PROSE

THE LEADER OF THE BAND
IS NO PRODIGAL SON

“… every so often a band comes along that lives up to the hype. A band that stays true to its Celtic/Gaelic roots, yet whose sound is totally accessible to non-Celtic music fans. A band that can just as easily play a punk song as a jig -- and preferably both at the same time. A band like the Prodigals.”1

Getting inside the mind of the brilliant leader of the Prodigals is as easy as listening to the music the band produces - for both are passionate, straightforward and very real. What you see is truly what you get. Gregory Grene, the founder and the soul of The Prodigals, has a ready smile, a heartfelt embrace and a genuine interest is in everyone he meets, but his glowing happiness, just to be alive and doing what he loves, is just as obvious.

Always upbeat, whether partying long after a show is over, into the early morning hours with those attending the show, or getting up three hours later to do a phone interview for the city next on the tour, the driving force behind The Prodigals suffuses energy, love of the Irish musical tradition and a remarkable spirited embracing of everything and everyone around him. He is known to explore and seek out whatever is hot in the city he plays in, especially in restaurants. He likes his food spicy hot, his Guinness icy cold and his Jameson’s Irish whiskey warmed just enough to breathe. Although his band mates have changed, the leader, and the band, continues to evolve, becoming stronger and better, with each new addition.

“He is the most driven individual that I have ever come across. I remember when I was snow bound in Boston, we were due to play in Chicago. Somehow he eventually got a car to get me to New York. He will stop at nothing. He will not accept and has never had, a gig cancelled for any reason. I wouldn’t call it [being with The Prodigals] a good experience. It was a great experience, a wonderful experience.” - Colm O’Brien

Band mate Eamon O’Tuama elaborates on that: “I will be three years with the band in August and I am still amazed by his energy, motivation and passion. He never stops working and is always on the phone calling to confirm or negotiate a booking, to check on hotel rooms or flights. He does all the stuff that nobody else would want to do and he does it with an unrelenting energy and optimism. Even when things go wrong, as they can do when coordinating an operation like The Prodigals, all you will see from Greg is a few silent finger gunshots to the head and then he is back in the saddle, solving the next problem with a grin.”

Born in Chicago, the Grene’s moved to a small farm in County Cavan when Gregory and his twin brother, Andrew, were five months old. He split his first years between the States and Ireland. The music of the old country wasn’t just down the road; it was in his kitchen too:

“Every year the farmers used to gather in the stone-flagged kitchen with the huge old fireplace [for annual harvest parties], and we'd have musicians on the old wooden staircase that ran up the side; always at least a fiddler, accordion player and singer. One of them, Sean Donohoe, played the accordion, and that was how I got into it. I started learning the box from him, and he was a wonderfully patient teacher, with a lovely, sensitive, musical way of playing.”
Gregory’s father, Dublin born David Grene, was a University of Chicago classicist and Cavan farmer. His mother, Ethel, was born in Chicago and an emergency room physician.

At age fourteen, Gregory’s parents separated and Andrew, Gregory and Ethel returned to the U.S., living in Chicago. The change of scenery was stark and overwhelming. Gregory immersed himself in music but the tough transition any high schooler makes to moving, let alone to another country, was not all negative.

“I got more immersed than ever in the music. I moved with my mother and twin brother to an area that was pretty homogenous at the time, the high school where they filmed 'Breakfast Club' and the music was an invaluable way of holding onto something where I felt like I fit in. And I had the incredible luck to fall in with Liz Carroll, my genius teacher from Chicago [renowned fiddler – who also plays the button accordion]. The first time I played a tune for her at fourteen, and her saying beforehand saying maybe I was too advanced (I must have been terribly presumptuous in describing my playing level); and listening quietly, and then saying, well, maybe there was a thing or two she could teach me; all gentleness. I've ended up playing music that is very different from hers, and I have a feeling it's really not her cup of tea; but I simply couldn't do what I do without having learned such an immeasurable amount from that profoundly gifted person. You could put anything in front of her and she can play it. She's amazing.”

