Pugwash Takes a Bite of the Apple

I’m not as young as I used to be. None of us are. In my generation’s heyday (the ’90s) Downtown New York was speckled with hole-in-the-wall music clubs, dozens of them. Live rock n roll, from classic to out-there to the utterly banal, laid siege on the city. You couldn’t walk a block without being accosted by the guerilla artwork of bands promoting yet another one-nighter at CBGBs, the Knit, Brownies, Fez, the Pyramid Club, the Gas Station, Under Acme, the Spiral… the list went on and on.

Now the seedy venues are all gone, replaced by not-live soundtracked joints whose primary attractions are high-end finger food, cute drinks with impossibly long names, and opportunities to  seek out and nail fellow silver-spoon 20-somethings paying too much rent on daddy’s dime. I too have changed, no longer living the dream daily but stubbornly squeezing it into the cracks of a responsibility-laiden life. We all soldier on, making choices and making due.

Enter Pugwash, a very great Irish rock band around my age. Like so many bands I’ve known in New York, Pugwash has birthed numerous infectious, unforgettable songs that have delighted thousands, garnered the appreciation and respect of some of rock’s most accomplished artists, and somehow never landed the big score or audience their work truly deserves. Most artists fitting this profile as they zero in on 50 have already given up, but not these guys.

I was turned on to Pugwash around 7 years ago by drummer friend Marc Friedlander. Seduced by their infectious pop melodies, rich velvety singing, stalwart musicianship and glistening production, I felt the same warm thrill listening to them as I had felt taking in the groups that had most inspired my own music: the Beatles and XTC. Marc had shared just a few tracks with me. I knew nothing about them, not even that they were Irish. But their tunes would fill me with profound contentment when they popped up on my iPod. 

Last Wednesday I spent the day in a suit and tie playing cat-and-mouse with corporate clients in greater Philadelphia. I was itching to get back to town, for Marc (who now lives in Asheville) had facebooked friends that Pugwash was making its New York debut at the Delancey, one of the last remaining holes in the wall Downtown. It had been years since I’d been excited to see a new band I loved in such a small place. Presuming there must be hundreds of New Yorkers who had found their way to the bliss of Pugwash, I anticipated a crowd trying to fight its way in.

An old college friend in town on business had suddenly become free that evening, so we made plans to meet for a quick bite. I’d meet her then head down to the show, advertised at 8 pm. The train was over an hour late picking me up and then proceeded back to the city at a tortuously slow pace. I rode fidgeting in my monkey suit, realizing I’d be dressed like a narc for the hip show later that evening. My friend Wendy and I finally connected at 6:30. We hit an Italian place and caught up for 90 minutes.

Wendy and I met in journalism school and she had gone on to achieve great success in the field. Having known each other throughout adulthood and watched our families grow, careers blossom, weathering of hardships, etc., our friendship always shined perspective on where we were in life at any given time. She told me of potential career opportunities that could land her in various exotic locales; I gave her the latest on the challenges of my draconian job, financial struggles, and excitement about making my finest album in years. A fitting reality check before scurrying downtown to see a new band for the first time since I could remember. 

I arrived at the Delancey sweating and already exhausted around 8:30, where I was told the band wouldn’t play until 10. Great, I thought. How will I make it that long? I called Vlada at home and debated whether to bail on the show. I felt old; I was tired. But I couldn’t let it go. I called Susie, my ex who lived nearby. “I’m in the hood trying to stick it out til 10,” I said. “Come over and sleep,” she offered. “I’ll wake you up in time.”

Returning to the club rejuvenated, I entered the dank basement of the Delancey. I’d never been downstairs there before and was taken aback by how much it reminded me of venues of the past – cement floor, foot-high platform stage, velvet curtain behind masking the bounceback off the mildewy wall. It was dark, unglamorous and – to my surprise – half-empty. Thirty or so people lounged around, chatting and awaiting the band. Recognizing none of them, I shrugged and parked myself right in front of the stage.    

