Adventures in Music : The Only Constant Is Change for Wild Colonials, Whose Devil-May-Care Attitude Creates an Eclectic Style


Some find comfort in an orderly and predictable life. But for a Bohemian band like Wild Colonials, it would sooner drive them to the brink of madness.

If there's one constant for this Los Angeles-based group, it's change. Restless, curious and adventuresome, the band members--lead singer Angela McCluskey, guitarist Shark, violinist-pianist Paul Cantelon, bassist Scott Roewe, and cellist Martin Tillman, who has been added for this tour--reside in a perpetual state of evolution and refinement. From their songwriting and choice of instruments to the group's gypsy spirit, Wild Colonials equate comfort with boredom, contentment with indifference, and courage with challenge.

The spontaneous, anything-goes nature of the band--which wraps up its current tour tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano--is most readily evident in its eclectic mix of styles (Eastern European, Celtic, Middle Eastern-derived folk-rock) and use of ethnic, traditional and modern instruments, such as the violin, penny whistle, Australian trumpet-like didjeridu, bass, piano and guitar.

"I love Celtic music, Shark's into Elvis and country, Scott prefers jazz, and Paul's into punk, so we knew we were bringing a lot of dissimilar tastes and influences to the table," explained singer-lyricist McCluskey during a recent phone interview from her home in Hollywood. "But I think we've somehow managed to pull it all together on the album."

That album is "Fruit of Life," the band's debut on Geffen Records this year, which somehow blends the mishmash into a cohesive-sounding whole, sturdily anchored by the powerful pipes of McCluskey. Additional continuity is supplied by her literary, emotion-laden lyrics, which focus on universal feelings of joy and pain, heartbreak and guilt, sorrow and loneliness.

"I'm not a very politically minded person," she said, "so I write songs about human traits and emotions. I feel they're the most fragile, and with all of their strengths and flaws, people make the most interesting subjects."

Two songs from the "Fruit of Life" album have garnered frequent airplay on radio station KSCA (101.9 FM), and McCluskey thinks listeners can readily identify with the romantic self-doubts examined in each one.

"In 'Girl,' the question is 'Should I keep searching . . . is the grass really greener on the other side?' And 'Spark' lays open the often painful question of 'What happened to the passion, the fire that we once shared?' "

Drawing on influences ranging from jazz great Dinah Washington and Canadian singer Margaret O'Hara to Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire, the Scotland-born McCluskey informs each song with a tender but tough duality reminiscent of ex-Concrete Blonde frontwoman Johnette Napolitano and 4 Non Blondes' Linda Perry.

So does singing provide the greatest thrill for McCluskey?

"I'm a habitual reader, and I love writing the most," she said. "We've even canceled or forgotten rehearsals because I've been so engrossed in writing songs as they come to me. I'll write just about anything at any time."

McCluskey was so moved by a song written by fellow Scotsman and former Waterboys leader Mike Scott that she decided to respond by writing a poetic song of her own. That song, appropriately entitled "Dear Mike," is the last track on "Fruit of Life."

"I must've played this one song of his ["The Glastonbury Song"] 50 times one night, I loved it so," she recalled. "So I decided to rewrite his words as kind of an answer to his song."

A rejuvenating tale of spiritual awakening, "The Glastonbury Song" finds Scott wholeheartedly embracing life and the afterworld. In her song, McCluskey responds by offering this transitional passage: "You say you're in love with life and death/Back in the saddle holding your breath/You're letting go of all those years/Re-releasing all those fears."

McCluskey's satisfying songwriting aside, what keeps Wild Colonials happy, loose and lively as a group, she reasoned, is the freedom and encouragement to follow their individual muses.

"We're kind of a gypsy band because we don't want to feel tied down to anything, and we want to take things further and further," she said. "Scott likes unusual instruments from all over the world. . . . He and Paul will play anything they can get their hands on--the more obscure, the better they like it."

That explains the didjeridu.

* Wild Colonials perform tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $13.50. (714) 496-8930.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World