Flogging Molly triumphs in Punk showcase at SPAC

It’s late September, the kids are back in school, the temperature is dropping well into the 50s.  Must be time for a… SPAC concert?  Increasingly, the answer to that is yes.  This Covid impacted season certainly drove many SPAC concerts later into the season than originally intended.  But even before Covid, the trend had already started.  SPAC and Live Nation view September (weekends, at least) as part of the season now.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

It was that decision that allowed Nippertown to enjoy a surprisingly adventurous show on a beautiful September night.  Alternative stalwarts Flogging Molly and the Violent Femmes were co-headliners, supported by Me Too and the Gimme Gimmes and Thick.  Celtic-punk, folk-punk, punk “supergroup” – whatever the specific flavor, SPAC was going punk for the night.

The last time I saw Flogging Molly was at the Altamont Fairgrounds, maybe 15 years ago.  I forget the details of the occasion – I’m assuming it was some kind of Irish Festival.  But in general, it’s a little unlikely to be “blown away” by anybody playing under a tent at the County Fairgrounds.  For whatever reason, they weren’t really on my radar then beyond a general awareness.  Until about two minutes into their first song. I instantly knew they were special, and bound for bigger things.

Fast forward to Sunday, and “bigger things” had arrived.  The biggest stage in the area, equipped with ample and impressive (but not over the top) lighting to go with it.  All older, two married to each other, a few more albums under their belts.  But one thing hasn’t changed.  Two notes in (in this case, the opener “Devil’s Dance Floor”), and they had grabbed you and taken you along for an intense ride.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Flogging Molly (last night) consisted of singer Dave King, his wife Bridget Regan on violin and tin whistle, guitarist Dennis Casey, Spencer Swain on guitar/banjo/mandolin, bassist Nathan Maxwell, and drummer Mike Alonso.  King is the very definition of what a frontman should be.  Exuding unmistakable, contagious joy, you know that this is what he was born to do.  He moves constantly about the stage – sometimes prancing, sometimes toasting, sometimes lightly pontificating on his looks.  He is mesmerizing, and his voice remains perfect.

The band itself is top notch.  A propulsive rhythm section, and guitars that every once in a while sneak up on you and remind you they’re no longer “Celtic”, just heavy.  Regan’s whistle and violin lending an atmospheric air to counterbalance the intensity going on elsewhere.  Swain’s work on banjo and mandolin lend as much to the overall Flogging Molly sound as King’s voice does.  They are impressive, tight, and confident.

They move quickly through their set, but not rushed.  The fun comes through the whole time…you get the sense this is exactly the same way they’d play at Molly Malone’s (the LA pub that gave them their namesake).  They mix the old (Swagger was particularly well represented) with the comparatively newer (“Crushed” – which absolutely killed and brings an entirely new sound, and “John O Sullivan”, which was a little more pedestrian).  The slower classics like “The Worst Day Since Yesterday” and “If I Ever Leave This World Alive” are infused with more energy when played live, but without losing any of their beauty or soul.  “Drunken Lullabies”, from the 2002 album of the same name was a definite highlight, as was 2008’s “Float.  But there wasn’t a clinker in the set.  The pit had a healthy group of moshers, clearly intoxicated by the sounds.  “Co”-headliners?  Nonsense – they owned the night.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

I’ve been waiting my whole adult life to see the Violent Femmes.  If you’re around my age, you no doubt have countless memories of their debut album blaring from a dorm room, or lighting up the dance floor on a Saturday.  Undeniably talented and groundbreaking, their status in the alternative pantheon was secured decades ago.  So my expectations were high.  But, for most of their set, I was a little…bored?

Led by founding members Gordon Gano (vocals and guitar) and Brian Ritchie (bass), the Femmes have a slew of instantly identifiable “classics”.  Stunning in their originality, they are beloved for a reason – these songs are near perfect, and helped define folk-punk.  But these same songs were, in my opinion, the weakest part of their set on Sunday night.  Opener “Add It Up”, “Prove My Love”, even the two closers “Blister in the Sun” and “Kiss Off” all seemed somewhat lacking.  Gordon seemed bored with them, and his boredom was infectious.  Ritchie also isn’t overly expressive, but that’s more a product of his natural demeanor.  Still, with bass parts like that, there should be an opportunity to light it up a little more than he did.

The set was not without its merits.  Songs that had something “different” tended to be the ones that shone.  The darkness (for real, this is a really, really dark song) of “Country Death Song” was bracing, helped along by the banjo.  Similarly, the unlikely “Jesus Walking on the Water” was propelled along nicely by the fiddle.  Blaise Garza’s sax solo elevated “I Held Her in My Arms” above its vinyl version.  The best song of the set – bar none – was “Gimme the Car”, which is interesting because it dates back to the same period as some of the more “tired” pieces.  But on that song, the power of Violent Femmes was in full force.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

A special call out should go to Femmes drummer John Sparrow, who demonstrated consistent enthusiasm and electricity that was sometimes missing elsewhere on stage.

Preceding the Femmes was ostensible punk “supergroup” Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.  They are comprised of members of other notable groups, like the Ramones (CJ Ramone), Rocket from the Crypt (John Reis), The Damned (Andrew Pinching), Social Distortion (Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham), and the Swingin’ Utters (Spike Slawson).  They work exclusively as a cover band, specializing in revved-up punk interpretations of unlikely songs, like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man”.  It works…for about five songs.  I don’t mean that sarcastically…it really does.  If I were to review them after five songs, it would be a very solid review.  But ultimately, it’s a one-trick pony with a short shelf life.  I can’t fault them for their irreverent ethos, but after about ten of these…enough.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Opening the night was Brooklyn’s own THICK.  This is a straight-ahead, all-female punk trio.  And they are good…really good.  Playing SPAC as the first of four acts, while it’s still light out in late September is a tough gig.  But after a slightly hesitant start, these women really lit it up.  Their debut album dropped (with much buzz) immediately before Covid hit.  Were it not for that, I think you’d be hearing a great deal more about them already.  They are not perfect yet – but if I have the opportunity to see them play a smaller room (The Hollow, Lark Hall, Empire, etc) with a slightly better sound mix, they will KILL.  Mark them down.  And buy their album 5 Years Behind – I just did.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Live Nation should be commended for branching out for shows like this and the (earlier in the summer) King Crimson.  The crowd was fairly light, but enthusiastic.  It can build.  These are the shows you’ll be talking about 20 years from now.  Make sure you’re there.

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