Gig Review: The Paperboys, Seattle WA (Tractor Tavern) 1/4/2014

It’s always great to take in a band you’ve always wanted to see live – in 2013 alone I got to check the following from my “must see before I/they die” list:

  • The Chieftains (2/19, Omaha NE)
  • Yes (3/14, Omaha NE)
  • Ian Anderson (7/13, Kansas City MO)
  • Belle & Sebastian (7/20, Chicago IL)
  • Steely Dan (8/6, Omaha NE)
  • The Doobie Brothers (8/9, Omaha NE)
  • Chicago (8/30, Omaha NE)
  • Elton John (11/21, Lincoln NE)

…which was all amazing, of course. But there’s something about the mingled anticipation and dread that comes with walking into an unknown show. Will it be good? Will it be terrible? Will I remember this show for the rest of my life? Will it be for good or bad reasons? The modern ubiquity of YouTube and Spotify can ameliorate this uncertainty, but it by no means erases it, especially for less popular acts, the kind that constitute the bread and butter of most venues.

Paperboys @ the Triple Door

The Paperboys at the Triple Door in Seattle, WA (2007)

When I was in Seattle last weekend, I had every intention of going to the Surfer Blood show at the Sunset Tavern in Ballard. However, by the time I got to looking for tickets, they had already sold out. Needing a live music fix, I saw that a “Latin Celtic folk” group from Vancouver, BC called the Paperboys was playing just down the street at the Tractor Tavern. Intrigued, I looked them up and found the following précis on the band’s website:

Mexican Son Jarocho mixed in with Irish Jigs and Reels and a good dose of Country and Bluegrass. It has healthy servings of Ska, Soca and African Highlife and we’ve been known to throw in a little White Boy Reggae. Of course it also has strains of Soul, Pop and Funk although we are by no means a funk band. It is mostly Acoustic although we also like Electric guitars.

“Well,” I thought, “I have GOT to hear this.” So I took a chance and a couple of friends, not entirely sure what we were walking into.

Almost a week later, I’m still not entirely sure. Sometimes I was listening to electrified reels in the vein of Gaelic Storm (whom I also got to see last year [for the second time!] – 8/21 Omaha NE). At other times things ran a little closer to Los Lobos’ brand of Latin roots rock. Then when the horn section came in over syncopated guitars, I could’ve sworn I had been duped, and this was actually a Mighty Bosstones gig. And sometimes, as on the ecstatic “Rain on You,” it was like all three at once, a strange and heady brew that comes out sounding like nothing quite so much as Paul Simon’s Graceland with tin whistles, or maybe a Latin-infused Dexys Midnight Runners.

If it sounds a little bizarre, it was. But it was also an absolute blast. Original songs slid into traditional tunes slid into Bob Marley covers with such ease that you barely noticed the transitions. And to cap it all, the band ended its main set with a storming Celtic ska, rock n’ soul cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” making room for solos all around with a revved-up take on the traditional Irish “The Musical Priest” holding it together. Special props go to Mexican-born bandleader Tom Landa on guitar and vocals, Kalissa Hernandez on fiddle, and the band’s good-natured mouthpiece Geoffrey Kelly on assorted flutes and whistles; but since the Paperboys thrive on contrasts and syntheses, every member is an important ingredient in the stylistic pot.

When the Chieftains started collaborating with anyone who’d sit still long enough in the early 1980s, they envisioned a future in which traditional Celtic music was no mere historical curiosity, but something vibrant and contemporary. The Paperboys are something of an apotheosis of this vision, the sunny flip-side of Flogging Molly or the Pogues. And as a live act, I couldn’t ask for a better way to kick off 2014.

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