There can’t be many rock concerts which begin by warning their audience that ‘this is not a poetry reading’, but then there can’t be many bands fronted by Pulitzer prize-winning poets either. Rackett, then, is doubtlessly unique. A ‘three-car’ garage rock band from Princeton University in New Jersey, Rackett is probably best known (when it is known at all) as the side project of Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon, the university’s current creative writing professor. Noisy, erudite, and entertaining, the group derives its name from a medieval wind instrument related to the bassoon. The fact that they regularly cause a racket during their performance is merely a witty bonus.
With appearances at credible New York venues such as The Knitting Factory, Joe’s Pub, and the Cornelia Street Café under their belts, this is Rackett’s debut Irish tour. It is a provincial excursion which takes in Cork, Listowel, Sligo, Navan, Belfast, and Dublin, in addition to this gig in Galway. No doubt Muldoon’s literary fame is mostly responsible for the band’s infamy amongst the beatnik cats-on-the-café-table-and-no-one-cares demographic, but standing in the audience I can see that there is little about Rackett that is pretentious or inscrutable. What is most obvious about these guitar-wielding academics is their genuine love of what they do. Such is the infectious enthusiasm emanating from the stage that not even the sternest of observers could remain detached for very long.
Yet for all the attention focused on Muldoon’s contribution (he is Rackett’s primary lyricist and one of three guitarists) the band is very much an ensemble enterprise. Bass guitar is provided by the instantly likable Nigel Smith, an authority on 17th century poetry to whom dark glasses and stagecraft come as naturally as authoritative declarations about John Donne or George Herbert. Stephen Allen, a Princeton entertainment lawyer, plays keyboard and provides harmonies—along with a certain air of enigma—to the group. Bobby Lewis pounds out the drums with vigorous concentration while Lee Matthew, a scholar of medieval polyphony and easily the youngest of the five, provides vocals and lead guitar.
A friend of mine, a professional musician, is under-whelmed by the performance and leaves the gig early, but he misses the point: Rackett don’t play music to fulfil any perfectionist ambitions, they play just for the sheer hell of it. The pace is frenetic and the sound (‘the best we’ve had so far,’ declares Muldoon) is boisterous and disorderly. The crowd, a mixture of glammed-up twenty- and thirty-somethings mixed quite evenly with energetic retirees, and all clearly of a cultural bent, eats up this deviation from their usual round of slams, readings and recitals. ‘Time to finger-jive!’ announces Matthew, tossing around his rock star hair with assured aplomb while, beside him, Muldoon and Smith throw the kind of kind of shapes that musicians half their age would be embarrassed to attempt. Indeed, the energy onstage is almost too much for the instruments as, towards the middle of the performance, Matthew breaks two guitar strings in a row. ‘I knew I was a Strat man for a reason,’ he says.
During this enforced interlude, Muldoon retrieves a copy of his Selected Poems which he had signed earlier for an audience member. He selects ‘The Weepies’, a eulogy for the Saturday afternoon cowboy movie, for an impromptu recitation. ‘Perhaps one of the only good things about George Bush’s presidency,’ he says, ‘has been the revival of the Hollywood western.’ He enthuses about the forthcoming remake of The 3.10 to Yuma, and, as the guitar situation worsens behind him, treats the audience to readings of ‘Quoof’ and ‘Why Browntree Left’.
‘You’re the Seamus Heaney of rock and roll!’ someone shouts.
‘Seamus Heaney is the Seamus Heaney of rock and roll,’ says Muldoon, and, for just an instant, it looks like things are going to get ugly. It’s all very Spinal Tap.
An intermission is called as hasty repairs are made to Matthew’s guitar. While he struggles with the stubborn instrument, the rest of the band work the room. Allen and Muldoon are particularly impressive here, dropping in and out of conversations with a practiced ease well suited to the intimacy of the Róisín Dubh. Lewis, meanwhile, acquires an almost immediate circle of admirers, while Smith even mentions the ‘M’ word: Merchandise, and a table with CDs, T-shirts, and books is quietly produced at the rear of the venue.
Technical difficulties are soon resolved and, as the second half of the gig begins, the song ‘Meat and Drink’ is introduced as the genesis of the band itself. Smith tells of how, while teaching at a summer school in New Mexico in 2004, he found himself coaxed into playing with a Native American group in need of a replacement bassist. He emailed photos of himself on stage to Muldoon who, as Smith says, ‘responded as he always does, in two minutes.’ Muldoon’s reply? Four words: ‘We’re getting a band.’ He provided the lyrics for ‘Meat and Drink’ (surely the only song that rhymes ‘fashionistas’ with ‘Insalata Mistas’) almost immediately. Attached was the simple instruction ‘put these to music.’
This partnership has so far produced two albums, Standing Room Only and Resistance, yet what you don’t get on the CDs is the story behind the songs or the onstage banter. The somewhat raw ‘Shocks and Struts’, for instance, features music written by Smith in the hours after a painful dental operation, though Muldoon assures the audience, unconvincingly, that the lyrics have nothing to do with this trauma. ‘An extractor fan / the blowtorch… its little break,’ sings Matthew, as if to undermine the argument. Muldoon covers by explaining how the song ‘Saab with Sandi’ is written from the perspective of a father of a teenage girl. ‘No one seems to have written about that much,’ he adds, maintaining the self deprecating air which Rackett has carried off all evening.
The band close with ‘Rock Steady’ (‘stand ready, lads, stand ready!’) but are persuaded to play an encore of ‘My Ride’s Here,’ a song co-written by Muldoon and the cult singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, a rarity on Rackett’s set list. Zevon, who died in 2004, was a close friend of the poet. They wrote several songs together, which appear on Zevon’s 2002 album, My Ride’s Here, and in Muldoon’s recent book of song lyrics, General Admission. Muldoon describes Zevon as a ‘master class’ in rock and roll, and seems suitably pleased that ‘My Ride’s Here’ has also been recorded by Bruce Springsteen.
Rackett, an unknown quantity in Ireland, have raised their profile here considerably by this small-scale but extensive summer tour. More importantly, they have gained much ground against those who accuse them of being little more than a novelty act dependent on Muldoon’s poetic fame. They’ve proven themselves to be nice guys too, and after the gig they pack away their own gear and unwind amongst the audience without the pretensions of some professional performers. The mood is relaxed, and I ask Muldoon to sign my ticket. He does so with good grace, talking about their recent performances and telling stories about Warren Zevon. He asks if I want the signatures of the others too, and when I say yes he bounds back on stage to hit-up his fellow musicians for autographs as if he were a teenager at his first real rock concert. All the band oblige, though Matthew—clearly jinxed tonight—experiences further technical problems with the pen provided. I take their eagerness as a good sign; if nothing else, Rackett are in little danger of forgetting those for whom they make their noise, and surely that is a dream shared by poetry and rock music alike.