It's a Catholic thing. It's an immigrant-underdog thing. It's an acoustic-punk thing.
There are many reasons why, for the last 10 or 11 years — the precise number is lost in the fog of memory — the L.A. Chicano band Ollin has celebrated St. Patrick's Day by paying tribute to the Pogues, the Anglo Irish ensemble that slammed the lilting grace of traditional Celtic music together with punk's raw energy during the Reagan-Thatcher era.
Ollin's annual homage will be reenacted Sunday night at the Satellite in Silver Lake, where the East L.A. lads will be covering "Rum, Sodomy and the Lash," the Pogues' 1985, Elvis Costello-produced masterpiece of keening rebellion and whiskey existentialism.
At a recent rehearsal at their Boyle Heights studio space, Ollin's founders, the twin brothers Scott and Randy Rodarte, said the Mexican Irish cultural connection dates back as far as the San Patricio battalions of the lopsided Mexican-American War of 1846-48. During that epic land grab, hundreds of troops, mainly of Irish descent, deserted the U.S. Army to fight for Mexico, which like England-ruled Ireland was a poor Roman Catholic nation dominated by a richer, larger Protestant power. (A number of San Patricios eventually were caught and hanged as traitors.)
"As far as the whole San Patricios thing, I think for us it is an immigrant struggle," Scott Rodarte said. "We can kind of connect with these immigrants who were put down in America." Ollin paid homage to the renegade soldiers with its EP "San Patricios," which featured cover art by the band's trumpet player, Vincent Valdez, depicting band members as soldiers marching with grim determination toward their destiny.
But the Rodartes pointed to a more fundamental explanation as to why their band has bonded with the Pogues, even opening for them when the Anglo Irishmen played the Wiltern Theatre in 2006. Like the Pogues, Ollin has made a specialty of merging traditional folk music instrumentation (mainly Mexican and Latin American, in Ollin's case) with punk's head-banging imperatives.
Early on, some of Ollins' followers even dubbed them the Mexican Pogues, Randy Rodarte said, "because we played all acoustic instruments and were these punks playing Mexican music sloppily."
Yet when the Rodartes first encountered the Pogues' music, Randy acknowledged, "they were too sophisticated for me." At the time, he and his brother were strictly into hard-core, thrashing punk. The Pogues' fiddle-and-tin-whistle repertoire seemed too arty and effete, despite lead singer Shane MacGowan's snarling pub-rock delivery.
The Rodartes began changing their tune toward their Anglo Irish brethren about a dozen years ago, during a return road trip from a gig in Eugene, Ore. As it happened, another of Ollin's members, bass player Billy Branch ("the güero from the ghetto," Scott calls him), was a huge Pogues fan.
At a road stop somewhere along I-5, Branch picked up a copy of a Pogues CD and started playing it in the van. By the time they reached L.A., the Rodartes had converted.
Ollin started incorporating Pogues covers and traditional Irish tunes into some of the band's St. Patrick's Day performances, gradually building to a complete reprisal of "Rum, Sodomy" at the Boulevard, a Whittier Boulevard bar. "We were in East L.A. but the Pogues fans are really hard-core," Scott recalled. "When they showed up in kilts we were like, 'What do we do?!'"
Then in 2006 a booking-agent friend arranged for Ollin to meet up with the Pogues when they were playing in San Francisco, and the two groups quickly became friends. With Spider Stacy (the band's tin whistle player) in the vanguard, the Pogues insisted on having the East L.A. group open for them at the Wiltern, which was their next tour stop. Over the years, the East L.A. troubadours have shared a stage with the Pogues at other concerts.
"As soon as we met them you could tell they were good guys, humble guys," Randy said. "And they liked the Mexican music and they liked the Mexican culture."
Although Ollin's St. Patrick's Day tributes have swollen to as many as a dozen musicians, this Sunday the band will be using more minimal instrumentation (accordion, tin whistle, banjo/mandolin, bass and stripped-down drum kit) in a bid to re-create the Pogues' quintessential mid-1980s sound.
Lysa Flores will again step in as a guest vocalist, and this year's tribute will add one other Pogues sonic signature: the use of a metal beer tray, whacked against the skull, as a percussion instrument.
"It has to be the right kind of tray," cautions Ollin's drummer, Raúl "Ralo" Calzada. "You can't hit your head too hard."
Ollin's St. Patrick's Day Bash
Where: The Satellite, 717 Silverlake Blvd.
When: Sun., 9 p.m.
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