The Bay area doesn't have much in the way of homegrown Celtic roots rock, but The Fightin' Malones are about to change all that when they make their formal debut this St. Patrick's Day. "We play the music of the people who work hard all week and want to have some serious fun on the weekend, because that's us," frontman Tom Cook told me when I met with him and his wife Beth last week to discuss their fledgling sextet. "I think our music speaks to those who work hard and play hard ..."
The inspiration for The Fightin' Malones originated in Tennessee, where the couple spent their second honeymoon soaking up the sounds of the region's most noteworthy music locales beginning with the blues and rockabilly of Memphis, moving on to the traditional country and underground Western swing of Nashville, and ending with the rural bluegrass and roots music of northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. There, they visited the historic Carter family home and saw a few shows at the Carter Fold, Johnny Cash's home stage and the place he played his final notes. "It exists to further mountain music, and everyone goes there every weekend, and the only rule is you can't plug in," Tom explained. "Except for one person who was allowed to plug in — and that was Johnny."
Tom said they left with the realization that "traditional country and bluegrass music is more punk at times than punk could ever be. What Johnny Cash went through was real. Not to put down Johnny Rotten and his frustrations with pre-Margaret Thatcher England ..." The trip ultimately inspired the Cooks to dive into the sounds of the mountains and return to making music, a pastime they'd mostly abandoned to focus on work and family obligations.
Although playing traditional country and bluegrass was fun for a while, Tom decided he wanted to broaden his horizons, "because the songs don't lend themselves very well to speeding up." One day, he pulled out some old Pogues CDs and had an epiphany. "I realized, wow, these guys have accordion and banjo, and the song structures are really similar to bluegrass song structures." He tracked down other modern Celtic music acts like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys, did some research on traditional Irish music and Irish pub drinking songs, and in the end, "I made the connection between the music of Ireland, the music of the Appalachians, traditional country and the current trend of Celtic rock, and it really all fit together."
He also discovered that the songs remained relevant despite their age and that revitalizing them would be really rewarding. So he and Beth started learning a selection of 19th- and early 20th-century compositions, from old Irish pub tunes to traditional American folk and bluegrass numbers, and started working out the best way to infuse them with a modern rockin' sensibility.
Tom had originally established himself in the scene when he performed with local alt-rock ensemble Rancid Polecats for several years, and despite his inactivity he still had some connections. When he and Beth were ready to take it to the next level, he recruited friend and Crash Mitchell Five bassist Don Butler, and they assembled the rest of the group from there — K. Paul Boyev (also a Crash Mitchell member) was enlisted as lead guitarist and brought his experimental/avant garde aesthetic to the mix, mandolin player Neil Leonard added his bluegrass sensibilities, and Burt Rushing (the in-house drummer at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts) joined last with his solid backbeats. According to Tom, "There's almost 80 years of combined musical experience between us. And we all do this for fun and for the love of Irish music."
Tom is a spirited showman who plays rhythm guitar and sings in a piping tenor colored with a bit of faux-Irish brogue, his lovely harmonizing songbird wife occasionally taking over on lead with her husky-rich soprano. Throw in the solos and riffage of Boyev, the romping rhythms of Rushing, the Old World texture of Leonard, and the fat low end grooves of Butler, and the result is what Celtic music might sound like if it were filtered down through the Appalachian Mountains and finished with a hard rock luster. Slow ballads and rolling waltzes that tell stories of heartbreak and sorrow are broken up by heel-kickers, foot-stompers and rousing drinking anthems meant to be sung by the entire room in booming alcoholic cheers with glasses raised high in the air.
The group has spent the past seven months building up their repertoire and are in the process of completing their first album, which includes some originals and original takes on old American folk songs like "Black Is the Colour" and "Man of Constant Sorrow," as well as Irish ballads and well-known traditional Irish numbers — "The Rising of the Moon" "Whiskey in the Jar" and "The Irish Rover," among others.
"What American doesn't smile when they think of Ireland and its music?" Tom asked me near the end of our conversation. "We want to update that good-time feeling you get when you are transported to an Irish pub, play feel-good music for listeners to tap their feet to and sing along to."
They'll get their chance at this Wednesday's show. Go out and celebrate St. Paddy's Day with them and be prepared to do some fancy footwork.
Bay area attorney Darryl Creighton won the "Band Profile and Photo Shoot" Holiday Auction package and gave it to Beth and Tom, his sister and brother-in-law, for Christmas. Not only was it a particularly valuable gift for a band that's just starting out, but it also showed the couple that they'd earned the seal of approval from one of their toughest critics: Darryl.