The crowd at the ever-secretive Spy Bar slowly filters in as members of The Shannanighans drag equipment through the back door. Rick Yogis, singer and drummer, sips a Guinness at the bar as he waits for the band's PA to arrive; it's still tied up from the band's earlier acoustic show at O'Callaghan's. During acoustic sets, the group's swagger and overwhelmingly punk sound can't help but yield to its more traditional Irish elements. Tonight, though, they plug in and the floor shakes, evoking a packed Dublin bar in the shadow of HighFalls.
In the past, both punk and Irish music have addressed the problems of the day, such as alcoholism, poverty and unemployment. So it's only fitting that The Shannanighans don't shy away from Rochester's own troubles. "12 Horse River," a track on the band's forthcoming Ale's What's Good for You, for example, deals bluntly with the causes and casualties of youth violence in our area.
"It's the truth about Rochester. We have such a great city here. The violence is just dragging it down, and unfortunately it happens every fucking night," says Yogis. "I remember listening to the playback [while recording the song], and I was actually crying, it actually brought me to tears."
The tune is a dirge that Yogis calls "kind of uncharacteristic. We're not a slow band. If anything I'd say we play too fast." Tonight's concert is no exception, as the band flies through standards like "Finnegan's Wake" and "Seven Drunken Nights"at a rapid, north-bound pace.
The Shannanighans are NickCostanzo on guitar, OJ Sandgren on bass, Stinky Burton doing backup vocals, fiddler Nate Kishman, and Karl Heberger on mandolin and guitar. Rick Yogis, "Tom Foolery" himself, fills out lead vocal duties from behind the kit. About half went to high school in Rochester, while the rest are upstate New Yorkers drawn by college and work to the FlowerCity. The band's Rochester pride comes through in the lyrics and at live shows, where the crowd-audience relationship devolves into essentially a pub session.
"So many people I know trash talk this city up one side and down the other. But I don't seem them leaving. There's something that's keeping them here," says Yogis.
Though social issues factor into the group's approach, the "political" label doesn't really fit the band. "I don't think we're very political, so to speak. I certainly write songs about what pisses me off," says Yogis. Before the last election the band was angry enough to set up a "RockesterAgainst Bush" concert, the proceeds from which went to the Voters' League.
Ultimately, "I think we're more of a party band," Yogis admits, recounting the Shannanighans' first show, a St. Patrick's Day gig at Maddy's. "Just the band, five of us at the time; we racked up a $300 bar bill. [The owner] waived it, and we got paid on top of it."
The "party band"'s working-class attitude comes through in topics like Guinness ("it's my favorite"), pub culture ("you always see someone you know"), and Rochester's Spirit of Ontario ("way too big of a ferry-o"), all of which provide fodder for sing-a-long shows and rowdy crowd participation at locals like the Bug Jar and Monty's. With Yogis stuck hitting the skins and the other four instrumentalists keeping up with double-time Irish melodies, the band's stage presence falls largely on one man: Stinky.
"He says he's had it since he's been in third grade," says Yogis, referring to Stinky's pungent nickname. At each show Stinky stands, positioned at the bow of the stage, one hand on the microphone, the other pumping syllables of gang vocals into the crowd, moshing even into friends and acquaintances lining the front of the band.
"He does backups and gets the crowd riled up," says Yogis. "Kind of like the dancing guy in the [Mighty Mighty] Bosstones."
On the band's ode the fast ferry, Stinky sings the lead, documenting the trials and tribulations that faced Rochester's favorite mistake, and evensuggesting that perhaps "the men in charge were on the drink."
Yogis puts together the band's arrangements and commonly incorporates traditional Irish motifs into the punk rock context of the music. He says that Irish purists tend to be "kind of snooty about it for some reason." But people are becoming more and more welcoming of Irish-influenced punk.
"In America today there's a resurgence of this whole Irish pride. It's cool to be Irish," says Yogis, himself of Irish descent. He emphasizes the word "cool," highlighting his distaste for the possible gimmicks and fronts that might come from being associated with the whole Irish trend.
"We don't tailor our music to that," says Costanzo, the band's guitar player. "We're not out to be labeled an Irish band at all." Like most of the band, Costanzo earned his chops doing punk and mentions one of the band's side projects, a Misfits cover band that comes together around Halloween.
Groups like The Misfits, Bad Religion and NOFX remain heavy influences on The Shannanighans, but so are Irish-punk acts like the Dropkick Murphy's and The Pogues. In fact, the band pays tribute to the latter two groups at the TheShannanighans' now annual St. Patrick's Day show at Monty's Krown.
"Two years ago we covered all of the Murphy's' Do or Die, and last year we did Rum Sodomy and the Lash," Yogis says.
The band's name comes from typical teenage study hall boredom at FairportHigh School. "In high school we always used to come up with funny band names. We always thought it would be a great name for a ska band," Yogis says. The unorthodox spelling, stemming from a slapdash phonetic attempt, just stuck.
Misspellings and all, the group remains steadfastly relaxed; its members seem more concerned with having a good time with friends than making it big.
"We're all pretty much established. We love playing big shows, little shows. If some national band wants to play with us, if we can do it, yeah. If not at least we can say we had the opportunity," Yogis says.
The group draws widely from Rochester's various bar and music scenes. "They're pretty diverse in age and music taste," says Costanzo of the band's fanbase, citing gigs like a self-promoted "Punk Rock Picnic" at Genesee Valley Park that are as much about community as music.
The band has found Rochester to be a great place for its old-country sense of camaraderie. And the members' optimism in the face of Rochester's declining jobs and higher-than-average crime rate is refreshing. Rochester, an underdog city at odds with the 21st century, is still a place where, Yogis points out, "you can drive 15 minutes in any direction and be in some beautiful fucking country" --- country that doesn't look so different in the character of its people and the problems they face than that of Ireland. Plus, it's a great place to grab a beer.
"Some of the friendliest places I've been in the whole world, some of the friendliest pubs, have been right here in Rochester," Yogis says.
Tom Foolery and the Shannanighans will release a new album, Ale's What's Good for You, early this fall. Visit www.myspace.com/tomfooleryandtheshannanighans for information on upcoming shows.