Celtic rockers Town Pants come home for 10-year hootenany
Aaron Chapman remembers when Vancouver had a circuit for its homegrown musical talent. A gig at the Cruel Elephant would lead to a showcase at the Town Pump, and then a graduating performance at the Commodore, albeit on a Tuesday all-local bill.
"There was kind of an arc," recalls Chapman over coffee on south Granville Street. "There was a top of the mountain. With fewer venues now, it's harder to see who's good."
He misses those halcyon days of the early '90s. But the backup singer and multi-instrumentalist for the Town Pants hopes an upcoming headlining show at the Commodore by his Celtic rock band signals a new era for local artists. Even if it doesn't, though, a good time is guaranteed when the wildly entertaining act celebrates its 10th anniversary and the release of its fourth and latest disc, the recorded-live Coming Home. After countless performances across the world, the Town Pants have come to define the old saw, "You have to see them live."
One reason the group's shows overshadow its albums is a busy tour schedule. "We just haven't put out a lot of records," the singer says. "The band tours a lot, and there's always that impetus to keep driving, and keep going and keep playing. We haven't had time to sit in the studio and make as many records as we'd like."
With six players on-stage, the Town Pants bust out the mandolin, banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar and tin whistle, plus a lock-step rhythm section. Along with brothers Duane and Dave Keogh–both lead vocalists, and guitar and banjo-mandolin players respectively–Chapman is among the longest-standing members of the Town Pants, having joined one year after the unit formed. Bassist Dino DiNicolo, drummer Tony Raybould, and fiddler Kyle Taylor fill out the lineup. The latter replaces Virginia Schwartz, who last year moved back to Ottawa to be closer to her family. "She's still part of the band, though," Chapman says. "It's like the Mafia–once you're in, you're never out."
Taylor joined the band in time for its three-month-long summer tour, although Schwartz returned to the fold for several shows this year and to guest on Coming Home. Recorded live at the Blarney Stone in early 2007, the reeling, fiddle-fuelled disc includes traditional numbers like "New South Wales" and "Boys of the Old Brigade", contemporary covers such as a sudsy take on Boney M.'s twisted dance classic "Rasputin", and originals. The band's own tunes–such as the instrumental reel "Gin & Milk", the besotted love song "Come with Me", and the rebellious "The Old Landlord"–have the spit and fire of punkish Celtic rock. It's more Dropkick Murphys than Spirit of the West or the Paperboys, and has a roguish edge inspired by legendary rabble-rousers the Pogues.
"In the mid '80s, they were the antithesis of anything going on, from Wham! to Bon Jovi," Chapman says. "I thought they were far more dangerous than anything I was seeing, so I was captivated by that."
Hearing the Pogues helped him revisit the Celtic music his parents had played around the house–favourites included the Chieftains–with new ears. Of such traditionalists, he says: "Our version is really like an immigrant's memory of what that is. Anything I heard as a kid is mixed with a lot of other influences."
Where the Town Pants put their own stamp on the genre is in words and subject matter.
"We try to be literate with our lyrics," says Chapman who, along with Dave Keogh, writes most of the band's songs. "With this kind of music, there's a lot I love, and a lot I hate. Like, 'I drank and drank and drank until I fell down,' it just sounds like a parody of itself. People say 'It all sounds the same,' and they're right about that type of music. But you need to bring in other elements."
Town Pants tunes like "Hells Kitchen" tackle such subjects as Typhoid Mary, the cook accused of spreading typhoid fever in New York at the turn of the 20th century, and, in the case of "The Weight of Words" (the title track of the group's most recent studio disc), Chapman's father's experience in the Second World War. Not that the Pants are against the idea of drinking songs–Coming Home has at least two, including "Rum Runner" and "Delaney's Old Beer Hall". All the better to get people hoisting a few pints and singing along, a frequent occurrence at Town Pants gigs and one sure to be in full effect at the Commodore.
"After a decade, it's nice to round up everybody who's seen us to come and see us again," says Chapman. "There are probably some people who saw us in the first few years and haven't seen us as a six-piece, and would find it interesting. In terms of local music I hope, since it's a local-music bill, if it's successful, there'll be more."
If not, well, you can't say the Town Pants didn't hold up their end.
The Town Pants headline the Commodore next Saturday (November 24).