November 2, 2020
The Boston Harbor Bhoys (L-R) Eddie Biggins, Ryan Biggins, Michael Maloney.
CREDIT: Lana Woyda
Michael Maloney likes to describe his Irish/Celtic band the Boston Harbor Bhoys as “a Venn diagram.” As Maloney explains, he and his band mates – Eddie Biggins and son Ryan – each tend to favor a specific subset of Irish music: For Maloney, it’s the brand of folk-rock by, say, Dublin singer-songwriter Glen Hansard (star of the hit film “Once”); rock-and-roller Ryan Biggins is keen on the “Celtic metal” sound of The Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly; and Eddie Biggins gravitates to the great ballad bands like The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, The Dubliners, and Dublin City Ramblers.
The space where their tastes intertwine and play off one another is where the Medford-based Boston Harbor Bhoys dwell.
Which is not to say that Maloney, or either of the Bigginses, view their trio purely in terms of a mathematical or philosophical construct. For them, playing as “the Bhoys” these past six years has been a means to affirm and celebrate their Irish heritage and, most importantly, relish the bonds of family and friendship. The place the band occupies in their lives is perfectly situated (or at least it was before the pandemic), something more than a hobby but not quite a vocation.
“We’ve kept it to a few gigs a month,” says Eddie. “We could probably have done more, but we don’t want it to be a slog – it should be fun, because it is fun.”
The trio has shared its brand of fun at places like The Lansdowne Pub in Boston, Fiddler’s Green in Worcester, Waxy O’Connor’s in Lexington, The Irish Cultural Centre of New England in Canton, Boston Celtic Music Fest , and at their launchpoint, The Old-Timer in Clinton. Whether a band, Irish/Celtic or otherwise, plays the music more for personal enjoyment than for bread and butter, it still has to do enough things right to earn its bookings.
In the case of the Boston Harbor Bhoys, audiences have appreciated their three-part harmony vocals, accompanied by Eddie’s guitar, bass and percussion, Ryan’s fiddle and mandolin, and Maloney’s keyboards and harmonica, on Irish classics like “The Parting Glass,” “Wild Mountain Thyme,” “The Auld Triangle” and “Whiskey in the Jar,” which unfailingly inspire singalongs.
But one feature of the Bhoys is their propensity to lark about with their material (“I have a history of messing with lyrics or doing fun stuff on the keyboard,” notes Maloney), and go beyond the Irish/Celtic domain: a “Boston medley” pairing The Standells’ “Dirty Water” with “Shipping Up to Boston,” the Woody Guthrie original that The Dropkick Murphys turned into an anthem; turning Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” into a waltz; or covering other pop/rock favorites, from The Band’s “The Weight” to Toto’s “Africa.”
“A lot of Irish bands might do country as their ‘other’ genre,” says Eddie. “We tend to go with pop from the 1960s,’70s, ’80s – just feels natural to us.”
There’s a lot about music that feels natural to the Bigginses and Maloney, because all three embraced it – as opposed to being dragged kicking and screaming to it – early in life. Eddie, who grew up in Waltham, “always sang” as a kid, and jokes that he produced his first single at age four: a rendition of “Puff the Magic Dragon” in a make-your-own-record booth at a fair. He took up guitar at nine, played in his high school’s jazz ensemble, and went on to the Berklee College of Music, where he studied composition and songwriting, and wound up involved in musical theater – even wrote a couple of musicals, including one (“Featured Attraction”) that actually made it on stage.
“The thing about musical theater, though, is it takes years to write something, and years before someone puts it on – and then you realize it doesn’t work,” says Eddie, who pursued a career in medical billing (he retired earlier this year). “So I went back to playing what interested me, like The Beatles, and writing songs for myself.”
Though he never graduated from Berklee, Biggins felt he benefited by being exposed to many different kinds of music. On the practical side, he notes, “I developed a legitimate singing voice. I also learned how to breathe properly, so as to protect your voice – that came in very handy later on for doing those three-hour pub gigs.”
Ryan, not surprisingly, feels he “was pre-destined” to be active in music, since his mother as well as his father always sang, and he would often watch Eddie play at open mikes. He began taking violin lessons in fourth grade and, he recalls, “got the hang of it pretty quickly,” so he continued all the way into high school, where he met Maloney, who was a year ahead of him.
For Maloney, who started piano lessons at age eight and sang in a children’s choir, music was not just a pastime or activity, but an emotional and spiritual salve for a nagging hip problem. As he grew older, he did solo performances at nursing homes and senior citizen clubs and began writing his own material, which he found to be “cathartic.”
