Come sail away with Pittsburgh's Bastard Bearded Irishmen
The band started by writing “fun drinking songs,” according to its lead singer. Wed that attitude with rousing, foot-stomping rock ‘n' roll with a Celtic flavor, and it's no wonder the Bastard Bearded Irishmen became one of Pittsburgh's favorite party bands.
But to call BBI a party band, or even an Irish band, is a simplification of its musical sophistication, especially on its new release, “Drinkin' to the Dead,” which will be featured on May 4 on a Gateway Clipper cruise.
“We've kind of moved on,” says lead singer and guitarist Jimmy Bastard, nee Smerecky. “This one has gypsy-type sounding songs, reggae and other stuff. You don't want to be stuck in a niche. We never intended that because we never intended to be a band.”
BBI formed to honor George H. Evans IV, a friend and guitarist who died in a car accident in 2004. But during that first benefit show — proceeds went to a scholarship fund in Evans' name — something unexpected happened.
“George was a big Irish guy who loved the Dropkick Murphys and bands like that,” Jimmy B. says. “I said, guys let's do 10 traditional Irish songs, and we were supposed to just do that one show. And then we made a stupid name up, and during the course of practicing those 10 songs, I wrote a song. It quickly became serious, whereas it was supposed to be one show. It kind of took over our lives.”
In addition to Jimmy B., the band now features Danny Rectenwald on guitars, mandolin and vocals; fiddler and vocalist Paul Dvorchak; drummer Dan Stocker; Ryan Warmbrodt, guitar; and Sean-Paul Williams, bass and vocals. BBI still honors Evans every November with a benefit concert.
“Drinkin' with the Dead” is arguably the band's most sophisticated and accomplished release — and its most poignant. Songs such as “Salutations, Memoirs, Denouements” and “Green Side of the Hill” showcase a lyrical maturity that even Jimmy B. admits was sometimes missing.
“I'd say it's just growing up,” he says. “We're all up near 40 years. It's like St. Paddy's Day. You're on the South Side at 10 in the morning running equipment and you see girls crying and throwing up on the side of the road. You start to take things more seriously. A lot of us have families now, a lot of us have kids. … I've always said I'll only write songs about what I know about, and I don't know a lot. So you have to dig into your personal experiences.”
On the album, BBI saves its best for the last two songs, both called “Drinkin' to the Dead.” The first version is a piano driven ballad with the gut-wrenching lyrics honoring the friends they've lost: “Raise a glass/to tomorrow and the past/to the ones that we love/down here or above/for this may or may not be the last time we can.” That's followed by the second song, a rousing, life-affirming rave-up.
“It's kind of funny because the name of the album has been around for two years,” Jimmy B. says. “We just had to get it done. And on the same day Danny said he wrote a song called ‘Drinkin' to the Dead' (the second version), I told him I wrote one, too. We thought we couldn't have two song called ‘Drinkin' to the Dead' on the album, but then thought, ‘Yes we can. We can do whatever we want.'”
Admission for the cruise, which sails at 8 p.m., is $20. 412-355-7989, gatewayclipper.com.
New releases of note
“Scratching the Door: The First Recordings of the Flaming Lips” features 19 songs from 1983 to 1985 that were on cassette tapes and a self-released EP. The band is led by singer Wayne Coyne, a native of the Troy Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, who moved to Oklahoma with his family “10 minutes after I was born,” he told the Trib in 2010. In January, the band released “Oczy Mlody,” an album of new material. Alice Cooper's guitarist Ryan Roxie is releasing a new album, “Imagine Your Reality,” on May 25. It's a gem for those who enjoy honest rock music, notably the first single, “Over and Done.” Also worth checking out: “California Man,” which features vocals for Cheap Trick's Robin Zander and “To Live and Die in LA,” which is not directly related to the William Friedkin film of the same name, but does reflect that movie's atmosphere and attitude.
Shows of note
Glen Phillips, May 7, Club Café, South Side
Many are familiar with Phillips tenure in Toad the Wet Sprocket in the early to late 1990s. But save a few reunion tours, Phillips has been a solo artist for most of the last 20 years, save for a wonderful collaboration with Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek as Works Progress Administration. Phillips new album “Swallowed by the New,” features quiet pop gems that exhibit his finely tuned craftsmanship. Liz Berlin is the opening act. 412-431-4950, clubcafelive.com
Michael McDonald, May 8, Carnegie Library Hall of Homestead
McDonald seemingly fits in anywhere. His distinctive vocals have blended with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, Ray Charles and Thundercat. He's appeared on American Bandstand with Dick Clark, Soul Train and Austin City Limits. His new album, “Wide Open,” is his first album of new material in 17 years, and features collaborations with Warren Haynes, Robben Ford and Branford Marsalis. 412-462-3444, librarymusichall.com
David Byrne, May 13, Benedum Center, Pittsburgh
Byrne found fame with the Talking Heads, but for the last 28 years he's charted an idiosyncratic path as a solo artist, label owner (Luaka Bop Records, and author of nonfiction books including “How Music Works” and “The Bicycle Diaries.” His new album, “American Utopia” features a reunion with his longtime collaborator Brian Eno, and music that his ardent fans will relish: somewhat off-kilter songs that are never clichéd or predictable. 412-456-6666, trustarts.org
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.