Under Liz Carroll's guidance, Gregory won the Midwest Fleadh Cheol in the Junior and then the Senior divisions (on button accordion) in two successive years.

“My mother was profoundly supportive, taking me to lessons (before I had my drivers license), and to all the music club events. My mother made it all possible, by being passionately devoted to her children's dreams, and supporting them through thick and thin, rough and smooth, from driving across Ireland with me to find my first accordion, to sending me one in Tokyo when I bitterly regretted not having brought one with me, to bouncing like an Energizer Bunny in every gig she can get to. Without her, I absolutely would not be doing what I am doing. She's the biggest hero of the whole lot.”

Gregory returned to Ireland to attend Trinity College, where he studied/majored in French and Modern English and graduated with a B.A. M.A. Double Honors. While there, he founded the Dublin University Traditional Music Society [DUTMS], when he noticed no format for promoting or preserving the traditional music. This was fueled through seeing the generation old denial of the legitimacy of our own music, the kind of thinking that says that anything is good except our own.

“When I attended Trinity, in the university as in much of Ireland, folks were terribly keen on being the ‘young Europeans,’ and part of that was a strong inclination to leave behind anything that was deemed Irish, and therefore non-modern. So my idea was simply to stick in back there, in their faces. Prior to the DUTMS there used to be the odd trad concert plunked up in a room over Front Gate, where it was all very polite, and attended by a smattering of folks over the lunch hour.

I arranged to have loud, exuberant sessions right in the middle of the Buttery Bar, which was the central watering hole for students, right on Front Square. It was really an excuse for a piss-up (what student can resist free beer?), with a subversive notion on my part of re-establishing traditional music’s ‘cool’ in the scene.”

The Dublin University Traditional Music Society still exists today.

After graduating, Gregory returned to Chicago, for about a year, working as a waiter and playing gigs. He then took a year off and traveled throughout Asia, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. Japanese agencies were mad for western models and Gregory was paid handsomely for his work.

“I earned money for the rest of the trip, through India, by three jobs in Tokyo, in fact: one was modeling, one was teaching English, and the last was playing music with a band called the Dirty Harry’s in Theatre Pu, Shinjuku and elsewhere. Really interesting experience…the Japanese who were into the scene immersed themselves in it with intensity, and I have a vivid memory of a most excellent singer giving a rendering, in very solemn sean nós style and a strong Japanese accent, of ‘Biddy Mulligan the Pride of the Coombe.’ On my last concert there, one of the audience, who used to show up regularly but never spoke to any of the musicians, passed a napkin up through the crowd to me, and then promptly disappeared; it said, ‘we will miss you, Mr. Free Reed Man.’ I still have the napkin.”

Gregory returned to the U.S. but instead of Chicago, he relocated to New York, where the opportunities for acting gigs were much more prevalent. He attended the Actors Workshop for two years at the Conservatory in New York. After acting in a Broadway and many other shows, Gregory realized his true path was in music, not acting. He was finding his place – or it was finding him.

“It's a funny thing," he said. "I spent my really young childhood in Ireland, but when I moved to Chicago the next four years, boy did I feel Irish. Now I feel like a New Yorker.”2


While spackling the ceiling of the just built Irish Repertory Theatre, in 1995, Gregory met singer and guitarist, Sean McCabe. Sean wanted to be a playwright and Gregory an actor. Their commonalities were obvious and the two spent time layering spackle and shouting across the high ceilings to each other. Three weeks before St. Patrick’s Day, 1996, Gregory got a call from Sean asking if he wanted to join in a gig playing during the day on St. Patrick’s Day. Gregory was up for the idea and they joined with English banjo player Mick Hickey to play their first gig, at Eamon Doran’s. The Prodigals were born. “There would not be The Prodigals without Sean McCabe [now playing with and leading The McCabes]. He was a founding member and brilliant.”

