One of my favorite parts of contemporary music is the proliferation of bands that take elements from folk traditions and put their own spin on it. Gogol Bordello. The Dropkick Murphys. Flogging Molly. Devotchka. Using the energy, history and emotional heft of styles that have been around for centuries to amp up rock ’n’ roll. I love it. I think it’s what keeps music interesting and engaging — taking seemingly disparate styles, finding the common ground, and creating something new and exciting.
So that’s why I really dig the Bar Stewards (say that five times fast), an Irish rock band that has started playing the scene over the past year or so — because they do just that.
“I think if you take any folk tradition and amp it up a little bit, it becomes something else. It’s really amazing to see how it changes it up,” said drummer Justus Magee. “If you add rock ’n’ roll to Irish, or like, polka or Gypsy music or anything, it’s really exciting. Because that music was kind of like the rock ’n’ roll of it’s own time. It makes sense.”
The Bar Stewards comprised the members of the now-defunct local rock band Propel. Brothers Conor and Brian Oyster (who switch off on bass, banjo, guitar and tin whistle), guitarist Andy Kocsinski and mandolinist Gary Collins were trying their hand at traditional Irish music but knew they wanted a little more something. A little more rhythm, a little more power. A friendly bartender at downtown Bangor watering hole Paddy Murphy’s suggested Magee, formerly of local punk band Bad Island.
“They’re all pretty much totally amazing,” said Magee. “They can play literally anything. They are incredibly versatile. We’ll do a very traditional Irish song, and then we’ll do .38 Special. It’s all over the place.”
The Bar Stewards don’t play every weekend, but when they do play, they put their all into it — check out www.myspace.com/thebarstewards for a complete schedule. They frequently perform at the Wrong Turn Pub in Kenduskeag and at Paddy Murphy’s. It’s sweaty, it’s raucous, and it’s a feel good, sing-along party.
“It’s very comfortable music. People know it. They like it,” said Magee. “But it’s also very unpredictable. That’s the rock ’n’ roll part of it. The live experience is really where it’s at.”
So what sets them apart from the other Irish bands in the area? Well, besides the rock ’n’ roll aspect, there’s the fact that, like the more traditional Portland-based band the Napper Tandies, this is a band that knows how to have fun, and how to engage the audience.
“I’ve never had so much fun in a band,” Magee said. “When the band is having as much fun as the crowd, that’s really special.”