Emerald Style

The Prodigals revel in their heritage without the cute gimmicks

The Prodigals have been around long enough to recognize the mercurial yet cyclical nature of mainstream America's cultural-arts affections. As a nation at large, we overzealously embrace music and lifestyle trends, gorging ourselves and pledging our undying devotion until the next big, shiny, well-marketed thing shanghais our attention. And so it goes, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, until we run into one of our previous loves, and it seems a little different, a little better. Maybe it's the new outfit, or maybe it's just something we missed the first time around, but we tell ourselves it could really work out this time. And it does, for a while. Then the next new take on the last thing in line comes along.Repeat ad nauseam.

But under the surface, certain genres continue to thrive between waves of hype. There's usually a connection to something traditional or organic involved; there sure as hell won't be any teen-pop bands driving from bar to club on a van tour two years from now. But blues festivals, coffeeshop folk jams, all-ages punk basement shows and, in this case, a superlative road-dogging Celt-rock outfit with an obvious reverence for seminal Irish melodies, will always do pretty well.

The fans who discover these bands during times of high visibility become the next generation of diehards, nurturing the style ever after, no matter what happens to be the flavor of the month.

"It's astonishing that way," agrees Prodigals singer/accordionist Gregory Grene. "I would say it's almost more like a rotation. You keep on adding people, and even if the numbers may swell and reduce, the turbine picks up new loyal people each time. You'll ... start recognizing new faces as well as old ones.

"Of course there will be those who are responding to the current trend. But interestingly, some of those people end up being the most loyal."

In just over five years, the half-Irish, half-American Prodigals have become a critically lauded festival and pub-circuit headliner whose residencies at NYC watering holes are consistently raved, and who were voted the favorite band of Irish Echo, our nation's most widely read Irish-American newspaper.

The key to The Prodigals' continued success has almost nothing to do with their image and everything to do with their essence. They don't wear their heritage and influences like a "Kiss Me — I'm Irish!" pin, or play formulaic pop tunes with a little fiddle or mandolin thrown in. The band's timeless, evocative sound is catchy, sure. It's also dynamic and rollicking and, given the right bar and the right audience, can also be punk as hell. But it comes from a love and a commitment, rather than an interest or an angle. And while their most recent album, 2001's Dreaming in Hell's Kitchen, dabbles lightly in elements of world beat and island music, the core of The Prodigals' style comes across so distinctly that it might as well be trademarked.

"I feel very passionately about that. Really, there's always a risk of developing into some kind of potluck dinner, and that's not really what I'm interested in doing," says Grene. "It's almost like we're coming at it from the opposite end. It comes organically from the music itself — we're not trying to be a catch-as-catch-can sort of thing."

The eclectic and often deceptively light arrangements of the group's recorded work make for a nuanced live performance when presented in a festival setting, where more sedate (read: older, heh heh) fans tend to prioritize the music itself over the atmosphere as a whole. In a bar full of rowdy, pint-glass-sloshing patrons, however, the band (Grene, guitarist Colm O'Brien, bassist Andrew Harkin, and new drummer Chris Nicolo) is more than capable of turning in a powerfully energetic performance. They'll be doing one of each this week in the Bay area, and while Grene claims to love both venues equally, he adds the caveat that the shows could be very, very different.

"They're both tremendous fun, and they're each distinctive experiences. There's something quite different that you get out of each one," he says. "Formal isn't the right word, but for sheer listening it can be particularly strong in a festival setting. But on the other hand, for sheer madcappery, something like Four Green Fields can be great."

Grene and his cohorts also perceive a big difference between what they do in the studio, and what they do onstage.

"The one thing that's really dramatically true is, there's a very specific difference between recording and live performance. They both have their places, and one is not less than the other. They're two different animals," says the singer. "But the truth is so much of the heart of the whole thing is in the live performance. It's the stuff that fuels the CDs, what keeps them honest. There's a really important symbiotic relationship between the two."

The Prodigal's prodigious show schedule has kept them out and promoting Dreaming in Hell's Kitchen for two years now; the band has only recently found the time to get in some pre-production for its follow-up. Grene promises a new disc by summer at the latest because while American audiences might keep the band in Guinness by flocking to their live gigs, there are other fans of earnest under-the-radar styles whose only connection to their favorites comes in the form of a CD.

"I truly believe in the equal validity of both," Grene says. "Touring is as passionate as could be, but at the same time I got an e-mail from a DJ for Radio Penguin in Siberia thanking us for bringing him some joy. ... It's beyond everything we could ever imagine, speaking with someone from Siberia.

"And we'd never rule out a tour of Siberia," he adds with a laugh, "but I don't see it happening that soon."

Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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