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music: Modern Traditions

The Prodigals put the Irish-American experience to music.


The group started playing in Brooklyn in the late '90s as a traditional Irish outfit. But as Grene, bassist Andrew Harkin, drummer Brian Tracey and guitarist Ray Kelly hit a collective stride, they began turning the old sound on its ear while retaining the music's timeless soul. This is not uncommon in Irish music these days; Black 47 and others have found success plugging in and rocking out. But The Prodigals have a musically accomplished and propulsive sound that mixes lyrical heart with party hangovers in arrangements that evolve uniquely from within.

The band plays its first Richmond show Thursday at Jumpin!, touring behind its third CD "Dreaming in Hell's Kitchen." The CD's 12 cuts include updated traditional tunes, one instrumental and nine original songs. Grene is quick to say he likes the CD but the band's live shows are more energetic.

"I'm happy with the recording but live performance is a whole different animal," he says by phone from New York. "The band really does have a degree of [audience] engagement."

Bandleader Grene found his way to this musical engagement after a diverse cultural upbringing. He found the traditional songs and the accordion growing up in the Irish countyside. While attending high school in Chicago, he studied the instrument and won regional awards. Returning to Ireland, he entered Trinity College to study language. But Grene wound up spending more time with a band, founding the Dublin University Traditional Music Society and acting in acclaimed university plays, than he spent pursuing academics.

Grene moved to New York in 1991 with acting ambitions. He landed a role in a Broadway play but, after a few years, acting came up short. After all, Grene explains, stage dialogue is not your own.

"I loved it. …It was something I needed to do. But at the end of the day. in acting you're seeking someone else's approval. With music you talk wholly with your voice."

Grene started jamming in Manhattan Irish bars and quickly found Harkin and the others. The band quickly developed a following and soon found a steady gig at the infamous Paddy Reilly's pub. In the handful of ensuing years, they've toured the States, Canada and Ireland. The Prodigals, now including new guitarist Colm O'Brien, are looking for more, although Grene says the music comes first.

"There was not some sort of grand plot in the music just for the sake of doing it. By some extent that's still our MO. Fortunately, it's led upwards." S

The Prodigals play Jumpin!, Thursday, June 20, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Sculpture Gardens. Call for 340-1405 information.

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