by Liza Mitchell
Over a decade ago, an established Irish recording artist took a gamble that has since continued to pay off in high dividends. Spade McQuade had nothing to lose when a friend reached out from across the pond and suggested he try his hand singing traditional Irish tunes at a faraway Florida pub.
That was 13 years ago. Now, McQuade may be the most recognizable Irish import in Jacksonville since Guinness.
“My friend, Pearse Doherty, told me they needed an Irish singer at Lynch’s [Irish Pub in Jacksonville Beach] and I should come over and try it for awhile,” McQuade says. “And I am still here.”
When he first arrived from Belfast in northern Ireland, Jacksonville Beach was at the tail-end of its “blighted” period. New restaurants and bars were cropping up in the vacant spaces dotting the oceanfront. Lynch’s Irish Pub was one of the new kids on the block and quickly established itself as a force to be reckoned with on the entertainment circuit.
In Atlantic Beach, the Fly’s Tie was drawing people in and McQuade slid easily between the two stages without fuss. Today, you can’t throw a rock at the Beaches without hitting an Irish pub. Spade McQuade – solo or with his merry band of All-stars – are regular fixtures at both Lynch’s and Fly’s Tie as well as Fionn MacCool’s, located on the former Einstein A-Go-Go corner in Jacksonville Beach and Durty Nelly’s in Gainesville.
“Well, when I got here we only had the Fly’s Tie and Lynchs,” McQuade says. “Now there are six or seven [pubs] I believe.”
Before his days riling up rowdy bar crowds with his repertoire of hearty Irish pub songs, McQuade touring nationwide as a founding member of the 90s band Energy Orchard. The band released two albums on the RCA label and three more with Transatlantic Records and toured with the likes of Van Morrison, Joe Cocker and Steve Earle.
Growing pains strained relationships within the band and eventually, McQuade and the other members of Energy Orchard made the decision to part ways.
“Some people in the band wanted to move on to new things,” he says. “Plus, we had all grown up together in Belfast so it was time to leave the proverbial nest.”
McQuade looks back on his days with Energy Orchard fondly, recalling how they toured with Van Morrison, “getting to hang out with him and listen to his life in the music biz” or the time the band toured with Joe Cocker and played live in front of 100,000 people in Berlin.
McQuade joined another ensemble cast of musicians in the band Celtic Soul and enjoyed success for a couple of years on the local club and festival scene. Nick Watson is still playing with Irish band Rathkeilter and started his own studio and McQuade hopes one day for the return of vocalist Jana Light.
“I would love to get Jana Light out playing again,“ he says. “Not enough people in the world have heard her sing.”
Spade McQuade and the All-stars “sort of formed themselves,” McQuade says, after a revolving turn of artists joined him on stage for one reason or another. The current lineup consists of Phil Green on bass, Dan Solomon on percussion, Adam Shiras on guitar, Jeff Pierson on mandolin and “the amazing” Armond Blackwater on Hammond organ and accordion.
“It was just a case of us either inviting people to jam or them asking to sit in,” McQuade says. “We have been lucky most times but sometimes you have to tell the odd guy ‘sorry, mate’.”
The majority of the All-stars’ set list is covers and about 10 percent are traditional Irish songs. McQuade says the band relies heavily on the audience’s reaction when trying out new material.
“I will hear a song somewhere and if I like it, we try it a few times and it either stays or goes by the crowd reaction,” he says.
McQuade is also performing in support of the most recent solo release Belfast Redneck- which, he says, is someone born in Belfast who now lives in Jacksonville like “me,” he says.
The recording process was a different experience but McQuade says he is more than satisfied with the results.
“We started with just my guitar and a guide vocal, then we would add the drums and then we added everyone else as they became available,” he says. “It was slow but I like the way it sounds.”
Solomon, a director and screenwriter when he’s not pounding away on the djembe (pronounced Jim-Bay), shot the video for the first single ‘You Old Rock Star.’
“[It was a] boring nightmare,” jokes McQuade. “I could never be an actor, way too much sitting and waiting.”
Solomon is also shopping a feature script entitled The Orchard Ville Diaries based on McQuade’s days with Energy Orchard. The effort is still a work in progress, McQuade says. “He wants me to get drunk and record all my stories that I tell when I am drunk,” he says. “You would think it would be easy to organize, so come Djembe Dan, where’s the vodka?”
McQuade has released both Belfast Redneck and his CD with the All-stars band on iTunes and CD Baby. He is among the growing number of artists who turn to the online media as a way to release their material without label pressure and maximizes the exposure to a global audience.
“I think its great. It cuts out the middleman – record companies- who used to take anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent. Now the artists get a bigger slice of the pie, plus you can add an entire album or one song. All new bands should do is get a good lawyer and an agent for gigs and they are covered.”
When asked if there is anything else that people should know about him, McQuade is coy and keeps his fans guessing.
“That I am Italian. Sorry, stupid joke,” he says with mock seriousness. “It’s that my folks needn’t have christened me Spade. My real name is…”
Enjoy A Hearty Irish Helping
by Liza Mitchell