The group was settling onto the stage, tuning, testing amps. They were unassuming, projecting no rock star attitude. They seemed like me and my contemporaries, a group of guys on an adventure with no sense of entitlement. They were my age and had crossed the water to play for the first time. They were doing it. Beautiful.

They kicked off the first song and a wall of sound hit me in the face. Indeed it had been a while… The group sounded sublime, much more raw than on their seamlessly produced recordings. This was rock n roll, the Beatles at the Cavern, not Sgt. Pepper. Conducting themselves with the humility of a pub band, the guys nonetheless commanded attention.

Sporting a shaved head like mine, bassist Shaun McGee laid down his tricky, tasteful lines with graceful authority, swaying and bopping in time. Wonderfully disheveled, Tosh Flood’s modest and mild personality belied his fierce handling of the guitar. He comped like the Byrds, then spat leads that could have held their own in the Stones. From my vantage point I couldn’t see drummer Joey Fitzgerald, but his deep pocket was stellar, guiding the group like an engine pulling a freight train. Then there was Thomas.

The composer and leader of the group, Thomas Walsh is a big beautiful guy with a scraggly goatee, a transcendent voice, a gift for pop hooks and a wickedly marvelous sense of humor. He is completely down to earth and utterly musically compelling, brutally coaxing accented rhythms and countermelodies out of his Fender Telly while exercising a formidable vocal range.

Within the first five songs, they played both of my personal favorites: Keep Moving On and Apples. I was a bit shocked; it had been so long since I’d felt this way listening to a group. I was also in pain, as my ears were no longer used to absorbing the volume. (They’re still ringing as I write this 4 days later.) After 5 tunes I relinquished my ringside seat to seek sonic mercy in the back.

Already content, I wondered if I should stick out the show or drag my tired ass back to Brooklyn. I liked them so much, I thought If I stayed I might revert to my old Downtown impresario ways and start chatting them up about business or working together or my old label Fang Records. I felt satisfied, shy and fried. Thought it might be best to retire while ahead, let this show be a magic moment and get some sleep to recharge for the ugly, draining workday ahead on Thursday. 

But I couldn’t move. Each song sucked me in deeper than the one before. Or Thomas would make a joke between songs that would pull me back. He would introduce a track as “from one of the 7 records sold in Dublin” or having won “the dumb fuck prize” or having caused a “huge, huge, huge ripple” on the Irish charts. At one point he clarified that the group is “not from Latvia”.  

So for me, “just one more” turned into the whole show. The heavy testimony of Two Wrongs. The light irony of It’s Nice to Be Nice. The moody pop mastery of Fall Down. The sweeping, passionate ballad Here.

It was hard to read the audience, which had filled in to maybe 50 people. Most of them looked middle aged, pushing 50. They didn’t exude much energy; applause was polite but hardly fervent. Thomas commented on the crowd’s lack of animation, which elicited further unanimated non-response. I honestly believe they were having as good a time as I was. Old folks just don’t move or squeal much. 

In any event, the group had apparently had enough of it and, to my sheer delight, launched sideways into a raucous and ragged string of Rutles covers, including an epic rendition of Cheese and Onions. Clearly not everyone in the room recognized the Rutles, but in the back I held my belly and bellowed with laughter.

When encore time came, Pugwash executed a cover of Nowhere Man in honor of their first appearance in John Lennon’s adopted town. The harmonies were tight and the band punched the song with more muscle than the Beatles, who were stoned a lot by the time they were playing Nowhere Man to shrieking, unlistening throngs. Perhaps not a fair fight, but Pugwash out-Beatled the Beatles.

After the show I dashed to the merch table and secured myself a t-shirt and disc. I gave their assistant my card and offered my availability should the band succeed in its aspiration to return next year. Turning away, I ran right into Thomas.

“Man I love you guys,” I said. “I’ve been putting together shows here for a long, long time. I gave your man a card. If you make it back next year, I’m someone you could call here who can help.” Thomas was warm, friendly, modest and appreciative, the type of person one would feel good to get behind.

“I hope they come back,” I thought.

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