Bullet Train to Merlin's Grave

2019-11-08

If this is the future, why are you the same?

My cousin Megeen got married two weeks ago. Instead of the traditional night-before-the-wedding welcome party, she and her now-husband David Pope hosted POPESTOCK - a musical celebration featuring a variety of family-and-friends acts.

It was amazing.

The location for POPESTOCK was the mysterious Elk's Lodge in Red Bank, New Jersey. This rectangular shack of a building stands next to Riverside Gardens Park with perfect views of the Navesink River - the primo of primo locations in my hometown. For years, my cousins and I have wondered what lay beyond its unassuming doorway. We soon learned the answer: a really big bar and an even bigger empty room. In other words, exactly what we needed.

Uncle Mike and Aunt Susan emceeded the festivities. They had one explicit rule: each act would be limited to one song. We've got a lot of musical cousins (see Buffalo Rose or Dark City Strings).

But there were three exceptions to that rule:

  1. David's old band Lightninging performed the ENTIRE BACKSIDE of Abbey Road, straight-through. It was completely unreal. I felt like I was watching the Beatles, if the Beatles lasted into the 1970s and moved to Brooklyn and also worked at Vinny's Pizzaria. If you have the means, I highly recommend seeing Lightninging live.
  2. Aunt Eileen (the mother of the bride) and her old friend (along with her son-in-law Greg) played two songs that they wrote years ago, one of which was last performed only at her own wedding. I've always been told that Aunt Eileen could give Joni Mitchell a run for her money, and I was told right. Their set was reminiscent of the MUSIC FROM MALLARD concert series that my aunts and uncles put together in the mid-1980s at my Nana and Grandpa's house on Mallard Road in Middletown, New Jersey. These concerts pre-date my appearance on Earth, but I've got a handful of the cassette tapes in my possession and I still wear the MALLARD III t-shirt all the time.
  3. My set.

Although, one could argue (and I did) that my performance was really more of a medley than two distinct songs. Further, I think one could even argue that my set was less of a medley and more of a complete disaster.

Allow me to explain.

I've written a six-fingered handful of songs in my life, but the two that seem to echo in eternity are called MERLIN'S GRAVE and BULLET TRAIN. These two have been battle-tested and laughed at across many-a-campfire with my cousins over years.

You see, neither of them are very good. Nor am I a good singer. But you can't tell me that they aren't groovy.

My vision for the one-song set was this: I play the entire Merlin's Grave up to the jam section, which would turn into this epic Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells style as I introduce additional instruments, one at a time. First, banjo by my cousin Jack. Then, mandolin by my cousin Michael. Finally, electric guitar by my cousin Peter. To cap it off, I'd come in with some harmonica on top of it all. I put together a quick-and-dirty take of my vision on my laptop a few days before the wedding and emailed it to my cousins, which you can listen to here:

So far, so good. Simple. One-song. No Bullet Train. I was attempting to be a rules-follower.

But you can't stop the bullet train once it goes off the rails...

We are Hotdog Johnny and the Shady Oaks:

  • Charlie Harrington - Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
  • Michael Byrnes - Mandolin, Vocals
  • Jack Byrnes - Banjo
  • Aidan Byrnes - Drums
  • Peter Clabby - Electric Guitar
  • Alex "The Grones" Groneman - Acoustic Guitar
  • Some dude no one knew - Bass
  • Henry Clabby - Sound engineer

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