by Stu Dawrs
photo by Joe Graziano
Stroll Nu‘uanu Avenue on a Saturday night, down to where Honolulu’s two stalwart Irish pubs, Murphy’s and O’Toole’s, face off, and you’ll see a wondrous sight: A crowd. True, the downtown/ Chinatown confluence is in the midst of a nightclub boom. There’s been a tenacious, semiunderground music scene there for years, but it wasn’t that long ago that a good portion of what passed for downtown’s nightlife consisted of the happy hour hounds waiting out Friday night’s pau hana traffic. Even today, a band that can draw people back downtown on the weekend—and do it week after week—is something of a marvel.
Credit this particular crowd to Doolin Rakes. Originally thrown together to play a single wedding gig, the band went on to inhabit the Saturday slot at O’Toole’s and over the last year has built a loyal following for its rollicking whirligig of a set list, which spans three continents and then some. “It’s Celtic with an African flavor,” says lanky lead singer James McCarthy when asked to sum up the sound. “But we also do some zydeco, a bit of Bob Dylan and several electric, jazzed-up takes on old Appalachian tunes—what we call ‘hip-alachian.’” This multi-culti mélange hangs together perfectly, owing to the band’s wide-ranging talents: McCarthy (who plays guitar and mandolin) and fiddle player Lesley Kline have a longstanding interest in American roots music; electric guitarist Jamie Winpenny has a background in ska; bassist Geoff Red leans toward jazz and rock; and percussionist Jason Tabosa brings the African and reggae rhythms. And of course, it’s all built on that Irish foundation, on a musical tradition that has as much to do with sentiment as sound; many of the tunes Doolin Rakes plays were, in less-delicate days, known simply as drinking songs. As McCarthy notes dryly, “We try to keep it exciting, positive and upbeat… and given that most of the songs are about whiskey, fighting or losing your home, that’s sometimes a challenge.”
O’Toole’s Irish Pub