Just the mention of the phrase "Guinness beer" is enough to start many connoisseurs of barley and hops a-salivatin'. But while you can name just about any brand of brew and find loyal adherents, Guinness drinkers are especially known for their monogamous relationship to the dark porter with the frothy cream top. Musician and imbiber (though not necessarily in that order) Kilian Sweeney has even gone a step further, christening his popular Houston-based band the Texas Guinness Lovers.
So that leaves one question: Did Sweeney pick the rest of his band based on their musical talent or taste in beer?
"Well, it's not a prerequisite, but nobody who's ever been in the band has had a dislike for Guinness," he demurs, while lifting a pint of you-guessed-it to his lips. "But I don't know if we'd ever force anybody out for not liking it."
"That's not true!" interjects bandmate Phil Gayle, who -- with the rest of the sextet -- is seated around a table of brew. "He makes me drink at least 25 a day. It's just horrible."
Well, they do say one must suffer for his art...
When mentioning the Texas Guinness Lovers, though, one almost has to qualify which version of the group is under discussion. There's the all-classic rock cover TGL as well as a side of the band that performs original and experimental material. But the incarnation which has proved the most popular (and remains the band's focus) plays cover versions of Irish and western swing drinking tunes with a decidedly modern twist. This last characteristic may stem from the fact all of the Lovers come from other bands of wildly differing genres such as de Schmog, Joint Chiefs, Sprawl, and Run, Trip and Fall.
"I wanted to blend Irish drinking songs with western drinking songs," says Sweeney, a 15-year Texas resident from New York City who nonetheless has an Irish upbringing. "My feeling was that these [songs] may sound old and outdated, but the essence of them was still alive and could be performed in a modern pub setting. I wanted to take the songs and rearrange them to not sound ancient but [to] still have that integrity and spirit that made them special in the first place."
Thus, a typical TGL show might wander from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys ("Across the Alley from the Alamo") to Patsy Cline ("Honky Tonk Merry Go Round") to the Dubliners ("Drink It Up") to the punkish Pogues ("The Body of an American"). The band has also confessed an affinity for the Meat Puppets, Leadbelly and Willie Nelson. But rather than perform slavishly imitative versions of the often obscure material, TGL insists on putting its stamp on every tune whether it's a change in pace, delivery, instrumentation or even the entire song itself.
"There's really a lot of commonality between the two types of music. It's not difficult at all to make the connection," Sweeney says. "And they've even influenced each other. Modern Irish music has more guitar and banjo, which is the American [additions] showing."
Says the insightful Gayle, who is fluent in Korean, Chinese and Japanese and likes to write verse to Irish drinking songs in the last: "Yeah. And if we are a cover band, we're the least cover cover band."
The current lineup of the Texas Guinness Lovers includes Sweeney (lap and electric guitar, banjo), Gayle (electric guitar, mandolin), Bill Savoie (drums), Jennifer Neira (violin), Chris Bakos (bass) and Bo Morrison (trumpet, tuba, percussion). All members contribute lead and background vocals and can play at least three different instruments in a pinch.
The first lineup began playing in the summer of '96 after Sweeney and Neira's stint with de Schmog. Several members came in and out of the lineup, but Bakos and Morrison were in place by early '98, and the rest by early this year. In fact, Gayle had jumped up onstage for an impromptu jam during one early gig while watching the show with a Japanese friend, and by his own admission played horribly. (His defense: He was a bit tipsy at the time.) Apparently the rest of the band either forgot or forgave, because they eventually pulled him on board. At least he comes in handy if they ever play Budokhan or have to order sushi.
Most of the band's choice of live and rehearsal material is guided by Sweeney's clear vision, though the band slightly chafes when lumped into the "cover band" category alongside the Richmond Strip acts that blast out rote versions of Matchbox 20, Alanis Morrissette and R.E.M.
"This is not a nostalgia act," Sweeney says, likening what TGL does with songs to "taking an old car out, blowing the dust off and seeing if it can run again." And Neira says that if she's not already familiar with a song they're rehearsing, she refuses to make any effort to track down or listen to the original. "Why do that?" she asks. "It won't sound like our [take] anyway."
Nor does Sweeney make any attempt to play music professor with long-winded introductions or descriptions of, say, just what the Clancy Brothers or Hank Williams meant by writing the songs. And absolutely no tales of the dreaded Potato Famine, preferring instead to answer questions after the show. Inevitably a number of the audience members will go away thinking they've just heard all-original material.
The band's frequent Houston-area nightclub and festival shows are boisterous affairs. The band shows its chops live while effortlessly getting the crowd to dance at the same time. But the group also speaks fondly of yet another guise: its work as a wedding band. "It's interesting to see everyone dancing, from the youngest kids there who just love the music to the older people who remember the original versions," Gayle says. "Without sounding [mushy], that means a lot to us. Plus, it's great to watch people freak out when we bring a tuba on onstage."
Says Neira: "A lot of the [quality] of our music depends on the energy of the crowd. We feed off that. And I think that's true for most other bands, because there's just something that's missing in the studio."
Not surprisingly, the Texas Guinness Lovers' debut (which it has been working on since March) will be an all-live effort, with tracks culled from dozens of gigs. And while no release date has been set, the band hopes it will open up its bookings to larger festivals and clubs outside of the Houston area -- though don't expect to see the group taking the stage at any AA conventions. The band has also set up a Web site at www.navitus. com/tgl.
Ultimately Sweeney feels that the combination of classic tunes and the TGL's unique twists will overcome any resistance to the band due to anticover sentiment or the limited appeal of gimmickry. And if that fails, the members could always buy a round of beers for the house to soften them up. Although if they're all watching their wallets, they might give the crowd Lone Star instead.
The Texas Guinness Lovers will play Friday, June 25, at Rudyard's Pub, 2010 Waugh Drive. Call (713)521-0521 for ticket information.
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