This here was an eclectic, punky mix of music on a beautifully moonlit Sunday night at SPAC, with Flogging Molly, Violent Femmes, Me First and The Gimme Gimmes, and Thick. The venue had hosted hordes in their thousands for Dave Matthews earlier in the weekend, but this gig wasn’t that kind of shoulder-to-shoulder crowded – the theater was a good two-thirds or so full, with a smattering of people out on the lawn. Not empty by any stretch, but not packed either. Which was just fine for this writer, who is just easing back into live music in the plague-times.
Brooklyn punkers Thick opened the gig before the place had filled up much, with a few hundred people inside the theater and an enthusiastic group down the front. I’m new to this band, but they blasted out an energetic half-hour of raw, catchy punk, and I was left wanting to check out more. Cool band.
The place started to fill up for Me First & The Gimme Gimmes, who took the stage to an Eddie Money intro tape, and swaggered through a 45-minute set which damn near stole the show, kicking off with “Don’t You Worry About a Thing” and straight into Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” and roared through some Elton John (“Rocket Man”), Neil Diamond (“Sweet Caroline”), John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” preceded by an audience Q&A about weird public sex spots along with a whole bunch of other pop hits, retooled as blazing punk rock. You had to be there.
Swingin Utters’ Spike still leads the show and hits all the notes, but the band for this tour was bulletproof and ironclad: John “The Swami” Reis of Rocket from the Crypt and Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham of Social Distortion on guitar, Andrew “Pinch” Pinching, sometime drummer for The Damned on the skins, and the guy with the bass, white hair and beard on the right was none other than CJ Ramone himself. CJ Ramone! They were great. All-star, hilarious, fast, heavy and and unstoppable.
Violent Femmes seemed the odd men out on a bill otherwise populated with fast punk rock, but a solid chunk of the crowd was here to see the alt-rock legends, who had a spare stage set, instrumental variety galore and got a great reaction. And if the Femmes touring with Flogging Molly seemed odd, it shouldn’t: the VF toured with The Pogues in the 80s, which should give them all the Celtic punk cred they need, as if they needed any. I’ve never owned a VF record, but openers “Add it Up” and “American Music” are familiar, ubiquitous alternative rock standards. They kept the crowd with them for the 15-song set, with one player from the Horns of Dilemma in the back mixing up the songs with some brass, a fiddle-player for a few songs, and drummer John Sparrow playing not only stand-up snare, but a wooden box and a charcoal grill. Bassist Brain Ritchie switched to xylophone for “Gone Daddy Gone” before “the hit” – “Blister in the Sun” and “Kiss Off” wrapped it up. A great set.
You’d think that the variety between the two headliners would see some of the VF crowd head for the doors on a work night, but not so – the audience hung in for Flogging Molly. The Femmes were by far the most veteran band here, but FM singer Dave King has probably been playing the Albany-Saratoga region longer, having first appeared in this region in the early 80s as a skinny Irish teenager with long red hair, fronting the British metal band Fastway when they opened for Iron Maiden in 1983, and Rush in 1984 at Glens Falls Civic Center just up the road from SPAC. Not that Flogging Molly are newcomers any more – their indie debut live record Alive Behind the Green Door was released way back in 1997, and the recently reissued, roaring debut studio record Swagger has passed the 20-year mark. Dave King’s red hair has given way to spiky white locks and spectacles. Flogging Molly are now veteran rockers. But the Celtic punk sound is still hefty, fast, rowdy Irish drinking music – even if SPAC’s inflated $17-per-can beer prices made it hard to afford to get in the spirit, and a lack of any Guinness on sale didn’t help either.
The Mollys hit the stage hard, with a hammering “Devil’s Dance Floor” from the Swagger debut getting the pit crowd up front bouncing, which continued for the whole hour-ish long gig. A pummeling of “The Hand of John L. Sullivan,” from their most recent record Life is Good was next, but most of the songs played weren’t the recent ones – nine of the 14 songs played were from the first two studio records, including a blazing “Drunken Lullabies,” “The Worst Day Since Yesterday,” which let off the gas a bit, King’s autobiographical “Black Friday Rule,” and an his ode to his dad – “The Likes of You Again.” The lineup has shifted – only four remain from the seven-member lineup that recorded those first two records: King, his wife/fiddler/whistle player Bridget Regan, bassist Nathan Maxwell, and Rochester, NY native Dennis Casey on guitar, who were joined by more recent members Spencer Swain on mandolin/banjo, and drummer Mike Alonso. Where accordion player Matt Hensley was is unknown, but he wasn’t in Saratoga. And there was some new music, the band playing one new jangly and Celtic song, “Croppy Boy,” which joined the hit single “Float” and the wistful “If I Ever Leave This World Alive” as the mellower points of the evening.
Other than that, it was all carousing, headbanging Irish music: instrumental neck-snapper “Swagger,” the pounding “Crushed (Hostile Nations)” and, of course, “Salty Dog,” that speed-demon Celt-punk classic which has not lost a thing in the 21 years since it opened the studio debut. The band finished up with two more full-on blasts of rollicking paddy-punk: “What’s Left of the Flag” and “The Seven Deadly Sins,” even if there were only six Flogging Mollys up there to commit them. A fine Celtic end to a four-pack of cool, varied, alt-punk musical acts.
ME FIRST AND THE GIMME GIMMES: Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing (Stevie Wonder cover), Jolene (Dolly Parton cover), Danny’s Song (Loggins & Messina cover), Straight Up (Paula Abdul cover), Sloop John B (The Beach Boys cover), Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard (Paul Simon cover), Sweet Caroline (Neil Diamond cover), Rocket Man (Elton John cover), Over the Rainbow (Harold Arlen cover), Leaving on a Jet Plane (John Denver cover), Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp) (Barry Mann cover), Summertime (George Gershwin cover), End of the Road (Boyz II Men cover)
VIOLENT FEMMES: Add It Up, American Music, I’m Nothing, Breakin’ Up, Prove My Love, Promise, Country Death Song, Jesus Walking on the Water, Good Feeling, Gimme the Car, I Held Her in My Arms, Color Me Once, Gone Daddy Gone, Blister in the Sun, Kiss Off
FLOGGING MOLLY: Devil’s Dance Floor, The Hand of John L. Sullivan, Drunken Lullabies, The Worst Day Since Yesterday, Black Friday Rule, Croppy Boy, The Likes of You Again, Swagger, Float, Crushed (Hostile Nations), Salty Dog, If I Ever Leave This World Alive, What’s Left of the Flag, The Seven Deadly Sins.