The prelude to the Boston Harbor Bhoys came in 2007, when Eddie, whose musical theater background enabled him to work part-time running sound for events, got a call from a client whose father needed a guitarist for his Irish band. So began Eddie’s stint in Jug of Punch, which had a regular gig at The Old-Timer – and his immersion in his ancestral music.
“My family had come from Ireland some generations back, and Dad had always listened to lots of Irish music, like the Irish Rovers, John McCormack; my aunt was very interested in it, too. I hadn’t paid much attention to it, but when I began playing with Jug of Punch it felt right.”
Meanwhile, Ryan – who started taking guitar lessons and experimenting with other instruments – and Maloney embarked on a musical partnership as well as a friendship, playing Beatles and other classic rock covers at coffeehouses and open mikes. Even as they went off to college, they kept in touch and worked together when they could, such as when Ryan did the artwork for a children’s album that Maloney recorded.
As time went on, the ranks of Jug of Punch began thinning, and Eddie called upon Ryan to sit in with the band. He didn’t need much persuading. “I was always interested in Dad’s music, and had listened to him with Jug of Punch. I ended up liking a lot of the Irish stuff – it made me feel connected to that side of my heritage – so I began to listen to other Irish music and trying out fiddle styles to see how it would work.”
Finally, in 2014, the last of the original Jug of Punch members decided to hang it up. But Eddie wanted to keep the band going with Ryan, so they invited Maloney to join them. Maloney, too, had a strong Irish family legacy, which somewhat influenced his musical interests: “My folks would always have WROL’s ‘Irish Hit Parade’ on the weekends, so I picked up some of the music there,” says Maloney, a past winner of WROL’s “Irish Idol” contest.
It was evident to the three early on that they had a good thing going (“We had a passing-the-torch moment at The Old-Timer,” says Ryan) so they decided to take a band name that reflected their own identity. Eddie explains that they originally came up with “The Harbor Bhoys” – “bhoys” being an Irish affectation – but “we found out there was another band with that name, only they had it as ‘Boys’ without the ‘h,’ so we added the ‘Boston’ for even more local flavor.”
The three continued to explore Irish and Celtic music and build on their store of knowledge. Maloney spent some time in Ireland during the winter of 2015, where he bought a guitar and made the rounds of sessions in Dublin and Galway, developing a stronger love for the music.
“The band really started morphing into what we wanted it to be,” he says.
Adds Eddie, “Some things were pretty easy to pick up and start playing. But there also were times when we’d wing it, try something new out. I loved that we could do that and have it come out decent. The music goes right to the heart as well as the head.”
The Bhoys had all those foundational band experiences, from hours-long marathons on St. Patrick’s Day to nights when they played to a crowd that barely outnumbered them. They also understood, as Eddie puts it, “that the audience isn’t necessarily there to listen to you,” but you give them a good time anyway, such as doing familiar singalongs or taking requests.
But the band has a store of material more suited to concert-type events where people do listen, Eddie notes: “The Children of ’16” by Declan O’Rourke, “a ballad that nobody knows”; “Salonika,” a satirical Cork street-song with a complicated history behind it; and “The Irish Girl,” a traditional song collected in Maine and recorded by fiddler-vocalist and one-time Boston resident Lissa Schneckenburger.
Along the way, they’ve all become closer. Among the band’s best gigs, as far as Maloney is concerned, are two weddings they played – one for his sister, the other for Eddie’s brother. “I became an ‘unofficial Biggins,’” he says with a laugh of the latter event.
The past several months, obviously, have been an unwanted intermission for the Bhoys – not only in terms of gigs but, due to health concerns, also simply gathering together as a trio. Finally, in September, “we agreed it would be good for our souls to reconnect – even just to have dinner,” says Maloney. A week later, they did a livestream on Facebook, which Ryan says enabled them to expand their audience in ways they hadn’t previously; they hope to do more in the near future.
“We’ve talked about a twice-a-month thing,” says Eddie. “Maybe we’ll do a ‘no-requests’ show – ‘We’re gonna play some songs we think you’ll like.’ But it’ll be pretty informal: ‘We’ve gotten together in the living room and you’re invited.’”
Adds Ryan, “We’ve had gigs where maybe the audience wasn’t all that interested in what we were doing, or else there was hardly any audience at all. But the main thing for us is just getting together and playing music, because we always have a blast. Our feeling is, if we can at least entertain ourselves, we’ve had a good gig.”
For more about the Boston Harbor Bhoys, including a link to their recordings on Bandcamp, go to thebostonharborbhoys.com.