The name The Prodigals was chosen from the song, The Wild Rover, “… I'll go home to my parents, confess what I've done, and I'll ask them to pardon their prodigal son … ”

Mick left the band about four months later to return to Bermuda and Alex Tobias, a singer who played the harmonica, fiddle and jaw harp, replaced him. The distinctive sound of the Prodigals was like a newborn, ready to explore the bright new world and reaching out to see what could be touched:

“Really interesting things were beginning to happen melodically, but it felt to me as though rhythms that might seem very accessible to Irish music-familiar ears simply weren't carrying across to those unfamiliar with the genre, and we brought in a rhythm section that ended up having a great impact on the music; Andrew Harkin on bass and Brian Tracey on drums. In 1997 we recorded our eponymous first CD, with the lineup at the time; Sean, myself, Andrew, Brian and Alex.”

Soon after, Ray Kelly was added as Sean and Alex left.

“…and the format of the band, the four-piece of guitar, bass, drums, accordion and vocals, has stayed pretty consistent since then. We recorded our second CD, Go On, [1999] at the famous Avatar Studios in Manhattan, and that was the CD that really jumped the band forward. It hit at the apogee of the Celtic trend in the US, with Riverdance having brought a whole new cool to the scene, and the Prodigals sound was utterly distinctive, and unlike anything else that was around at the time.

“One of the things that stood out on Go On was something that I had discovered while mixing the first album, which was, we could use the backline as lead instruments, so that in effect we had four lead musicians; that really came to the fore on Go On, and was one of the central differentiating factors. The other [thing that I found] was similar, the split singing, between Ray and myself. In broad, the band has worked consistently as a democratic collective, with everyone having a very real chance to shine, and I think it's resulted in a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.”

As Gregory explained in an interview on Celtic Groove; “The Prodigals' sound is rooted in Irish traditional [music], but explores various rhythmic styles. We have a rock-solid base in the Irish tradition - that's where the melodic source has been from the beginning and will remain - but we're constantly discovering and exploring new ways to express that source with a focus on maintaining the integrity of Irish music's organic expression and integrity,”3

The same prescription that was so successful on Go On was applied to the next album, Dreaming in Hell’s Kitchen (2001) but a new ingredient was added. Johnny Cunningham, renowned as both the producer of Solas, and as one of the legendary musicians on the trad music scene for his work with Silly Wizard and Relativity, took over the production aspects for the new recording.

“Johnny wasn't a typically hands-on organizational producer, and I think at times he had a tough time with the tensions that go with the recording process in a band as multi-voiced as we were; but what he did do, stunningly, was contribute one of the most musical ears I have ever met, and unified and elevated the album as a whole. He had one of the trademarks of great producers, which was, he didn't try to superimpose one particular sound on all his albums, but he listened wonderfully attentively, and drew out whatever was absolutely best in whatever acts he worked with, whether it was Solas or the Prodigals.”

2002 brought more change in the progression of The Prodigals. Ray Kelly left to open Ray Kelly’s Pub in Black Rock, Connecticut and Brian Tracy left to spend less time on the road. Colm O’Brien, from Dublin, and Chris Nicolo on drums, gathered to record The Prodigals next album, Needs Must When the Devil Drives. Both huge talents, Colm and Chris brought their own experience and influences to the group.

Colm was also a songwriter and had many compositions to add to the group’s repertoire as well. Johnny Cunningham wasn’t able to produce this album but the group found Howie Beno, renowned producer of Ministry and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ hit, Give it Away Now. Howie would have an even bigger impact on The Prodigals next album.

By the time Needs Must When the Devil Drives was ready for release, the lineup had changed, with Eamon O'Tuama on vocals and Eamon Ellams on drums being added in place of Colm and Chris. Band changes often have legendary stories of bad breakups, bitter words and “rights” battles. Once again, The Prodigals are outside the norm.

