Our next Spotlight Artists are The Prodigals. Founder, singer and accordionist Gregory Grene answers our questions below. The Prodigals will be performing this week at a benefit concert for the Andrew Grene Foundation in honor of Gregory's twin brother, a UN peacekeeping official killed in the earthquake in Haiti last year.
Spotlight Artist: The Prodigals
Gregory Grene (vocals and accordion)
Dave Fahy (vocals and guitar)
Trifon Dimitrov (bass)
Chris Berry (drums, percussion)
How did your band's name come about?
It’s in the song "The Wild Rover":
“I’ll go home to my parents/confess what I’ve done
And I’ll ask them to pardon / their prodigal son”
...and of course originally from the Biblical story about the son sowing his wild oats. The concept being that the band is still in the wild oats phase…
How long have you been performing?
Past lives (i.e., previous bands, your early years, etc.):
I split my early childhood between Chicago and Co. Cavan. We used to have harvest parties on the farm there, and I got into the box because of a local player called Sean Donohue. Then when I was fourteen, I ended up going to high school in Chicago, and studied with the extraordinary fiddler Liz Carroll. I went back to Dublin for university, and founded the Trad Music Society in Trinity College. I then spent a year traveling through Asia, and part of the way I funded the trip was by playing with a band in Tokyo. I came back to the US, and worked as an actor, ended up with a show on Broadway, and stayed in NYC, which I love. I worked as a music producer for advertising, which meant all kinds of mad gigs, producing reggae in Kingston, and symphony in Prague; but through all of this I kept playing the music with the band, which I started with Sean McCabe at the end of the acting stint.
Who were your musical influences?
Both my teachers, Sean Donohue and Liz Carroll, in very different ways. And my very first exposure to recorded music was my mother’s Clancy Brothers LP’s, which remain quite brilliant. Other childhood music included Joe Burke, the legendary Galway box-player, and The Dubliners, whom years later I took my father to see at the National Concert Hall in Dublin – still one of my favorite memories. When I moved to Chicago, I was very definitely homesick for Ireland, and bought every Celtic album I found in the local store, and one of those was Silly Wizard, who have remained one of my favorite bands. It was an absolute thrill to have Johnny Cunningham producer our third album.
What are some of your favorite venues to play?
So many fantastic ones – I love the festival circuit, without whom almost none of the Irish musicians could make the kind of go of it we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy. And we’ve gigged in those from Montana to West Palm Beach. Then there are the big concert venues, and they’re also mighty – I would say, often much more willing to take a risk on our mad music than you would think. We’ve played House of Blues from Boston, to Las Vegas, to Los Angeles, to Cleveland (where we’re headlining their St. Patrick’s day music lineup again, for something like the fifth year in a row). In NYC, one of our most memorable gigs was at Webster Hall for a St. Patrick’s Day some years back; and we’ve played Lincoln Center, and B.B. King’s. But our home from home, no question, is Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar on 29th St. and Second Ave.
Paddy Reilly's is a historic spot on NYC's music scene. Tell us a little about your residency there.
It is a place where we are able to break in new material, to hang out, to generally feel like we are at home. Steve and Rayleen and the gang have been the backbone of Irish music in New York for years, and have nurtured every major act you can think of, from Joanie Madden, to Eileen Ivers, to Black 47. They are invaluable.
Tell us a story or anecdote about performing in NYC.
When I first walked into Paddy Reilly’s, Steve Duggan (owner) happened to be chatting to Joanie Madden (legendary flautist/whistle-player). I asked him for a start, and he said, “What do you think, Joanie?”
And she said, “Sure, Steve, give him a shot!” And that was it.
Three or four months later we were playing a private party for Christy Turlington aboard a yacht in the Hudson River – real fairytale of New York stuff.
Where can we buy your music?
Amazon, CDBaby, iTunes – all the usual suspects!
Several talented musicians have been part of The Prodigals line-up over the years. Has there ever been a Prodigals reunion with past members?
Very much so. The first time was in 2007, at the Dublin Irish Festival in Ohio, one of the very greatest Irish fests. We did a set as “Whiskey Asylum,” which was an amalgam of the Prodigals and the Mickey Finns, who consist of Brian Tracey and Ray Kelly, both former Prodigals, as well as Mattie Mancuso. Mattie insisted on wearing a polka-dot dress for the gig. Not only is Mattie one of the world’s greatest fiddlers, but he has very fine legs with the right shoes to set them off. There’s still great footage up on YouTube.
