PORTLAND, Maine — The Shank Painters know how to draw a crowd. Last week, at the East End boat launch, all the folk trio had to do was get out of a car. A moment later, a Midwestern tourist ran over and asked to have her picture taken with them. Laughing, they obliged her.
It probably has something to do with the swords and pistols.
The Shank Painters sing maritime-themed folk music, dressed as pirates. Tall boots, tri-cornered hats and long coats finish the look. With accordion, guitar and full-sail singing, they cut quite a swath.
Later, they march down the paved path toward Fish Point. The three of them look like they’re about to pillage the city. A man passes them and exclaims, “You ain’t from around here, are you?”
The Shank Painters take their name from the line, or painter, that secures the anchor shank to a ship. They’re also all artists who paint pictures, so the name works both ways.
Along with the pirate garb, they’ve adopted pirate personas onstage. That’s where Elizabeth Leibiger, Charlie Swerdlow and Margot Surr become Captain Nobeard, Trouble von Bellows and Lady Wenchley, respectively.
Their music matches their costumes. Catchy sing-alongs about fast ships, drinking and hardships at sea dominate their repertoire.
Q: What the heck are you doing?
Surr: Having a lot of fun.
Swerdlow: It’s great music, I certainly got into it just because I love the genre. It’s just such a pleasure to do these kinds of songs, all the time.
Q: What kinds of songs are you singing?
Swerdlow: These are sea shanties. They’re all classic, traditional folk songs that evolved out of British and Irish traditions, mostly.
Surr: Most of it is from the mid-1700s.
Leibiger: Originally, these were maritime work songs. Everyone would have to keep time, hauling a line on a ship. They were originally chants but then they grew into songs and were used for the capstan (which is used to haul the anchor), pumping the bilge — which nobody likes to do — and songs for when there were no winds and you just had to kill some time.
Q: Why sea shanties?
Swerdlow: It’s in the culture, here. I grew up hearing them around the house. Schooner Fare is a big favorite of my mother — and they’re still idols of mine. There’s something cool about being a folk group that represents the area that you’re from. I was in Mexico, recently, and every piece of folk music I heard was from that area. There’s something rich about it being connected and rooted to where you’re from.
Q: You’ve also got pistols, swords and tri-cornered hats. How does that work with the music?
Swerdlow: It engages the audience and it’s just so fun to dress up like this.
Surr: And the kids love it.
Swerdlow: The grownups would love it, too, if they were honest with themselves.
Leibiger: When they’re drunk, they love it.
The Shank Painters will release their first album in Portland at Blue on Wednesday May 16 at 5 p.m.
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