“Two notes on this which need to be said: one, we have the warmest relationship with all of our former members. None of the transitions have left some kind of long-standing acrimony. It's always been an issue of pragmatic considerations, in this case Chris needing to take time at home with his family, and Colm the same, with a most charming young son having arrived.

“And the other note is that as much as we have always been a bit panicked in advance, [but] every time the new members have brought in new and vital qualities. Eamon O'Tuama is from Cork, but his background is decisively in alternative pop and rock, and Eamon Ellams came from a Liverpool Irish family, was immersed in Irish music from his childhood, rebelled, and then rediscovered it by playing with Riverdance. So O'Tuama brought in a kind of song-writing that had not featured in the band up to then, and Ellams brought both the experimentation of his broad music schooling in London combined with immediate and profound familiarity with the Irish idiom.”

This is lack of acrimony between ex band mates is so unusual that it borders on amazing. The current members still cross paths with old band members at festivals, concerts and such and the camaraderie that they feel for each other and good words that they have to say about each other clearly reflects the high regard for which they hold for their former band mates.

Gregory dreamed for years of The Prodigals recording a live album but the challenge of how to justifiably highlight all that a Prodigals show entails had hindered this from happening.

“The sound of the Prodigals is so defined by the live show that it felt like an essential part of the puzzle that had been missing, more and more prominently [when listening to a CD of the band]…In a live show, you are shooting for the moment, the effervescent moment. In a studio you are shooting for perfection.” How to bring that quintessential aspect of a Prodigals show to life on a CD was a challenge that needed a little wizardry.

“Once again, Howie played an invaluable role.... I don't think there is another producer who has the kind of engineering chops Howie has, and for my money, Beachland Bootleg is a hallmark in terms of taking the colossal challenge of taking an inherently impossible situation, recording a live rock show, and producing an album that quality-wise can go head-to-head with any studio album.”

The band had one more surprise for its legions of fans. Bass player Andrew Harkens left the band to spend less time on the road. The surprise news was announced at the release of The Beachland Bootleg, at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio in March. Gregory’s realization of a lifelong dream of a live Prodigals CD was tempered by Andrew’s decision to leave;

“Andrew Harkin's contribution in terms of aesthetic and arrangement sensibilities was simply invaluable. He is an extraordinary player, and an extraordinary, incredibly bright, talented man, who is possessed of one of the funniest, most anarchic senses of humor I know. I have nothing but good feelings for him.

“I worked as an actor for a number of years, and in one of my last shows, a play on Broadway, I was directed by the great Dublin director Joe Dowling; and as he was leaving after opening night, he told the cast, 'if you need to change a thing, for God's sake, change it. When things stay still, they die; and when they die, we all know what happens...they start to smell. So don't be afraid of change!" It was a brilliant quote from a brilliant man, and profoundly true.”

Ed Kollar, a gifted base player who has played in Raglan Road and his own bands, Fancy Albacore and Monk for President, brings a new energy to The Prodigals, according to Gregory;

“Change is good... it's gone really, really well. And it isn't just me...you can check on the band's fansite (www.prodigals.com/links) for the reactions Ed is getting.”

The many facets and evolving of The Prodigals subconsciously points out something else about Gregory, and why he loves living in New York; “I love New York, it's a most wonderful non-melting pot...it's sort of a community of tiny villages stacked on top of one another...Irish town, Greek town, Chinatown...mingled block by block, but not mish mashed into a formless mud color, still retaining all their original vibrancy. And I always love going home...the smell of the house walking in, with the damp winds blown in from the fields and the stone hearth with the turf ashes...you really have this childlike feeling of pure ecstasy...”

The Prodigals are New York, put to music.

