Cranky George proves an actors' band can rock


September 22, 2006


From Russell Crowe's 30 Odd Foot of Grunts to Jared Leto's 30 Seconds to Mars, and from Gary Sinise's Lt. Dan Band to Keanu Reeves' Dogstar, actors-turned-rockers have generally proven to be even lamer when switching artistic gears than NBA players-turned-rappers. But the Los Angeles quartet Cranky George is a welcome exception.

Using instruments ranging from guitar, mandolin and cello to accordion, ukulele and a hatbox played with a bass drum pedal, the group delivers a rollicking brand of Celtic-tinged folk-rock that is the veritable definition of good-time, seafaring pub music. Yes, the band's immediate claim to fame is that it features actor Dermot Mulroney ("The Wedding Date," "Must Love Dogs," "About Schmidt," etc.) and his brother, actor, writer and director Kieran (whose TV credits include episodes of "Judging Amy," "NYPD Blue," "Enterprise" and more). But the two Alexandria, Va.,-to-Hollywood transplants were making music long before they were making movies or TV shows.

The Mulroney brothers first made a name for themselves in the music world in the mid-'90s as members of the Low and Sweet Orchestra, which also featured Zander Schloss (Circle Jerks, Thelonius Monster) and Mike Martt (Tex and the Horseheads, Thelonius Monster), and which released one well-received album in 1997 on Interscope Records, "Goodbye to All That." In Cranky George, they are joined by two undeniably impressive full-time musicians: Pogues accordionist and multi-instrumentalist James Fearnley and Brad Wood, the former Chicagoan whose production credits include Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins and Veruca Salt, and who first rose to prominence on the indie-rock scene drumming for Shrimpboat.

Wood is not the group's only connection to the Windy City: Another Mulroney brother, Sean, is a Chicago attorney better known in these parts as the co-owner of the Double Door (along with Andrew Barrett and Metro impresario Joe Shanahan), as well as an active musician in a number of bands, including Cooksie and Casolando.

"James and Brad's kids go to the same school, and they were both friends with my brothers Dermot and Kieran, so they put this project together to play out around L.A.," said Sean, who may be his brothers' and Cranky George's No. 1 fan. Added Fearnley in a post on the group's Web site: "We all sang at our first show, and we were all nervous: It had been 17 years leading up to this gig, for we all met in 1988 or thereabouts, and have been playing in one another's houses for that long. The joke was that the next gig was going to be 17 years hence, but I hope it's sooner than that."

It will be, since Cranky George will make its Chicago debut Saturday night at the Double Door. Sean Mulroney has put together a bill that he calls "a real family affair" in order to introduce his brothers properly, and to welcome Wood back to town. "In addition to Cranky George, the lineup includes what is probably one of the best pop bands I have ever seen in my life: the Incredible Casuals, who are led by Johnny Spampinato of NRBQ. They do a residency every summer on Cape Cod, where our family vacations, and we've been seeing them for 22 years at the same place, and the three Mulroney boys just decided, 'We want to play with our favorite band, the Incredible Casuals!'"

Rounding out the Mulroney musical family reunion: Sean's current groups, Cooksie, the alternative-country combo front by another pair of brothers, John and Matt Cook (who also grew up in Alexandria, and Casolando) and Carlos Ortega's Latin-folk-rock band. "And, just because I love the pageantry of it, the Beer Nuts," Sean said.

In between gigging, championing his brothers, running one of the city's most vibrant rock clubs and maintaining his law practice, Mulroney is launching a venture that could have a major impact on the music world. Currently in its "beta testing" phase, Mulroney and his partners envision as a sort of MySpace or Friendster site designed to bring people together not for the purposes of dating, but for making beautiful music together even though they may never meet.

"It's for the kid who sits in his dorm room and is too shy to ask someone to be in a band with him, or the guy with no friends into the sort of music he likes, or some young musician who can't pull together a whole band. The site is basically a digital mixing board, and you can drag and drop the tracks from anybody anywhere in the world and put them on your song, pitch-correct and time-correct them, and make a new collaboration. If you're a DJ and you have a cool track but need some vocals or a piano, you can just drag and drop those in. You don't need to buy any software, and it's all done virtually. Essentially, what we think it can be is an online community built around making songs."

How does Mulroney find time for all of these endeavors?

"If you think about it, with the exception of the law practice, everything I do revolves around music, and even with the law practice, I do represent a bunch of local bands," he said, laughing. "Basically, it's the law practice that allows me to buy the toys and have the money to do all of these other things."


The bland and sleepy music they've given us on their recent Warner Bros. albums can make you forget that the Favorite Sons of Athens, Ga., were once one of the most fiery and inspired bands on the indie-rock scene. Now, in order to celebrate their 25th anniversary, R.E.M. is releasing two welcome documents surveying what is now clearly the best and most consistent phase of their career, before they left cult status and I.R.S. Records for Warners and platinum-selling superstardom.

"When the Light is Mine" is a DVD that rounds up all of the group's primitive but endearing early videos -- including "Radio Free Europe," "Driver 8" and "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" -- as well as killer live performances of "Talk About the Passion," "Pretty Persuasion," "Can't Get There from Here" and other tunes from TV shows such as "The Tube" and "Old Grey Whistle Test." There are two episodes of MTV's late, lamented indie showcase, "The Cutting Edge," and an early interview rounding out the package as extras.

The 42-track CD companion, "And I Feel Fine ... The Best of the I.R.S. Years, 1982-1987," is less essential, since all of the group's albums through the mid-'90s are must-owns. But in addition to the expected '80s hits compiled on disc one, the two-CD set includes a second disc of hard-to-find rarities, among them the original Hib-Tone single versions of "Radio Free Europe" and "Sitting Still"; demos for "Gardening at Night" and "Hyena"; the studio outtake "Bad Day," and a few more live and alternate recordings of tunes such as "Finest Worksong" and "Swan Swan H."

The band's original lineup -- Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and since departed drummer Bill Berry -- recently reunited for two shows at Athens' 40-Watt Club, marking their induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. That news, together with these two nostalgic offerings, can't help but prompt longtime fans to wonder if a return to the R.E.M. we knew and loved might be in the offing. We can only hope.