Most – though not quite all – of Sláinte's members. "I think of Sláinte as being more of a club than a band," says co-founder/fiddler Jon Harrington.
Sláinte the band, expressing cheer and fellowship is where their music is at: Born in a Boston College dorm, the ‘club’ now takes its sound up and down Rte. 95
We’ve all heard the phrase at least a few times, usually said among friends and acquaintances in a pub, at a wedding, or a funeral, and just about any social occasion or situation that involves raising a glass: “Sláinte.”
Its popular translation from Old Irish is “cheers,” as in wishing one good health, deriving from the word slán, which means “healthy.” There are other connotations, however, like “freedom” – from illness (a clunkier way of saying “good health”) but also from liability, which might be a fortuitous wish, depending on the circumstances in which the phrase is uttered.
“Sláinte” also is the name of the band Boston-area resident Jon Harrington and his brother James helped co-found several years ago while they were undergraduates at Boston College. The group – which describes its music as “somewhere between Irish folk and Irish punk, with plenty of rock/country covers mixed in to keep things fresh” – has become a fixture at Greater Boston/Eastern Massachusetts pubs like Mr. Dooley’s, The Black Rose, The Dubliner, The Cottage Bar & Restaurant, and Cape Cod Irish Village, and even farther afield, given that one of its members lives in New York City.
For Jon Harrington and his cohorts, Sláinte – the band and the phrase – is a literal expression of good cheer and fellowship, and an opportunity to have fun and make music without worrying so much about gaining fame and fortune.
One of Sláinte’s salient features is a somewhat amorphous membership: Technically, it numbers 11, but Harrington notes that “all of us are seldom in the same place at the same time.” The group is made up of three components, including its “Céilí Band,” which comprises the Harrington brothers – Jon on fiddle, James on whistle and harmonica – Pat O’Donovan (mandolin, banjo, accordion, vocals), and Stephen Sunshine (banjo, bass guitar, vocals). Sláinte features a quintet of “Guitarists,” of both the acoustic variety (Brady Conley and Zack Bolles) and the electric (Steve Smith and Andrew Rodriguez) as well as electric bass (Mike Perillo); all provide lead or backing vocals. The “Drumline” is Kevin Smith and Ed Cardenas, who might both be on hand if the gig requires it.
“I think of Sláinte as being more of a club than a band,” says Jon Harrington, who, like most all his bandmates, has a full-time job; he works with tax software. “We have no grand ambitions, and we’re too chaotic to be taken seriously anyway – our ‘band model’ is probably not the right one for becoming famous. But if we can pick a way to spend a Friday night, playing as Sláinte is it.”
Sláinte has now captured its unique personality on a recording, “Up Down 95.” The 10-track album features covers in the classic Irish pub rock genre: The Pogues (“Streams of Whiskey”), Flogging Molly (“Drunken Lullabies”) – both in canonical 2/4 time – and The Saw Doctors (“Joyce Country Ceili Band”). On the folk/rock side of the spectrum are renditions of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and Frank and Seán O'Meara’s heartstrings-tugging “Grace,” which evokes the wedding of 1916 martyr Joseph Plunkett only hours before his execution.
Their setting of the traditional reel “The Musical Priest,” meanwhile, offers what Harrington considers to be the essence of Sláinte’s sound: Fiddle, whistle, mandolin, and acoustic guitar start off the track, with electric guitar and drums joining in the second time around; then the acoustic and electric guitars do solo improvisations over drums while the other instruments drop out, reappearing at the end for one last go-round.
“I think, whatever our line-up, that’s a kind of signature piece for us,” says Harrington of the track. “We’re always looking to bring together the trad/folk and rock: We’ll do a fiddle tune with a guitar solo, and we’ll do ‘Johnny B. Goode’ with a fiddle solo. We like to combine those different kinds of energy into one.”
