The Coal Porters are putting the punk spirit of '76 into the finest bluegrass around
'˜Gabba, gabba, hey!' the rallying cry immortalised by the founding fathers of punk, The Ramones, isn't what you'd normally expect to hear on the opening track of a rootsy, bluegrass album.
But then there aren’t many bluegrass bands quite like The Coal Porters.
The band, formed by Sid Griffin after the demise of his previous band, The Long Ryders, have long styled themselves as ‘alt-bluegrass.’
And it’s new album No.6 – confusingly their ninth album, but sixth in this style – that kicks off with The Day The Last Ramone Died.
‘I saw the Ramones many times,’ says Sid.
‘The reason I wrote that song, two friends of mine in Yorkshire, they had a song called The Day The Last Of The Beatles Died, and I thought that’s a great idea for a song – how sad will the world be when the last Beatle dies?
‘I bought the very first Ramones album as a university student. It was recently re-released on vinyl, and we played the Rough Trade East venue/record shop in London. While we were setting up to play their launch party, I was looking at the records because they didn’t need me for a few minutes.
‘I was looking up at the wall and there’s the first Ramones album, and I thought what’s that doing on the wall? I picked it up and it was a two LP set, with out-takes and a very early live set at the Starwood in Hollywood from August 1976.’
Sid had gone to California on a cross-country road trip with some buddies from his home in Louisville, Kentucky, and the trip just happened to coincide with the gig.
‘When I saw The Ramones play in ’76, I was reconnoitring, as the military say. I’m from Kentucky and I thought, do I want to go to Nashville to make it? Nah, it was so unhip in the ’70s, Do I want to go to New York? Nah, it was so dirty in the ’70s. It wasn’t like it is now at all.
‘So we went to California it was just like a 10 day trip. It was summer, we were in school, and we just drove across the country. I loved it and I still love it.’
When looking back on that Starwood gig, it’s clear that Sid is still as much a fan as he is a performer.
‘I was at that show – I was in the audience at that show.’
‘My hands were shaking – I don’t think I’ve ever been in a concert that’s been released on vinyl or CD by a major rock band. I wasn’t at any of the Stones’ live albums, I wasn’t at Woodstock, I never saw the Grateful Dead.
‘But I attended that show. I went with two guys from my home town and they just didn’t get it – “I couldn’t hear what the singer was singing”, “It was almost continuous noise”, “Why didn’t they have any guitar solos?”
‘It was like coming full circle for me. When I heard that first Ramones’ album I thought if they can do this, then I can do this. Now 40 years later, they’re all dead, and this album’s out with a gig on it that I was at. That gave me the inspiration to write the song – but I nicked the idea from these guys in Yorkshire – a song which I should say sounds nothing like mine!’
No. 6 also features the debut of new fiddle player, Kerenza Peacock,who has most recently been touring as part of Adele’s backing band.
‘We met Kerenza when we played The Green Note this little 100-seater in London, we sell it out every time we play there. We said this is our blonde fiddle player Carly, and this is her last gig with us – she’s moving back to Vancouver, we’re going to miss her so much, if anyone else knows a hip, blonde lady fiddler, send them up.
‘So at the end of the night, this hip, blonde lady fiddler walked up and said: “My name’s Kerenza Peacock, I play fiddle and I’d love to be in your band”. That was about two years and change ago.’
While numerous players have passed through the Porters’ ranks over the years, getting the band together and the realities of a life in music in the 21st century, can prove problematic.
‘When you’re young and your focus is on your group – that’s all you did, you don’t have a wife, you don’t have a child, if you’re as music-obsessed as me, you’re not thinking about a career at BP or Natwest, you’re just thinking this is all I’m going to do. But as you get older and have kids and responsibilities, weird things happen.
‘I saw Neil Herd, our guitar player at some festival 17 years ago, I said we should do something, he agreed, and we’ve been together in the band ever since, since year dot.
‘If we were on the oldies’ circuit we could say two original members. At least we’re not like something like Dr Feelgood who are still going with no original members!’
And it also helps explain why there were four years between the Porters’ last album, Find The One, and No.6
‘The others in the band are all really busy and hard to nail down – Kerenza was on the Adele world tour, and she’s worked with Sir Paul McCartney, and Paul Weller on his most recent album, so she’s done a lot. It’s hard to get everybody.
‘We schedule things pretty far in advance as you have to do now – The Coal Porters is our main thing, but the scheduling is so hard.
‘If your band is wildly popular, then I’m sure that’s all they do 24/7, like The National, and they don’t go back and work at the 7/11 when they’re back in America - but when you’re at the level beneath that, as I found out when the Long Ryders broke up, you’ve just got to do other things while folks are waiting for your band to get back together.’
Sid was far from idle though – The Long Ryders have an enduring cult following, so there have been reunions and reissues of his old band, and he also plays solo gigs. And he’s also become a regular sight on BBC Breakfast as a music business pundit.
‘We literally have to say: “The first two weeks of March 2018 – are you free?”’ he laughs. ‘And the label are already asking me when’s the next records going to be rdone, It’s a juggling act.
‘If you’re in a popular band, that’s all you do, but even if you slightly below that, in a band like us that can go around selling out arts centres and universities – we make money at what we’re doing, but we can only do it for a few weeks at a time.
‘We do sort of commando raids!’
The Coal Porters will be playing twice in Hampshire over the next week, including a return trip to The Square Tower in Old Portsmouth on Thursday, September 28, which has already sold out this time round (check here for returns).
‘That place, it’s nothing like I’ve ever played, it’s like playing part of a castle!’ Sid recalls of their last visit. ‘I loved that. When we soundchecked they already had 90 people at the door waiting to get in. We’re looking forward to going back there.’
Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham
Saturday, September 23