Givin' 'Em Hell

From the Blarney Stone to Bangkok, everyone loves a good Pogues tribute.

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The Underpants Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue Through March 28, 216-795-7000
The Boys From County Hell get festive for their - upcoming Sayonara Ball at the Beachland.
The Boys From County Hell get festive for their upcoming Sayonara Ball at the Beachland.
Doug McKean never drank in high school. This fact does not bode well for a young man attempting to approximate the boozy bray of Shane MacGowan, the irascible former Pogues singer whose liver required its own tour bus. But as the frontman for the Pogues cover band the Boys From County Hell, McKean is expected to re-create the 100-proof bedlam of a guy who knows Johnnie Walker on a first-name basis.

"There's a fair-sized segment of our crowd that would like to see me completely destroy myself to do a better Shane MacGowan impression," McKean says with a chuckle. "I came late to drinking, and I was still learning how to do it when we got in this band, and that was kind of a dangerous thing to throw yourself into, if you're first learning how to drink. I think I'm a better drinker now."

This becomes obvious on a recent Tuesday night at the Blarney Stone, a Lorain Avenue Irish bar where the decor is as green as MacGowan's molars. McKean and his bandmates knock back beers swiftly, enlivened less by the Budweiser than by conversation about their ascending career.

Formed in 2000, they are a local supergroup of sorts, featuring Doug, his drummer-brother Dave, whistle-player Ryan Foltz from Motel Blonde, Rosavelt's Chris Allen on mandolin, and Dakota Floyd's Bill Watterson on bass, along with Chris Yohn on fiddle, Aaron Pacitti on banjo, and Nick Stipanovich manning the accordion. They've toured with Spider Stacy, Pogues founding member, and for years, their sporadic local shows have met with packed houses. Now the Boys are going international: First, there's a slew of dates at the New York, New York Casino in Las Vegas, then a trip to Thailand, where they'll play a St. Patrick's Day ball in Bangkok.

St. Patrick's Day in Bangkok?

"There's a big mining company over in Bangkok, and a bunch of Irish people are in charge of it," explains McKean. "They put together a black-tie dinner every year for a big St. Patrick's Day ball, to remind them of home, and some of the guys on the entertainment committee got ahold of us.

"The thing is, when they first got ahold of us, we ignored the e-mail for like two weeks, because we're always screwing around via the internet, and I thought for sure somebody was fucking around in the band," Allen says. Then the dude e-mailed us again: 'We're dead serious. We need to know within a week if you're interested.' Who would believe it?"

Probably anyone who's seen the Boys' spirited live gigs, which, to borrow a line from AC/DC, prove that Hell ain't a bad place to be. Unlike most cover bands, the Boys don't ape their idols -- there's no speaking in silly accents or attempting to dress or act like them. They do little more than rip through the band's songs and share a toast or three with the audience, just as the Pogues were fond of doing.

Then there are the crowds themselves: a mix of traditional Irish-music fans, tattooed punks, older rock aficionados, and the stray folkie -- pretty much the same element the Pogues attracted. They'll all come out to the Beachland Friday for the Boys' pre-Thailand send-off party.

"It sounds silly, but it does make you feel like you're continuing something," McKean says. "It's not like a lot of other cover bands, where you're going and seeing a B-rate version of something that was this huge spectacle to start with, and now you're going to see a scaled-down version of it. You're going to see a re-creation of something that was very much on the same level as the audience to start with. You go to a bar and see us, and everyone's loaded, the band's loaded, and everyone has a good time together, which is as it should be."

There are no plans to record an album or to write any new material; they'll just continue to play between 5 and 10 local shows a year -- most of them around St. Patrick's Day -- and keep taking things one beer at a time.

Of course, that kind of thinking eventually killed the Pogues.

"We have only about two or three more years before we've outlived them, the original lineup," McKean marvels. "Maybe it's working better for us than it did for them."

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