"There's a certain element of those people who want to hear this music year-round," Devlin says.
On the Dole makes no apologies for electrifying tunes that are typically heard in their acoustically pristine condition at places like the Mucky Duck. "We're taking the whole texture of these traditional songs and beating them up, making completely different versions," Devlin says. "I can't play them the same way I heard them during my childhood."
Aside from turning up the volume, the pair also freely incorporates other genres, most notably the classic country sound of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. "You can't constantly do the 'diddlee dum, clap-your-hands, stomp-your-feet' stuff for three sets. That gets boring," Devlin says.
Singer/guitarist Devlin put together the first incarnation of On the Dole as a one-time-only project; he assembled an ad hoc group of local musicians to play a few St. Patrick's Day shows in 1998. He then had a short-lived duo with Tony Tower before Tim O'Gara, manager of Slainte Irish Pub, hooked him up with Bride. "He told me that a guy with lots of hair was looking for someone to play Irish music with."
Devlin and Bride have both taken winding routes to get to Houston.
Patrick Devlin was born in San Francisco, where his father was stationed in the U.S. Army, but soon moved with his family to Dublin, their first of many Irish residencies. "I grew up listening to very traditional Irish music like Slayer, Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath -- and Thin Lizzy, since they were from Dublin, the home team," he says. Though Devlin got a guitar as a teen, he didn't do much with it. He moved to the States in the late '80s, landing in what he calls "usually the first Irish stop in America" -- Boston. Devlin proceeded to hit the bottle.
"I drank stupidly for two years, just bingeing. And I lost that time." Now a teetotaler, Devlin drinks a fruit soda during an interview at Slainte. "That's why a lot of people don't consider me Irish," he says with his customarily thick accent. "I was born in San Francisco, and I don't drink."
He moved to Florida, met a girl, and the pair left for Dallas. The relationship was doomed from the beginning, although Devlin didn't know it until the phone rang one day. "I got a call from her sister. My girlfriend was married and had been the whole time. I had no idea, and I was not too happy." Packing all that he owned into his car with the intention of moving back to Florida, he first made a pit stop in Houston to visit his sister. That was in 1994. He never left.
Gerard Bride was born in Dublin but grew up in Wexford, where his tastes ran toward electronic music as a teen. His grandfather, however, was a master tin whistle player and actually died on stage at the age of 86 while playing. "He tried to maintain a note too long," Bride says, with more pride than sadness. It wasn't until he moved to Galway, where he was surrounded by traditional Irish music, that Bride took up the bodhran (a handheld circular drum) and then his grandfather's instrument.
He lived in America for two years in the mid-'80s, and returned again in 1991. He landed in Houston five years ago to be closer to his brother at Baylor University and to his father, who was in the U.S. Air Force.
Devlin and Bride play a weekly gig at Slainte, which they treat as an open workshop/practice session. They routinely try out new material, polish familiar tunes, invite guest players and audition for the permanent bass and drums slots. At this point, On the Dole's set list is mostly covers and public domain songs, although once a lineup is solidified, the duo plans to hammer out originals.
"There's a lot of great humor and rhythms to those old songs, but even then we try to do something different with it," Devlin notes. During a typical Dole set, hopped-up, pint-swaying versions of story songs like "Dirty Old Town," "Nancy Whiskey" and "Paddy Public Enemy" rub shoulders with instrumentals like "Lonesome Boatman" and Elvis and U2 tunes. Devlin's rough-hewn voice and strident, rhythmic chords fit the material perfectly, and Bride's emotional drum-and-whistle textures run throughout the malleable set list.
Though the band once played a community center prior to a speaker from Sinn Fein (the political arm of the IRA), both men say politics doesn't play a part in their music or choice of songs. "We sing a lot of the rebel songs, not necessarily because we [agree] with the lyrics, but because they're songs we grew up with," says Devlin, who adds that his family's house and his father's factory were "bombed by the IRA" because Devlin Sr. had hired some Protestants.
"But a lot of these songs are just celebrating historical facts, and a lot of them are now something like 80 years old," Bride says. "So it's not like we're singing about blowing up airplanes today."