Fiddler Steve Gardner's Celtic-Punk Group, Culann's Hounds
An up-and-coming band offers eye candy and virtuosic fireworks
Culann's Hounds, a fast-rising, San Francisco-based Celtic rock 'n' reel band offers audiences an infectious blend of what fiddler Steve Gardner calls "core values—Irish trad with high-energy pub punk and Americana." That might sound a little like a hot drink at Starbucks, but it's actually the recipe for one of Northern California's hottest hybrid musical ensembles.
With a name inspired by an ancient Irish legend about a man serving as home security to the great Highland warrior Cuchullainn after accidentally killing the mighty fighter's monstrous guard dog, Culann's Hounds, Gardner says, is known for its "rockin' fun show featuring virtuosic fireworks and some first-rate eye candy!"
Those quotes are so good they should be on the band's P.T. Barnum-goes-gothic website ( sfhounds.com). It makes no difference whether Gardner is merely lifting verbiage from the site this afternoon, as we meet at a sunny sidewalk café in San Rafael, California. The point is, it's a great quote that perfectly sums up Culann's Hounds: a super-exuberant explosion of Celtic enthusiasm made visually appealing by good-looking folks striking rock-star poses, anchored by the music of Gardner's raucous fiddle along with drummer Scott Marshall's thunderous bodhran, and energetically kicked-up a notch by the button-box accordion of a phenomenally animated Renee de la Prade, and the fiery guitar of Mike Kelleher.
Gardner, a first-rate showman even in his downtime, is a classically trained violinist with omnivorous musical tastes. He says that the musicians formed as a fairly traditional Irish band—"We used to play sitting down," he laughs—inspired by the Chieftains and the Bothy Band. After a while, that early version of the band—sans Marshall and de la Prade—visited New York City, playing such bars as the Rambling House and Fitzgerald's Tavern, hanging out with the Irish ex-pats of Black 47, and breaking bread with the great fiddle player Denis McCarthy from Shilelagh Law.
"We saw what those guys were doing and it completely revolutionized what we thought about traditional Irish music," Gardner says. "Their music is so full of life and full of energy. They're in the pocket of traditional bands, but they are not going to let themselves be held back by the concept of what is traditional Irish music. They are living in the midst of musical tradition that is very much still alive, still growing and developing. These are musicians who believe they can add to that tradition, not just be content to replay the riffs of previous players. That appealed to us a lot."
Gardner came back from New York dedicated to finding ways to drive the music harder. Soon Culann's Hounds made three major changes: they added drums, they added the girl with pink hair (de la Prade) who dances while playing the accordion, and they said goodbye to their stools. "Drums and bass add a lot to traditional Irish fiddle music," Gardner says. "It's something primal. It creates the dance force, which is one of the main things we always wanted to do, to hook into people's desire to dance."
the band's reformation as a pub-punk ensemble that played traditional tunes with Sex Pistols attitude was definitive proof of their decision to approach stage performances not simply as musicians, but as performers. "And that," he says with a grin, "is when we finally decided to stand up when we performed."
The players of Culann's Hounds command attention, in part, by establishing a rock-show environment, creating a force of energy that blasts off the stage and revs up the collective energy of the audience. The visual side of that, from the ripped-sleeve to the delightfully Woodstock poses, is part of what makes Culann's Hounds irresistible. To adapt, Gardner had to train himself to play the fiddle while assuming outrageously broad physical stances.
It might seem ironic that Gardner, who cites Bartók and Mahler as his greatest inspirations and playing the Beethoven quartet cycle as one of his life's goals, plays fiddle in a band that requires him to pose like Mick Jagger while playing like Martin Hayes.
"I love all kinds of music," Gardner says, and shrugs. "The Celtic stuff I do with Culann's Hounds, American-roots music, like country and bluegrass, and classical, which will always be one of my joys. I have my whole life to live, and I see no reason I have to spend it playing just one kind of music, not when there's so much great music out there waiting to be played."