Potcheen brings its eclectic Irish songbook to the 2011 Colorado Irish Festival
Christian Blochinger remembers stopping his band's tour bus on a rural Missouri highway in 2006 and flipping on the blinker. He'd been driving in the wrong direction on the isolated and narrow road, and he was turning left to switch course. "This was a county highway that was intersected by side streets," Blochinger recalls. "I put my blinker on and looked behind me." That's where the recollections of that day end for the drummer and leader of the Celtic rock band Potcheen. A few moments later, a FedEx truck barreled into the side of his 1983 MCI Crusader and pushed the bus off the highway.
Blochinger was driving Potcheen's tour bus with another band as passengers; he was ferrying the rock group Savage Henry to dates on its first Midwest tour, a planned six-gig stretch that included an appearance in Lee's Summit, Missouri. When the police arrived at the scene of the accident, Blochinger says, the other passengers, who were injured but still conscious, told the troopers the driver was dead.
But the bloodied, unconscious Blochinger, still strapped into the driver's seat, wasn't dead. "I ended up breaking my collarbone, my shoulder blade, four ribs, my nose," Blochinger notes. "I had a slight hairline fracture in my wrist and eighteen stitches in my head. I had a major concussion, as well." As Blochinger attempted to recover from a laundry list of injuries and a ruined tour bus, he enlisted drummer David Derby as a temporary replacement so that Potcheen could keep its commitments. "I didn't have insurance," he says, "so I had to heal up on my own. I racked up $150,000 in medical bills. My truck got repossessed from my driveway."
After four months of being laid up, Blochinger took off his splints and returned to his drum stool in time to play on the main stage at the Desert Rocks Festival in Utah. By then, he had also replaced the ruined tour bus with another fifty-foot, 37,000-pound MCI Crusader, a 1980 model he named "Bonnie" after a famed pirate.
The basic story of perseverance and survival is one that's played itself out countless times in the history of Potcheen, which Blochinger founded in 2003. The outfit has demonstrated the same sort of resilience over the course of its nine-year existence, as more than forty different musicians have shuffled in and out of its ranks and the format has shifted from traditional Irish tunes to classic rock to somewhere in between.
Through it all, Blochinger has been at the helm, handling everything from squabble mediation to booking duties to tour management. Not surprisingly, he has no shortage of horror stories from the past decade, from musicians throwing hissy fits over muddled sound to dramatic breakups between dating bandmembers to confronting a bazouki player about his unwillingness to wear deodorant. "Being a bandleader," he insists, "you have to address that. Whenever somebody whines about something, that's when I want to smack them in the face. I only lose it about once or twice a year."
Even as he recounts the most stressful aspects of his role in the band, Blochinger maintains a friendly and approachable tone. There's no denying his affability, a quality others see as key to the band's longevity. "He's got a gift of gab, as much as we make fun of him for it," says guitarist Neil Zimmerman, who's played with the group for the past four years. "The bottom line in the world of business is that people like to do business with people they like. He comes across as very likable, especially when he's talking to booking agents."
Zimmerman, who also plays as one half of the local folk/rock duo Pairadeux, says the gregariousness covers a deep commitment to the band, a focus that's allowed it to survive. "It's his baby, and his dedication to keeping it alive despite the obstacles," Zimmerman observes. "The bus accident was a nasty thing, but he's like a football player. He plays with pain."
The stress of it all is a constant test of willpower and patience, Blochinger admits, but the 6' 3", 200-pound son of German and Argentine parents has found a sort of personal mission in playing old Irish songs and pirate rock. His perseverance has deep roots that go back to a childhood spent in New Jersey, far from the mountains of Cork and Kerry.
"When I was a freshman in high school," says Blochinger, "I was 5' 1" and 65 pounds. I got shoved in more garbage cans and lockers than I can remember. Every team my twin brother and I were on, we were always the worst players. For some reason, he would quit and I would stay with it." That same dogged persistence has kept him at the helm of Potcheen for nearly a decade. "I don't like to quit anything. It's the way my brain is wired. I'm an idiot," he says, laughing, adding that he's threatened to write an autobiography titled Herding Cats in a Parade. "I just believe in what the band can do. And I believe that the bands that make it are the ones that don't quit."
Blochinger likewise hasn't quit on the band's commitment to its Celtic roots, an odd fit for a German/Argentine raised in New Jersey. The specialty seems all the more unlikely considering Blochinger's musical roots; an early fan of classic rock and jam bands, the drummer learned his craft playing Grateful Dead covers and extended percussion jams.
It was while hosting an open stage in Evergreen that Blochinger first heard guitarist Christopher Shelby, who played stripped-down versions of old Irish and European ballads.
Those performances exposed him to a deeper side of Celtic music, a history and power that seemed to underline every verse of folk tunes like "South Australia," "Whiskey in the Jar" and "Drunken Sailor." The songs' simple narratives and raw energy immediately appealed to Blochinger, who saw the music as a compelling link to the distant past.
"The first one I remember is 'Whiskey in the Jar,' and I still play that to this day," he notes of the 800-year-old ballad, a song that tells the story of a highway robber who's waylaid by the betrayal of his own beloved. "A lot of the songs were pirate songs. They were songs about drinking, or drinking and being a pirate.
"What's more fun than that?" he adds, smiling.
From there, Blochinger delved into the history behind the music: romantic stories of Irish sailors hitting ports in western Europe as pirates, combining careers as plunderers and ballad singers. "Ireland, that's where a lot of the most famous pirates were from," he asserts.
Blochinger and Shelby enlisted a bass player and formed the first, bare-bones version of the group. The trio called itself the Potcheen Folk Band. The title came from the Gaelic word for Irish moonshine, a spirit celebrated in the folk song "The Rare Old Mountain Dew."
"The more I looked at it," he recalls, "the more I realized that Celtic music was the original music that was put in a band format. It became bluegrass, country and R&B. We were finding that we could play a metal bar or a jam bar or a country bar. It was the first time that I was in a band that we could play any genre, any club, and everyone was digging it."
As Potcheen grew and different players circulated, Blochinger worked to expand the scope of its style. The speedy, rocked-out approach to Irish music refined by the Pogues and later adopted by bands like Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys played a large role in the band's repertoire, but so did rock standards, originals and poppier tunes by bands like the Proclaimers.
"I have my own song that I wrote called 'Pogue Mahone,' which means 'Kiss my ass,'" Blochinger points out. "We just mix everything. We'll do a little Flogging Molly," he adds, noting that he's met and played with Nathen Maxwell. "We do bluegrass, we go to zydeco, go to an Irish song and then flip and do the Isley Brothers." It's an all-of-the-above approach, one that's drawn musicians who are new to Celtic music, just as Blochinger was when he heard those first ballads at the open stage.
"'Whiskey in the Jar' is 800 years old," Zimmerman points out. "It's been done in 9,000 different ways. We do a very upbeat version of it, and I think it's cool that it's survived this long."
"There's an utter simplicity and purity to it," he concludes. "It's about whiskey, it's about love, it's about rebellion. They are the same basic elements that appealed to people 700 years ago."
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