Jennifer Conlee and Ezra Holbrook missed their calling. Instead of musicians, they should have gone into the greeting-card racket. Last Christmas, while others were wrapping presents and quaffing wassail, these Decemberists alumni were planning ahead... for St. Patrick's Day.
Conversation between the two friends had turned to "Fairytale of New York," the 1987 Christmas duet by Irish ensemble the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. A #2 UK smash upon its original release, it remains a holiday classic. Conlee confided to Holbrook she had always wanted to cover it, but rather than pop down to the karaoke parlor, they decided to do the job right and assemble an entire Pogues cover band.
Thus, come Thursday, March 16, at the Crocodile, revelers can bear witness to the official debut of Conlee and Holbrook's brainchild: KMRIA. No, that name isn't some ancient bit of Gaelic gobbledygook. "It's an acronym, standing for 'kiss my royal Irish ass,'" says Conlee.
Joining Conlee and Holbrook are Chris Funk (also of Decemberists), Jesse Emerson (Amelia), Derek Brown (Fernando), Hanz Araki (Whyos, An Tua) and Celtic folk maverick Casey Neill. Although the group will play the following night at Portland's Doug Fir Lounge, and may reunite annually, KMRIA don't plan to gig often. "It's definitely not going to be a regular band, because everyone involved is already in other bands, and really busy."
For many indie kids in the 1980s, the Pogues were a gateway into traditional Irish music, shocking proof that—in the right, drunken hands—pennywhistles, accordions, and ancient shanties could rock harder than any punk anthem. But Conlee had the opposite experience, working backward from jigs to slam dancing. "I already loved Celtic and Irish music before I was first exposed to the Pogues, back in high school," she confesses. "I was more intrigued that you could do all that in a rock band."
Conlee reveals that KMRIA got help learning their set list—which draws exclusively on the Shane McGowan years (i.e., from the 1984 debut Red Roses for Me through 1990's Hell's Ditch)—from original Pogues accordion player James Fearnley. "He's a big Decemberists fan," and introduced himself at a Los Angeles gig last year.
"I heartily subscribe to this effort," writes Fearnley of his endorsement. "Why, I even gave Funk and Conlee directions how to play the impossibly arcane middle section of 'Bottle of Smoke,' which neither [guitarist] Jem (who wrote the damn middle section) nor [banjo player] Terry Woods (who never plays the same thing twice) can actually get through without extemporizing. Neither can I, truth be told. But at least I know how it's supposed to go."
One thing Conlee says KMRIA probably won't recreate perfectly are the Pogues' chaotic, inebriated, and often bloody stage antics. "I'm not sure how crazy we're going to be live. It's hard enough to remember all the tunes and play them well. And since we don't know the material as well as the Pogues did, I don't think we're going to be able to get that drunk."