Yet another aspect of the band, their recent venture into songwriting, is in evidence on the album with four originals, each penned by their respective singers. The title track by Conley is a genial, R&B-flavored ode to that road between Boston and NYC, a much-traveled route for the band: “Up down 95 now/Hey, how you feel now?/Up down 95/We’ll get there somehow.” Bolles’ “Irish Whiskey” straddles the Irish pub/country rock vein, thematically and otherwise, and is enriched by guest vocalist Annie Cheevers; Smith’s philosophical “Ember” is along similar lines, with a recurring lead guitar riff giving it some heft.
Perillo’s “Boston Girl Who Fled to New York” is a kind of urban-diary narrative with a wistful undertone, about the impression a frequently encountered acquaintance can make on you (“She’s eclectic/That’s what people say/When they don’t understand/All the things she’s trying to say”), featuring an anthemic chorus and an interpolation of the O’Carolan tune “Sheebeg and Sheemore.”
“There wasn’t anything intentional about creating our own songs,” says Harrington. “During the pandemic, the guys were sitting around writing, because there wasn’t much else to do. So when we started planning out the album, we asked ‘Who’s got some songs kicking around?’ I think ‘Boston Girl’ really struck the right chord – it tapped into a lot of what we felt during that time of COVID.
“In fact, the album really captures these last few years well: from before the pandemic, when we were out and about playing regularly, and then – like pretty much everyone else – having to hunker down and trying to keep it together. I think we all held onto the music as a way to see us through to whenever things might get back to some degree of normalcy.”
Native to Winchendon, the Harrington brothers came by Irish music honestly, through their Irish-American family – and in particular their grandfather, who played with a band called Jug O’ Punch in pubs around New England. But Jon and James didn’t really start playing in earnest until they attended BC and enrolled in the Irish Studies program music offerings: Jon took lessons from the fiddler Tina Lech, while James learned whistle from Jimmy Noonan.
“I loved learning fiddle from Tina,” says Jon. “I couldn’t get enough of it. I listened to tunes on my way to classes, whenever I could: jigs, reels, polkas, all of that.”
While at the Heights, the Harringtons met O’Donovan – also in Lech’s fiddle class – and one day decided to see what it would be like to play for a crowd. So they brought their instruments to a campus party and, without a PA, did six songs; one was the Dropkick Murphys’ “Shipping Up to Boston,” which they wound up playing as an encore. Several times.
“We had a blast,” says Jon.
In time, fellow BC undergrads Perillo and Conley were recruited, and the fledgling band would practice in Harrington’s room in the Voute residence hall. “We didn’t really know what to do at first,” he recalls, “so we’d throw on some Dubliners and play along with them. At some point, it got so we could turn the Dubliners off and play on our own.” Sláinte was off and rolling.
Conley’s move to New York City in 2017 created both challenge and opportunity. On the one hand, it meant having to recruit other members to handle lead-singer needs, but through Conley – who found other musicians in his new surroundings – the band was able to gain a foothold in the New York pub scene. Essentially, as Harrington describes it, there came to be a “Sláinte North” and a “Sláinte South” that each utilizes some combination of the 11 members.
“Ultimately, there is one Sláinte sound, but at the same time I think this arrangement makes for a couple of different styles in the band, which you can hear on the album: Some of it is pretty raw, and with some of it there’s a more artistic dimension,” says Harrington. “It’s all about us experimenting, seeing what works, and building on that.”
Harrington is nothing if not matter of fact when it comes to discussing Sláinte, past, present and future. The band is built for the rollicking pub scene, and they like it just fine that way. The members’ age range is mainly late 20s to early 30s, so youth is in ample supply. But lying ahead are bound to be decisions related to work and family that affect how much time, if any, can be spent on musical pursuits.
“Some of us will certainly have to figure out the next chapter before long,” he says. “But we really enjoy what we’ve got: We’re all friends just making good music, and now we have an album we’re proud of. With everything else going on in the world, that’s not a bad place to be in.”
For more about the band and “Up Down 95,” go to slaintetheband.com