Providence shanty act Sharks Come Cruisin' plays at Mystic Seaport's Ice Festival
Mark Lambert, guitarist/vocalist and leader of Sharks Come Cruisin', a Providence sea shanty band that performs this weekend at Mystic Seaport Museum's inaugural Ice Festival, knows exactly when the music crawled into his brain — and he happily credits Quint. Yes, the curmudgeonly fisherman from "Jaws" who, as portrayed by Robert Shaw, became one of the most indelible support characters in the history of film.
"Quint's was singing that song 'Ladies of Spain,'" says Lambert by phone last week, "and for some reason, one magical night when I was watching 'Jaws' several years ago, it all kicked in. I thought, 'There HAS to be more songs like this."
At the time, Lambert, who'd been a longtime punk musician, was musically adrift. A hardcore enthusiast since high school days, he'd started playing at 16 and says, "I was horrible for a lot of years. We slowly got better and added a bit more musicality and melody through 1997 or '98, and it was cool. But I realized I'd never make any money and punk wasn't sustainable. At least not the way I was doing it."
In the Providence scene at that time, Lambert says, "A lot of us realized we weren't rocketing to stardom, and a lot of blues and country and rockabilly bands emerged. I saw those pompadours and standup basses and, man, I grew up in Warwick. I thought, 'I can't even PRETEND to do that.'"
Lambert was entranced, though, by the American Irish-rock bands like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys — acts whose love of traditional music incorporated more than a few shanty songs — and, in conjunction with his "Jaws" revelation, he suddenly had a mission.
"I went to the Providence Public Library and found all these LPs from the '50s and '60s of sea music, and it was a big realization to me. I thought, 'These songs are out there; they exist!' They were singing about Nantucket and New Bedford, and I'm FROM New England. I've been in those places, and I grew up on the water. This speaks to me; these songs are ours."
This all happened around 2005 and, within a year, Lambert formed a shanty band that reflected his own musical background and indicated a willingness to apply contemporary rock instrumentation and arrangements within what is typically a staid genre. Joining Lambert in the group are Michael Bilodea (bass/vocals), James Toome (percussion/vocals), Erik Wohlgemuth (banjo/vocals), Erica Sachs (melodica/vocals), and Matt eeverett (fiddle/accordion).
The U.S.S. Indianapolis speech
First, they needed a name — and Lambert went back to the original source. One of Quint's big moments in "Jaws" occurs on his boat "Orca." It's the dead of night, and he and Chief Brody and Matt Hooper are sitting in the galley telling stories, and Quint suddenly shares the source of an ugly scar. It's an astonishing soliloquy describing his time on the U.S.S. Indianapolis at the end of World War II. The ship sank after being hit by a Japanese torpedo, he explains in a transfixed voice, leaving the sailors bobbing about in the dangerous sea wherein, he says, "Very first light, chief, the sharks come cruisin'."
Design a logo and break out the merch! Sharks Come Cruisin' was born.
Over 14 years, the band has eagerly learned more and more about the genre, absorbed and adapted material, and released seven albums or EPs including last year's "When I Get Home From Across the Sea." The CD, an enticing and invigorating collection spanning whimsical folk balladry and stomping singalongs, was recorded in Haddam at Dirt Floor Recording and Production.
Sharks Come Cruisin' have also earned regular spots at a variety of festivals, venues, pubs and even libraries that welcome sea music, work songs and other indigenous folk music forms. SCC has played several festivals up and down the East Coast — from Florida to Maine — and host the monthly PVD Shanty Sing at the Parlour in Providence.
But it wasn't as easy as it might have been if Sharks Come Cruisin' had strictly adhered to rote replication of the songs from the beginning. "We'd run into standoffish reactions," Lambert says. "When we first started, we were, in some people's eyes, loud and obnoxious and not respectful of the genre."
Gradually, the process has been one of open curiousity and experimentation with the goal of fulfilling their own musical impulses and helping preserve and grow a time-honored musical form.
"The fact is that, while the majority of our catalog is traditional shanties, we use a lot of different arrangements," Lambert says. "A lot of those songs are a cappella, and we've taken those and put full-band instrumentation behind them. At the beginning, we were very much more of a rock band that played shanties. We've also written our own shanties and incorporated them in our setlists whenever possible. That's sort of unusual. It's been a tricky thing learning how to read an audience. But I think we've got it down."
Basically, Sharks Come Cruisin' are prepared for anything and are happy to provide what a crowd wants. If it's a shanty festival, for example, Lambert says they tend to steer away from their own songs or radical arrangements of existing material. They've even worked up the original a cappella versions of tunes they'd already arranged for full-band, knowing the pleasure and expectations that come from an audience ready for the shouted, call-and-response vocals.
"We think about our presentations a lot because we want people to be happy. This is our first time, for example, to play Mystic Seaport, and it's not coincidental. This is joyful music," Lambert says. "At the same time, these are also songs that lend themselves to drinking or a pub environment, so our newer arrangements or our own songs tend to go over well in that environment. A lot of times, people won't even be aware of the genre; they just think it's fun drinking music. And we're happy to perform either way."
If every musical style has its acknowledges founding heroes, it must be so with sea shanties, right? We asked Mark Lambert: Who are the Beatles of the sea shanty?
"That's a great question," he laughs. "But, rather than saying a specific group, I think the folk music resurgence of the 1960s was huge. They brought sea shantys into the catalog, and suddenly the form had life."
Lambert also cites artists as diverse as British prog-folk act Pentangle and occasional duo Jerry Garcia and David Grissom as perhaps unlikely musicians bringing shanties to public attention.
"But beyond all this is a book called 'Shanties from the Seven Seas,' by a guy named Stan Hugill," Lambert explains. The author collected over 400 shanties in one volume and, insofar as possible, explored their respective histories. "Hugill was considered the last shantyman. True fans of sea shanties carry around dogeared copies of that book and there are plenty of people who think that, if you don't perform the songs his way, you're doing it wrong. Period."
If you go
Who: Sharks Come Cruisin'
What: Providence modern sea shanty band performing at Mystic Seaport's Ice Festival
When: Concerts noon and 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, festival hours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Monday
Where: Mystic Seaport Museum, 75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic
How much: $28.95 adults, $26.95 seniors 65+, $24.95 youth 13-17, $18.95 children 3-12; tickets valid all three days of festival
For more information: (860) 572-0711
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