Whether in the band or in the city, Gregory loves to keep things fresh, energetic and embracing of whatever life throws his way. His family also splits time between Ireland and the U.S.; Brother Andrew is a peace-keeping strategist at the United Nations, Nicholas is Professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin, Ruth is a plant physicist in Blacksburg Virginia. Gregory’s father passed in 2002. A memory of a shared moment with his father is still very emotional for Gregory;

“He was eighty-nine years old. It was the year he passed away; he always valiantly came to my live gigs when I played in Belturbet, and he pretty much hated them, because they were to him irredeemably loud. But my mother had printed out the lyrics, and had him sit down and listen to Dreaming in Hell’s Kitchen, when it came out, and I sat beside him, on tenterhooks, waiting for him to say something polite and awkward; and instead of that, seeing the tears come to his eyes as he realized his son was doing something that he might love as he already loved his son ... that is probably one of the greatest moments I'll ever know, in music and otherwise.”

“… I simply, addictively, love what I am doing. I love singing or playing in front of a heaving crowd, folks crowd-surfing, going mad, to a tune that is hundreds of years old, or singing along with words that came to me in a hotel room at 3 a.m. I love sitting in a bar at an insane hour of the morning, long past the time I should have gone to bed, and singing an unaccompanied song. I cannot say what it means to me when folks like Liam Clancy or the Wolfe Tones listen and talk about passing the torch.

“I have huge respect for the old folk music, Clancys, Dubliners, all those, and those that carry that tradition forward. I think it has weathered the test of time because it speaks to something fundamental in the human condition, like blues or other great roots music. My mother introduced us to the Clancy Brothers records when we were very young children; I don't think anyone has written a more complex, rueful, sad, angry anti-war song than the Clancys' version of Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye, and it is something that communicates vividly whether one is three or eighty-three.

“One [memory] stands out in my mind, which is of Sean McGuire, the fiddler from Belfast who just passed away. I saw him for the first and only time at Milwaukee Irish Fest, where we were playing on a huge neighboring rock stage. I nipped into a tent, and saw Joe Burke, who of course I'd idolized from childhood on. And then I saw this 70 year-old man, dressed in an immaculate white tuxedo, red bowtie, and gold rings glittering on his fingers, stand up and whisper into the mic (he'd lost his voicebox to throat cancer) that his fiddle would speak for him. And I didn't know what to think or expect, as I'd heard only a not-great recording of him before, and I thought to get up in that attention-getting gear when you were next to Joe was a little risky. But when he lifted his bow to that fiddle...well, I've never in my life heard anything like it, and never will again, God rest him.

“I actually don't think any recording has, or could, do him justice...he had to be heard, and seen live. And all I'll say beyond that is, he had a crowd ranging from seven to eighty, many of them just coming in to get out of the sun, and it being the major city festival it is, many of them without necessarily being huge aficionados of the music; and every one...every one...of them getting on their feet, and giving that old man a standing ovation, and not once, but eight times.

“That is what live music can be. God bless him, and all like him.”

“Some of our recordings have given me similar moments of 'this is why I'm doing this!'; “The folks who are in the scene are my Beatles...I'm agog that I get to meet and chat with folks like Joe Burke, or Shane MacGowan, or Ronnie Drew, or work with Johnny Cunningham, or learn from Liz Carroll. Their genius awes me, and what they've achieved in creating this reservoir of acceptance of music that I love commands my utmost admiration and respect.

“It amazes me when I'm lumped with any of my heroes, I always feel like there must be an error somewhere.”

Gregory is a music producer in New York, when not on the road with The Prodigals. [If I weren’t a performer, I would] … “probably go mad, in one way or another.”

“I was elated that the Morning After was chosen for the 2005 edition of the Rough Guide to Irish Music CD, along with Altan, Dervish, Flook and Paul Brady - it's a kind of validation that is beyond thrilling.

“I would at some point like to record a traditional album, accordion with maybe a couple of songs. I was offered just that years back, by Outlet Records in Belfast, but the timing was off - I was about to go into the studio with The Prodigals second album - and I never got around to doing it. Maybe some time we'll have a brief sabbatical and I'll get a chance to do it. But my first priority, without question, is The Prodigals, and I wouldn't want to do anything less than a really great trad album, if I did one, so that would have to take a big chunk of time and concentration.

