MOXIE may be just the men for the job.
Cheerfully goofing about for photographs in the vicinity of Cork Opera House after their Saturday matinée performance with ProdiJig: The Revolution, the fusion dance show that’s taking Irish audiences by storm, high spirits and infectious youthful energy are the order of the day for the five piece, whose brand of “Irish, not traditional” music is an integral part of the show, as well as an Irish roots revival in its own right.
Plenty of glowing reviews have been written of ProdiJig, with its audacious and celebratory approach to Irish dance, incorporating everything from hip-hop to BMXs, moshing to pints.
Choreographer and star of the show Alan Kenefick has described the high-octane mashup as “the dance of a new era”.
And if ProdiJig is the dance of a new era, MOXIE is the music of a new era, where fluidity, cross-pollination, and innovation are the future and salvation of Irish music.
Kenefick knew he needed MOXIE on board for his hit show as soon as he stumbled across ‘Planted’, the title track of their 2014 album, on Facebook.
“It was nine minutes of genius,” he says.
“As soon as I heard the hook I knew I needed to work with them.”
Getting MOXIE to perform live in the show was a no-brainer for Kenefick and director Wayne Jordan; young, handsome, and charismatic, the band become characters in the show, taking centre stage on occasion and playing a mix of their own compositions, tailored to the needs of the dancers, and playful arrangements of popular songs like Bowie’s ‘Rebel Rebel’ or The Propellerheads’ ‘History Repeating’, with Cork soul and jazz powerhouse Karen Underwood tasked with matching Shirley Bassey’s original enormous vocals.
“You can’t beat live music and MOXIE have so much charisma that we would be stupid not to have them doing their thing up there,” says Kenefick.
“They are genuinely some of the most charismatic and intelligent people I’ve ever met.”
Talking to MOXIE is similar to watching them play; exuberant energy, interplay between the band members, and a puppyish zest for life are there in droves.
The band formed in 2011, when the youngest members, button accordion player Darren Roche and accordion and keyboard player Jos Kelly, were just 17.
They’re now 22, and the most venerable band members have just reached their quarter century, and yet they’ve toured extensively across Europe, the US, and Australia.
Brothers Jos and Ted Kelly and percussionist Paddy Hazelton hail from Sligo, while Darren Roche and Cillian Doheny, who plays banjo and guitar, and is also the driving force behind much of the band’s composing, are from Limerick.
Collapsed in sofas following their photoshoot, they talk through their own musical upbringings and influences, and hit frequently on the serendipity of their “marriage made in heaven” with Alan Kenefick and ProdiJig.
“It’s weird because even before we met Alan we were trying to figure out what direction to take with our instrumental music and Cillian said, ‘I think we should work on a big dance show’, and then we sat down and said, ‘OK well, we would need about €600,000 to do that, so maybe let’s not’,” says Ted.
“Then two months later, Alan got in touch. It was meant to happen, but it was so weird. It was like we asked the universe.”
Ted Kelly, at 25, is the most senior and most media savvy; when the others lose their thread due to that post-show combination of wired and tired with which musicians and performers of all kinds are familiar, he leans in and adds a comment or gently steers them back on track.
Rocking a feather earring, hair tattoos, and Birkenstocks, the tenor banjo player and guitarist makes a memorable impression on stage when he first steps forward into the spotlight in one of the band’s featured appearances in the show.
As far as black Irish musicians are concerned, the only point of reference used to be Phil Lynott, but recently the success of acts like Limerick’s Rusangano Family have highlighted our visible young generation of black Irish people, often with cultural roots in the countries of origin of their parents, that offer exciting opportunities for enriching Irish musical traditions and developing new genres and styles.
Drummer Paddy Hazelton was adopted in Uganda by his mother, a UN aid worker from Sligo, and Ireland has been his home since early childhood, so he’s more inclined to cite piper Michael McGoldrick, Dervish, and neo-acoustic Celtic post-rockers The Olllam as influences than any traditional Ugandan music.
Mainly self-taught, his jazz and rock influences are a cornerstone of the band’s sound.
Because fusion and reinvention are what MOXIE are all about.
Influences of jazz, hip-hop, funk, bluegrass, classical, and other world music are interwoven through their sound and they have consciously reworked some of the standard elements of trad in their compositions.
“We started trying to arrange music in a different way and get away from the ‘eight bars and repeat’ structure to make it more interesting and exciting,” says Ted.
“Obviously we think about ourselves and whether we enjoy playing a song, but also our audience and how they feel when they listen to the music and if they can connect to it,” says Cillian.
“We want people to really feel it.”
“Yeah, we want them to rave to it,” adds Darren.
Almost inevitably, they’ve come under fire from trad purists who believe that conservation is the way to ensure survival for Irish music.
“People were putting up videos from the Sligo Fleadh last year and saying we were destroying Irish music,” says Ted.
The band responded with a Facebook post that read: “There are a lot of people saying we are bastardising ‘Traditional Music’ but that is not true. Regardless of the people who dislike our music we are proud to represent a new form of ‘Irish Music’.
"We live in a multi-cultural society. With the growth of technology and the melting pots of mixed cultures in cities all over the world, music is bound to evolve and we believe in evolution! If everything stays the same then we will live everyday just like the last.”
This ethos strongly mirrors the vision of the creative team behind ProdiJig; the show contains references to clubbing, the marriage-equality referendum, and darker aspects of modern Irish life such as binge-drinking.
It also almost dispenses entirely with the image of “mystical Ireland” ingrained in every Irish cultural export from Riverdance to Thin Lizzy.
MOXIE have little patience with the “Plastic Paddy” brigade and are delighted to be part of a new revolution in how we perceive Irishness.
“Fusion is how humanity survives, essentially,” says Ted.
Working on a production like ProdiJig has been a steep learning curve for them.
After life on tour, it feels like a big departure for the band, who now live in Dublin, to settle in Cork for a run of 30 shows with ProdiJig — and playing a large theatre to a seated audience, sometimes for two shows per day, comes with its own challenges.
“This is our first time in a theatre and we’re thrown into the deep end,” says Jos.
“I think they were all worried about us coming in, a pile of renegades from the west coast playing a theatre. But we all just come together and do what needs to be done.”
“There’s been a standing ovation every night. We’re getting to play our own music in front of people every night; our instruments are there on stage and we just have to walk out and pick them up, and the sound is great,” says Ted.
“We really have the best jobs in the world.”
An Irish dance show received with as much critical acclaim as ProdiJig has been getting draws the inevitable Riverdance comparisons.
With Alan Kenefick keeping schtum for now, he does admit that talks are under way to tour the show.
Will MOXIE stick with the show it if it ends up on Broadway?
“MOXIE is still MOXIE and we’re going to follow our own dream as well as Alan’s,” says Ted.
“We will follow his vision as far as it takes him, but we also have our own goals. We want to play the biggest festivals in the world: Burning Man, Glastonbury, and Lollapalooza.
“We want to create music that’s still intelligent but can draw in people who listen to more mainstream music.”
ProdiJIG continues at Cork Opera House until August 14.