The Prodigals have emerged as the dominant force on the Celtic-music scene simply because there’s no one else like them. No doubt you’ve heard that about a lot of contemporary bands that fuse ancient melodies with rock rhythms.
But this time, it’s true.
A powerful, New York-based outfit, the Prodigals blend Irish traditional music and menacing punk rock. The manic result inspired a Village Voice reporter to coin this term: “jig-punk.” And vocalist/accordionist Gregory Grene savors the new label.
“I hate the term Celtic rock,” he tells me in a mesmerizing brogue that would melt ice off a glacier. “Celtic rock conjures up a vague New Age thing, some sort of odd melody that somebody tagged on to get into the Celtic market. ‘Jig-punk’ stays much truer to my vision, even though we are not punks at all.”
On Go On (West Side Music, 1999), that vision is perfectly clear. The lads split their repertoire between original compositions and interpretations of old songs. (And the fiddle — an ingrained aspect of both traditional and nouveau Celtic music — is conspicuously absent.)
“Spancil Hill” — a tune that races along like an adrenaline-pumped cowboy — mixes old-Irish verse with the classic, Wild West melody “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” In “Weile Waile,” the creepy words seem even more malevolent — sung, as they are, over savage drumming and lightning-quick accordion licks: “She had a baby three months old/she had a penknife long and sharp/she stuck the penknife in the baby’s heart/three loud knocks came a-knocking at the door.”
On paper, this startling melding of styles sounds unwieldy. But the Prodigals finesse cultural amalgamation by “transcending ethnicity,” as Grene puts it.
Another factor that immediately distances the group from Irish cohorts U2, Black 47, the Saw Doctors, et al., is a rhythm section that commands as much attention as the band’s flashier front men — a percussive duo so driven that the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel heard “the Chieftains on caffeine.”
But the mingling of musical metaphors that defines the Prodigals isn’t what Grene originally had in mind when he began playing in pubs. The singer started out doing acoustic-folk sets with two guys no longer in the band. Then he brought in Brian Tracey to translate the rhythms into something more accessible. “Between the drums and the melody instruments, the bass is a natural bridge — and presto! We were electric,” Grene explains.
“But we didn’t pattern ourselves after anyone,” he continues adamantly. “I actually love the Pogues, but I didn’t set out to be like them, even though they were the first ones to use the energies of the rhythm section. And Silly Wizard, although they didn’t have drums, they were exploring the same intensive energy as our band … and the Clancy Brothers playing Carnegie Hall couldn’t have given us a bigger shot in the arm.”
This intangible energy Grene relentlessly hammers on about has actually incited fans to flail themselves around in mosh pits — a phenomenon usually reserved for Korn concerts.
“The first time it happened, I was playing a song I first heard from Joe Burke, and people started moshing, God bless them,” remembers Grene. “I love it. People were taking swan dives into the crowd. I still get a little bit nervous, because I’m afraid people will get dropped onto their heads — but I love that energy coming back to us.”
The band’s been together only three-and-a-half years — yet its ascent has been utterly unhampered by the usual music-business obstacles. “In all honesty,” Grene recounts, “we have had a lovely run of it from the start. We didn’t have some angsty ambition, like, ‘Omigod, how can we get to the next step?’ sort of thing.
“I’m not a Zen kind of guy, but there’s been a Zen quality to our journey so far.”
Really, their full-blown success isn’t all that surprising. “It’s a cumulative thing,” he concedes. “JFK made it respectable to be Irish again. And of course, the enormous impact of Riverdance is undeniable.”
Grene grew up in a small Irish farming community, where his family hosted a harvest party every autumn. For him, the highlight of the feast took place late at night, when local musicians would perch on the staircase and play tunes till the wee hours.
At the tender age of 9, he was hooked — and asked his mother to help him buy his first accordion.
“When I was a kid, the joy in the music started in me, and now I feel a huge sense of passion about the music that is quietly played by the hearth fire,” he emotes. “I feel like our band is translating it now.”
Through the years, his fascination with traditional music only intensified. While attending Trinity College, Grene created the first-ever Traditional Music Society to ensure that old songs would live forever.
“I’m the trad-head of the band,” says Grene, “and it is only recently that it has turned into this trendy thing. Trinity was very much a Protestant university, and it was assumed that you were Catholic and Republican if you were Irish. But Irish music transcends any boundaries and doesn’t have to be part of any political agenda. I feel very strongly about that.”
The Prodigals’ culture-crunching vibe is no accident. Each band member spent parts of his life in both the U.K and the U.S. Bassist Andrew Harkin was raised in New York and Clontarf County, Dublin; the Juilliard graduate will be featured in the April issue of Bass Player magazine. Drummer/back-up vocalist Brian Tracey began as an Irish dancer and is credited with creating the band’s signature sound. And gravel-voiced guitarist Ray Kelly toured with the folk group The Boatmen before joining the Prodigals.
The band is equally comfortable rocking claustrophobic pubs and daunting arenas. During their short career, the Prodigals have appeared at all of America’s major Irish festivals, including New York’s acclaimed Guinness Fleadh. But they’ve not gotten so haughty as to refuse an intimate gig on hometown turf. Most Friday nights when band members aren’t touring, you’ll find them playing Paddy Reilly’s in Manhattan.
“I love playing big shows and love playing small shows. Each has their own dividend,” concludes Grene. “We don’t try to crank volume for the sake of volume, but we stick to what we are — not head-banging in volume, but head-banging passion.”