“One of the things that's been marvelous is, so far, we really have been where we are and delighted to be there, and there's a sort of Zen joy that comes out of the whole thing,” Grene says. “I really hesitate in a way to really say, 'OK, we're shooting for this' because in a way it takes us out of the here-and-now. And being in the here-and-now is really what's made the band work and I don't want to move away from that.” 4

[On writing or finding songs to record and perform] …“I'll be drawn to songs or tunes for a number of reasons, but very often because of subtle multiple strains, sometimes apparently contradictory, running through a tune or a song: a reel like the Drunken Tinker, which is driving, but has a very dark edge to it; a song like Roddy McCorley which is about a bleak event, but whose tune sounds like a triumphant march. Jackie Hall, in the version we recorded, is angry and defiant rather than mournful. Just listened last night to some old Dubliners, and songs like Johnny McGrory, or Kimmage, or the Mero have a unique mix of humor and poignancy. For that reason, the tunes on the traditional end that I tend to favor are more Donegal, Galway and Clare....

“For myself, songs will occur to me at 3 a.m., when I'm in a hotel room, and trying to sleep....I'll have a lyric and melody start to run through my head, and try to dismiss it, and go back to sleep; but it it's good, it won't let me alone, and keeps coming back until I write it down. Then I'll try to fall back asleep, and it'll happen again. When it starts it will usually mean no sleep, but something has hatched that was waiting somewhere to happen, other times...when I'm in the band van, or on an airplane. Usually when one's in a compulsory Never-Never Land, dissociated from one's day-to-day neuroses.

“I guess my dream for the Prodigals is not one of pop stardom or whatever ... I don't see that as part of our spectrum, anyway ... but in the best of all worlds, our music would somehow become part of the communal pot. There's a tune that I wrote years ago, the Nova Scotia Reel, which has worked its way into the canon of session tunes, and I'm so thrilled by that ... it's been recorded three times now that I know of, by musicians that I profoundly admire and respect; and to have something I wrote being played by a third party who doesn't even know me, and played alongside tunes that are written by Paddy Fahey or Ed Reavey or Turlough O'Carolan...there's no greater high than that. I'd love to sit in a pub years from now, and hear someone start to sing a Prodigals song out of the blue, not as a tribute or a courtesy, but just because it was one of the songs to be sung.”

The leader of the band continues to drive The Prodigals through a touring schedule that includes almost 150 performing dates per year, ranging from New York to California, Ireland, Germany and Japan. The resounding success of Beachland Bootleg and then this years Momentum has only increased the clamor for “the Chieftain’s on Caffeine,” as the Columbus Dispatch calls the band.

But no matter what happens for the band, The Prodigal’s guiding force, visionary, and passionate advocate for the legacy of Irish music, stands tall. The future of The Prodigals is safe in Gregory’s unwavering commitment to stay the course.



Endnotes:
1 Creative Loafing. Savannah, GA. “The Prodigals thrash it Irish style.” by Jim Morek. February 16, 2000.
2 New Haven Register. New Haven, CT “These Sons of Erin Are Only Prodigal to a Point.” by Fran Fried. May 4, 2001.
3 Celtic Grove (www.celticgrove.com), 2001.
4 Creative Loafing. Greenville, NC “The Sound and The Fury, The Prodigals deliver traditional Irish music with punk rock energy.” by Dan Armonaitis January 31, 2001.


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THE PRODIGALS

Discography:

  • The Prodigals (1997)
  • Go On (1999)
  • Dreaming in Hell’s Kitchen (2001)
  • Needs Must When the Devil Drives (2003)
  • Beachland Bootleg (2005) --     Also contains a live DVD
  • Momentum (2006)


  • All CD’s can be purchased at: www.prodigals.com
    John O’Brien, Jr.
    14615 Triskett Road, Cleveland, Ohio 44111-3123
    P 216.647.1144    John@songsandstories.net

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