How much time is spent on the road touring with The Prodigals. Any good stories to share?
We’ve racked up astonishing miles and time on the road. We’ve toured across the US, as well as Germany, Canada, and a number of tours in Ireland. Re stories – there are tons of them, and in general not to be shared in this kind of forum! But one small, funny one was from around the year 1999 or so, on our tour of Germany, where I had reserved a van at the airport. Something went wrong, somehow, and the van was nowhere to be found when we landed. It turned out to be a busy weekend for rentals, and all they had left were two vehicles. So three of us got into a midsize car with the majority of the gear; but our bass player and soundman ended up heading to Stuttgart on the Autobahn, with Mercedes and BMW’s hurtling past at 150 kmh, while they teetered and creaked along at about 60 kmh, in the very first SmartCar I had seen.
Those of us in the midsize car arrived at the hotel first, of course. So we were outside, having loaded the gear in, and saw them pull up in this absolutely tiny vehicle, and unfold themselves and the gear for all the world like indignant clowns emerging from a Barnum and Bailey miniature clown car. They were seething, especially the bassist, and we were all trying to be sympathetic until our drummer, Brian, started to snort with suppressed laughter. And as soon as he started, we all just lost it, laughing literally until the tears were rolling down our cheeks.
To the bassist and sound man’s credit, they saw the joke too, though not right away…
Any advice to someone just starting out?
Make sure you really love the music, and are doing it for that reason. The one thing that doesn’t work is trying to do something that will “sell.” Because it won’t sell, because it will sound phony; and at the same time, you will hate what you’re doing, and doubt yourself and your own truth. Despite all the self-help patter, you really cannot control outside markets. After years of placing music in commercials, and seeing the desperation that artists have to be “what people want,” and even worse, the attempts by record labels to mould their artists into being like someone else that earned money for them – it simply doesn’t work.
Whereas if you play music you care about, even if it’s just for yourself, you can get into a kind of zone that’s as close as I know to Zen. And paradoxically, the odds of outside people liking you – or even selling a track or two – is much, much higher. Truth, including idiosyncratic truth, is a characteristic that folk respond to.
Tell us about your involvement with The Andrew Grene Foundation.
I and a very close friend of Andrew’s and mine set it up as a way of trying to channel the feelings of loss into some kind of productive channel. We’re trying to make a difference to Haitians in a way that we hope Andrew would have approved, through micro-finance and education. In the former, we are linking up with Fonkoze, which offers microloans to folk who are trying to put together a subsistence business – owning a couple of hens, or cows, or similar – which will enable them and their families to move forward and hopefully get a solid footing under them economically. In the latter, we are working through scholarships for students, which in a country where the average earning wage is $2 a day, and where the average family spends 45% of their income on education, is potentially a very valuable handhold.
For more information, visit: AndrewGreneFoundation.org
Blatant self-promotion: What would you like to plug?
Really, what I’d like to plug right now is the charity we set up in memory of my twin brother Andrew, whom we lost in the earthquake in Haiti. He was working as a peacekeeping strategist with the United Nations there, and we set up the Andrew Grene Foundation in the hopes of advancing the people in whose service he gave his life. This Wednesday will be one year since the earthquake, and we’ve set up a benefit concert on the night after, at Sullivan Hall in the Village, with ourselves, the Mickey Finns, Cherish the Ladies, and Eileen
Thursday, January 13
From Ireland to Haiti:
A Benefit concert for the Andrew Grene Foundation
Commemorating a year since the earthquake struck in Haiti.
Featuring performances by:
Cherish the Ladies
The Mickey Finns
For more info. visit: Andrewgrenefoundation.org
Tickets: $20 on-line
214 Sullivan St.
(Between Bleecker & W. 3rd St.)
New York, NY
Can you recommend any other act we should feature on MurphGuide?
The Mickey Finns, great musicians, and great friends of ours.
Any big plans for 2011?
Time for another album, I believe… And other than that, looking forward to all the fabulous times we get to have, playing the gigs!
Below is a video of The Prodigals performing "Snow Falls on Derrycark". Recorded Live by Twin Cities Irish Music at the Iowa Irish Fest in Waterloo, IA in Aug 2010: