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Ohio City Singers
Two beloved local acts, the Ohio City Singers and Boys From the County Hell regularly play holiday concerts each year.
This year, they’ve aligned so that the concerts fall on the same weekend. The Ohio City Singers, a group that plays original Christmas music (along with a few choice covers), and the Boys From the County Hell, a Pogues tribute act, share several band members, including singer-guitarist Chris Allen.
We shared a cup of coffee with him one recent morning and discussed each band’s history as well as what to expect from this year’s concerts.
click to enlarge The Bands’ Beginnings
Boys from the County Hell
In 2003, Allen, his sister Molly and Doug McKean worked up four original Christmas tunes and then threw a big Christmas party to which they invited their musician friends. They played the four original tunes they had penned as well as a few covers, recorded them and delivered them on a CD to their families as a Christmas gift. “Molly did the artwork, and me and [singer-guitarist] Doug [McKean] wrote the songs," says Allen. "I invited every musician I knew. We gave them lyric sheets and learned the songs. It was the funnest party. We started with ‘Merry Christmas Baby,’ and everyone piled into the room with drinks to sing along.” That signaled the birth of the Ohio City Singers; the band now plays several Christmas-themed concerts each year.
When the Boys From the County Hell first got together in 2000 at the now-shuttered Euclid Tavern as a Pogues cover band, it was supposed to be just a one-night stand. But after selling out that first show, the band continued from there. “We all came from different areas of rock,” says Allen. “I had never met the guys in the [local punk band] GC5, but I found out they needed a mandolin player for the show, so I learned how to play mandolin, and we had to learn all the Pogues songs in three months. It was packed, so we figured we’d have to do it again. We just picked a rock club that made sense. It was St. Patrick’s night that we did it, which is even crazier because people get drunk all day and often don’t come out much at night.”
Now, every St. Patrick's Day, the Boys play marathon shows, often starting before 10 a.m. and not stopping until the bars close. One year, they teamed up with Spider Stacy, an original Pogue, for a series of shows. Another year, they had a residency in Las Vegas. They've even played a gig in Bangkok. A few years ago, they added a Christmas concert to the mix.
A Holiday Tradition
In 2008, the Ohio City Singers played their first public show at the House of Blues Cambridge Room in front of about 100 people. “The crowd was mostly families and friends,” says Allen. “We had just put out an album, and we had to rent the venue ourselves because we had no track record,” says Allen. “We grew that the way you do any band. We’d play the Treehouse and any place we could play. In 2012, we had done an afternoon gig at the Happy Dog, and it was packed. That was when it started to take off.”
About ten years ago, the Boys played their first Christmas show at the Grog Shop. “We didn’t play a whole lot outside of St. Patrick’s Day,” says Allen. “It was snowing like crazy, and we thought no one would show up, but it was packed, so we kept doing it every year.” He says the Irish punk band has a number of holiday-themed songs. “You’ve got ‘Fairytale in New York’ and songs like ‘London, You’re a Lady’ and ‘Rainy Night in Soho.” Those songs have a nice orchestral feel. That’s why we’ve added horns and strings to the shows. Let’s face it; it’s a party band. You can see with that crowd, that it’s not necessarily Pogues fans who show up for the holiday concert. We throw in some Clash and a zydeco song too. It’s like the greatest hits of our party jams.”
The Ohio City Singers have released several albums and this year cranked out two new singles, the zydeco-tinged “What’s the Name of Santa’s Sleigh?” and the rowdy guitar- and accordion-driven “Hey! Hey! Hey! (It’s a Holiday).”
“In ‘What’s the Name of Santa’s Sleigh,’ we made him one of these Bruce kind of characters who talks about his ride and how he put it together,” says Allen. “We thought that he wouldn’t tell us the name of it. It fell together really fast. We had earmarked it for [singer-guitarist] Austin 'Walkin’ Cane' Charanghat because he would be the most Santa like.”
The Boys have never put out an album. “If the band would have recorded, we should have done it earlier. It was really just a fun thing to do. When the band was younger and life was less complicated, that’s when we should have thought about and recorded something then. We always thought it would have been kind of phony. We’re a Pogues tribute band, so we would just make Pogues-sounding stuff. It would have been nice to do a live thing, but at the same time, it’s nice to have a band that just exists as a line project. I like people to remember it that way.”
What to Expect From This Year's Concerts
This year’s Ohio City Singers gig at House of Blues will include songs from the entire catalog. A few guests will be on hand as well, and local guitarist Bobby Latina will play guitar, and local singer-songwriter Alexis Antes will sing. “It will be an overview of our catalog,” Allen says. “Alexis is fun to hang out with, and she is a good singer, so she'll sing with us too. We do a couple of different cover songs we haven’t done before, one in particular is ‘The Last Month of the Year.’"
The Boys will again play with a four-piece string section and a three-piece horn section. “We just got all the charts for the songs, so we're ready to go,” says Allen. “We have the same string and horn players from the last three years. We will definitely do a few Clash tunes we haven’t done before too.”
Ohio City Singers, Alexis Antes, 8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 21, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $18 ADV, $20 DOS, houseofblues.com
The Boys from the County Hell, Marys Lane, 8 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 23, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $18 ADV, $20 DOS, houseofblues.com