Members Joe Stickley, Sean Allen Canan and Ryan Kennedy get around. You can hear their three-part jams at McGurk's Irish Pub every Sunday night, and they've left their mark on audiences from Harvest Sessions to, more recently, the Jamming at JB concert series. This year, the group joins the Twangfest lineup -- for the first time -- with an opening set at Plush on Wednesday, June 5.
Songwriter Joe Stickley leads on guitar and vocals backed by Canan on mandolin or guitar with Kennedy on standup bass. The group delivers original songs and down-home takes on Irish classics (find some on their 2010 release, "Loaded To The Gunwales") that are bound to warm your insides, if the Guinness hasn't already.
Francisco Fisher: You guys play every week at McGurk's. How do you come up with your set lists?
Joe Stickley: We never write a set list, but after playing together for so long, it is fairly easy to keep things moving. If you've seen us down there, you'll notice that we'll go one, two, three, maybe interact with the crowd a little bit, and do another one, two, three just because we have so many songs. It might sound corny, but we really do read each other's minds. We'll be thinking the same song at the same time. And that's what keeps it fresh and keeps it fun.
How are you going to prepare for your Plush show at Twangfest?
Ryan Kennedy: I don't know if we are going to prepare for the show at Plush. We might write a set list.
Sean Allen Canan: Yeah we might actually break our tradition of no set lists. We probably haven't played off of a set list in, well, it's been a while. A year? Six months?
JS: Here's the thing, if you write a set list, there's no way that the show can take on the character that a non-set list show can. You take a risk without a set list, but the best shows we've ever played -- for us, the shows that have felt the best -- are shows where you're feeling out where you want to go with the songs.
Last time I was at McGurk's you guys played a Nirvana cover ["Polly"]. That was kind of unexpected. What other covers do you do that might throw people for a loop?
SAC: We did "Molly's Lips" the other night for our encore. People were like, "What, Nirvana?"
JS: We love Nirvana.
SAC: We like the cover songs that surprise people. But there're just so many songs we know and grew up on that we like to play just because we grew up on them. When you talk about doing Grateful Dead, Joe and I grew up on those songs, the Garcia/Grisman catalogue. We just enjoy playing those because a lot of those stylistically fit with what we do, especially the Garcia/Grisman songs. Or Steve Earle, these are just songwriters that we grew up loving.
JS: They're songs that we like ourselves.
SAC: We do "Space Oddity," and were talking about doing it for Twangfest, but then that video of that Canadian guy came out, the astronaut who was in space, and now that song is in the public eye too much. It's like playing a song that you loved and all of a sudden it's on a commercial.
JS: And we're not in the public eye. We don't want to be in the public eye.
SAC: We want to be outside of the mainstream. Ideally, you want the mainstream to come to you. You buckle down and do what you do, do what you love, and you kind of get sucked into whatever. I don't think we have any ambition of trying to go towards that bubble.
You guys cover several Irish drinking songs. They can get pretty dark. What is, in your opinion, the darkest one?
SAC: "Weila Waila" is definitely the darkest because it's about…
RK: Killing babies.
SAC: It's about a woman who does the old Irish abortion where you realize you can't take care of the baby only until after it's born. And you kill it…. There's no happy ending. It's just an awful story. But it sounds fun and happy, because it's in a major key. We've had people who actually listened to the lyrics and get offended. And I'm like, no, that's a children's lullaby from the 1700s or something. We didn't write that. Don't judge us.
You must get people at your shows who are pretty knowledgeable about Irish music. Do you ever get stumped by a request?
SAC: Yea, we get stumped by the Irish ones all the time, because we only really do about 20 Irish songs. Of the 20 we do, 10 of them are outside of what you would consider the "greatest hits of Ireland." They're a little more of the deep cuts. So yeah, there are probably about 20 or 30 songs that get requested that are of the Irish tradition that we don't know yet. When we started playing McGurk's, we didn't do any Irish songs. So that gig has sort of educated us on the tradition, and we've done our twist on it. And every year that passes, we add a few more.
How does that influence the original music that's being made?
SAC: On "Loaded to the Gunwales" there are two original songs. Probably the more important one would be "Irish Old Ladies." That definitely has Irish influence. And that song has actually kind of grown its own legs at McGurks, to the point where people think it's a traditional song. We've gotten it requested by people who didn't know we wrote it.
How do you feel about playing Twangfest for essay writer the first time?
JS: We are thrilled because it's just something we've always enjoyed going to, and it's something we've always wanted to be a part of.
What should people expect when they come see you for the first time? How should they go into the show?
SAC: Are you asking if they should be stoned or drunk?
JS: One thing people say to us often is "you guys look like you're having so much fun." And at the end of the day, we really like playing together. We hope that comes across, and it seems like it does. So we hope people are ready to have a good time, because that's what we intend on doing.
SAC: Don't be afraid to join in by the second chorus. We enjoy very much not being the only ones in the room singing.
Stickley & Canan perform on June 5 at 8 p.m. at Plush for Twangfest 17. Headlining that night are Ray Wylie Hubbard and Todd Snider.