"... the pub where I was born."
All-star cover bands that gig annually don't, believe it or not, practice much more often. And, after Sunday's marathon rehearsal, Pogues-channeling supergroup KMRIA decided to play an unannounced show the evening before its Crystal Ballroom spectacular. For those few dozen celebrants crowding a sleepy northeast bar, it was a sort of St. Patrick's Day miracle.
A smoky, old wood, Powers & Guinness pub that need not advertise its Irishness—the tourists mobbing Kell's all weekend would be appalled—Biddy McGraw's attracts an enviable blend of neighborhood twenty-somethings and lightly accented émigrés. And, this St. Patrick's Day eve, the small venue remained half-capacity even as friends of the band and just-alerted acolytes trickled in. KMRIA features the Decemberists' Jenny Conlee and Chris Funk on accordion and mandolin, respectively; Amelia's Jesse Emerson on bass; the Eels/Everest's Derek Brown on drums; Hanz Araki on tin-whistle; and Ezra Holbrook and Casey Neill trading guitar and vocal duties (Brown flew up from Los Angeles for the weekend but past mainstay Scott McCaughey unaccountably remained on tour with REM). None of which would've meant anything to Biddy's aging regulars—even if the band had introduced themselves. But, as they launched into a hurtling "Bottle of Smoke", it didn't really matter.
The Pogues' peculiar blend of boozy lyricism, punk abandon and intricate musicianship provide unique challenges—Shane MacGowan's subsequent group the Popes never quite managed the trick—and, playing just once or twice a year, KMRIA's mastery of the songbook beggars reason. They played a shortened, hit-centric set-list—ignoring EP material and, perhaps, over-indulging the Pogues' later albums—as a handful of revelers threw themselves toward spastic jigs (lasses from an Irish dance team kicked out a rather more studied routine during Araki's instrumental). The tunes lend themselves to drunken singalongs, and every soul at the bar seemed to know the words—crowd switching, as one, to raucous falsetto for Kirsty MacColl's lyrics during the "Fairytale of New York" encore.
For true believers, the Pogues hold an almost mystical sway—transcendent powers rivaling whiskey—and those careening 'round the stout-doused dance floor kept looking to one another in giddy disbelief, as if Shane himself had suddenly crashed their party and taken the mic. Except, these days, KMRIA may do the songs more credit.
K.M.R.I.A. rings in St. Paddy's Day tonight with My Life in Black and White at Crystal Ballroom 9 pm. $10. 21+.
Kiss My Royal Irish ArseSpace
Photos: by Chris Keller.