing but can’t help himself.
“the disease of the mind that I have caught”
Another slower song ‘Central West End’ and more misery and the common theme seems to be that the loser in Rusty Nail songs is trapped by addiction despite knowing all too well what he’s doing. Another catchy as feck number that is a great example of the excellent production here. All the instruments, electric and folk, are clear as them bells (what does that mean??) and despite the tune speeding right up in parts doesn’t lose that clarity so hats off to Chad for the excellent recording and mixing. Chad plays guitar, banjo, dulcimer, accordion, bouzouki, EBow and organ on the album so surely knows what he is doing! Next is the album’s longest song at well over five minutes.
‘Mad As Birds’ another standout track and evokes sadness upon sadness here as the song builds up and up and swirls round and round before ending on, for them, a rather positive note before coming to an end with ‘The Nightmare Will Prevail’
“It’s only fair, that you buy another round for all your friends
They’ve stuck around and stuck up for you
When the rest of us could not pretend
This bitter divide that you’ve caused for us is one that’s hard to defend
But I have faith in you,
Even though it may be hard for anyone to comprehend”
This is pure infectious dance music (proper dance music that is!) with enough fist in the air moments going on here to give you a bad shoulder in the morning! Like the best in celtic-punk its a roller coaster of emotions and the joyous music belies the seriousness of the words and though Alvin’s (and Chris) lyrics often inhabit a dark place it’s the story of Irish-America. It’s not all shamrocks and shenanigans you know. So whether you are looking for a band to get you off your feet and move and shout and scream and spill your drink to or just kick back and sit and listen to with a glass of the pure to warm you and take in every road these bhoys and ghirl have travelled then Rusty Nail are the band for you and whichever you choose you are guaranteed to find a great time.
(you can listen to Bitter Ale, Bitter Heart for free before you buy it by clicking play on the Bandcamp player above)
Buy The Album
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- for another view of the album check out Celtic Folk Punk And More here
(great video with music and band interviews)