The thump, thump, thump of ecstatic toes vibrated the wooden dance floor. The audience clapped their hands to fast-paced Irish jigs. They kicked their legs forward and back with gusto and glee like Riverdance extras.
John Freeman pressed his lips to the microphone and sang, “What do you do with a drunken sailor, what do you do with a drunken sailor?”
If you took the required gen eds WRT 150 or WRT 160 at OU, there is a great chance you met special lecturer John Freeman. When he is not grading essays, teaching or writing, he is singing and playing guitar in The Codgers.
On St. Patrick’s Day, The Codgers played at Nancy Whiskey’s and their favorite haunt, the Gaelic League in Detroit.
“We’re a high energy, rockish, Irish drinking set,” Freeman said. “It’s something to pound your pint glass to.”
The band defines their genre as folk, Celtic, and Americana, but the members also cover bands like the Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Along with Freeman are Steve Cousins, accordionist and vocalist, Matt Balcer, mandolin player, Terry Murphy, guitarist, vocalist and banjo player, Jake Dimmick, bassist, and Patrick Carey, vocalist and Bodhrán player – a drum that looks like a tambourine without cymbals.
In this St. Patrick’s Day season, The Codgers play 12 to 15 gigs in the first half of March. The rest of the year they play two gigs each month including the first Saturday of every month at the Gaelic League.
Making a band
The Codgers formed in 2006 at the Tipperary Pub in Detroit’s Warrendale neighborhood. Freeman, Balcer and Cousins are the original members left in this hip-swaying, foot-tapping band.
“It’s definitely got some edge to it so it’s not schmaltzy,” Freeman said.
Freeman has been playing guitar since he was 14 years old. He became the lead singer “sort of by default” because he wasn’t afraid to sing to a crowd.
By definition a codger is an old, eccentric man. But the band members are young.
“We play old man music, maybe we will grow into it.” Freeman said
As they took the stage, the crowd cheered and took pictures. Children and adults were kicking their heels to the music. Fans gave the band members high-fives and hugs during and after the show.
When they played at Mario’s Italian Restaurant, The Codgers notoriously fired up the crowd to the point where people started crowd surfing. Dimmick said he was surprised that they just started picking people up. But, the event became a claim-to-fame, according to their Facebook.
“The employees all descended on the room to see what in the hell was going on. We’re pretty sure it’s the only time something like that has happened at Mario’s, so we’re kind of proud of the incident,” Freeman said.
Freeman grew up going to hear Irish pub music with his parents. Growing up on the Detroit’s west side, the mood of the music resonated with him.
“A lot of my grandma’s family was related to Irish immigrants,” Freeman said. His family has a legacy of labor activism.
The troubles of Ireland seemed to match those of Detroit for Freeman.
“The poverty, emptiness and violence sounded like the neighborhood I grew up in” Freeman said in reference to British repression, the slaughter of fighters in the 1798 Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, according to http://www.oracleireland.com.
Although they play at other venues, such as the Magic Stick in Royal Oak, The Codgers always return to Corktown.
“We try to play in Corktown because it feels like home for us,” Freeman said.
McSpillin is a fellow band that has a chummy rivalry with The Codgers. Freeman describes their conversations as “friendly banter.”
“We will get each other to play Ted Nugent even though no one likes him,” Freeman said.
McSpillin’s lead singer Joni Burgess recalls the first metaphorical shot.
“John Freeman let me check out the Codgers’ playlist when they were but a wee young band. All the songs were folk and Irish until I saw the song ‘Fred Bear’ on the list. It was such a strange choice. From that point on, when we saw them at a gig, I would get everyone to yell ‘Fred Bear’ until they played it. It got to the point where they would see us walk in the door and immediately bust into the notorious jam before we could start our bear calls.”
McSpillin was forced into learning how to play “Fred Bear” by The Codgers’ heckling, according to Burgess.
The friendly feud seems to still be going strong. On March 9, McSpillin posted a photo of a hybrid Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear.
“It’s a burden both bands will have to ‘bear’ for years to come. Just don’t tell Ted (Nugent). Freeman is pretty gangly like a lame animal. Ted might want him for his ranch,” Burgess said.
The band does not sell t-shirts, hats, bags etc. They only sell CD’s at their gigs and music online. According to Freeman, that’s intentional.
“We have a ‘f— merchandise’ type of ethos,” Freeman said.
The Codgers are set to release their new CD “Lichfield” with a kickoff party at the Gaelic League Saturday, April 6.
Future stage mates
On Saturday, March 23, The Codgers will be sharing the stage with Stroller Coaster at the Berkley Front. Stroller Coaster is the punk child of Moodle engineers Nic Bongers, Johnny Coughlin, Shaun Moore and Jim Wood.
Freeman and Stroller Coaster’s bassist Shaun Moore met because both teach in the Writing and Rhetoric department. Nic Bonger, Stroller Coaster’s guitarist, said it was a technical move to join up with another OU band.
Bonger said their genres are very different because Stroller Coaster sings about “sexy robots” and “time travelers.”
Though their styles differ, Stroller Coaster respects them.
“They make it fresh,” Bongers said. “It’s not your great great great grandma’s Irish music.”
Their music can be purchased at http://thecodgers.bandcamp.com/