"Wylde Thing, I Think They Love You"
"A long time ago, way back in history / When all there was to
drink was nothin' but cups o' tea / Along came a man by the name of
Charlie Mops / And he invented a wonderful drink and he made it out
So begins what singer Westan James cheekily calls "a very
popular love ballad" entitled "Beer, Beer, Beer," perhaps the most
beloved tune performed by the Cedar Rapids Celtic band Wylde Nept.
The group's cover of this Irish ditty charted at number one on
MP3.com's Celtic chart and number five on the Top 40 chart, and
Wylde Nept musician George Curtis, for one, is happily surprised by
the song's - and the band's - following.
"It's pretty much just a song about love and the appreciation of
the golden barley product," Curtis explains. "It's a traditional
tune that goes way back, and many bands have recorded it, but for
some reason, when it comes to downloads on the Internet, ours seems
to be the one."
Perhaps because listeners sense, in Wylde Nept, an
honest affinity for the golden barley
"There are members of our band who would rather
have soda," reveals James. "And that's just fine.
It's a matter of taste. But we like it."
For the past decade, Wylde Nept - and yes, several of the
musicians do wear kilts - has performed every
conceivable sub-genre of Celtic music: mirthful ballads, songs of
rebellion and victory, maritime sea chanteys, tongue-in-cheek
parodies, and plenty of good, old-fashioned Irish drinking songs.
The group plays both traditional Irish favorites and original
compositions that, with song titles such as "Ugly Mrs. Fen" and
"Bewitchin' Brenda," sound like traditional
Yet, to hear James and Curtis tell it, a performance by Wylde
Nept is augmented by the Wylde Neptaudiences, who are
encouraged to sing along, dance, and, on occasion, even engage in
good-natured shouting contests with the band.
"There's an old pub tune called ‘Big Strong Man,'" says Curtis,
"and basically there's a couple of lyrics in the song where the
women get to shout one lyric, the men get to shout the other, and
it's a contest to see which gender can make the most noise." And
the winner, he adds, "doesn't even depend on
thenumbers of the represented gender. It depends on
how into it they are. How bad
they want it.
"We do everything we can to make it more than
just a concert," Curtis says of the audience participation. "I
mean, if people want to just sit there with a beer in hand and
enjoy the music, they're certainly entitled to. But we want to make
it a real event, where you've got something more to
talk about than just the music that was played."
James agrees. "We're more than happy if you dance or stomp."
In addition to James, the group's lead vocalist, and Curtis, who
plays the Celtic drum called the bodhran, Wylde Nept consists of
James' brother Steven, who plays accordion; bass player Brian
Fahrner; John Southwood, on guitar and mandolin; and Wayne
Twombley, a guitar player and expert at what the band calls "pained
screams." ("That's my favorite part," says James. "There are
certain sound effects in some of the songs, and we like to put
Wayne in charge of them.")
Excepting a few personnel changes, Curtis says that Wylde Nept's
style hasn't much changed since the band's origin in 1994. "A few
people have moved on to different things," he says, "and we've had
a few people join, but it's essentially the same shape. I think
people who would see us now as opposed to 10 years ago would be
seeing about the same band."
And, appropriately enough, the concept for the group first came
about ... over a few beers.
"We came back from our camping trip and went to a local pub
we're very fond of," says Curtis, regarding the Cedar Rapids bar
The Red Lion. "They had a Celtic music jam going on there. And we
were sitting there listening to it, and we all kind of realized,
‘Hey, we all know this stuff. Why don't we - if
for no other reason than just for our own amusement - kind of put
together a band and see what we can do?'"
Curtis continues, "I think it started out as being kind
of funny to us. Like, ‘Hey, we're making this
band - where could this possibly go? Har har.'"
Both Curtis and James admit that the musicians' first rehearsal
was a relatively low-rent affair - "I didn't have a bodhran," says
Curtis, "so I practiced on a bucket" - but a
decidedly inspiring one.
"I think, actually, we surprised ourselves at how good it went,"
admits James. "That's probably what gave us the momentum to keep
Curtis laughs, "Things took off pretty quickly from there."
The band needed a name, which eventually came through James'
studies of Celtic lore. "I was reading a book about ancient
inventions," he says, "and I came across a reference to a plant
that was used before surgery in medieval times. It was part of a
potion called dwale, which is made out of henbane - which is a
poison - and wild nept. The henbane would basically knock you out,
and then they'd operate, and then, if you woke
up, the wild nept would help you get rid of the henbane." Add a
Celtic spelling, and the moniker Wylde Nept was formed.
But the band also needed material, and in addition to a host of
established, beloved Celtic tunes, much of what the group found
came through research on Celtic songs and traditions. "We're still
discovering songs that have not been recorded in 40 years or
have never been recorded," Curtis says.
However, the group also wanted to compose their own songs in the
Celtic style - "there's not, like,
anyone designated as the songwriter or
arranger," Curtis says of Wylde Nept's original output - which, as
any musician will tell you, can be a challenge.
"Sometimes the inspiration and the tune is immediate," says
Curtis, "and other times it can be a real labor. And then once the
songwriter brings it to the band, sometimes it takes a while to
flesh it out. And sometimes you can tell right away, too, if it's
just not gonna work.
"Anything brought to the band is given its fair chance, though,"
he continues, "and then we sit there and kind of look at each other
and go, ‘Ew, did that work?' or 'Wow, this is really
James says, "We definitely never expected, when we began, to
turn into songwriters at all. And the success of that ... we're
amazed at how well those songs are embraced."
Wylde Nept's first professional performance took place at a St.
Patrick's Day event in 1995, where the group played a 12-hour set,
from noon to midnight. James says, "We performed at a local pub, in
the round - in the middle of the pub - and played all day
long for, like, $100." He laughs. "And we knew about 30
"It got a little repetitive," Curtis adds, also laughing.
More local gigs resulted, though, with Cedar Rapids audiences
embracing the group's high-energy performance and signature style,
and in the fall of 1999, Wylde Nept even found themselves
performing their traditional Celtic music on stage alongside ...
"We don't know how that happened!" exclaims Curtis. "It was a
music festival in Cedar Rapids - Rocktoberfest - and I think they
decided they wanted to find some of the more popular bands in the
area and put them on stage in front of Foghat. I think they were
more concerned about ‘What do people want to hear?' as opposed to
‘Does this fit?'
"We were setting up," he continues, "and Foghat had not yet come
out on stage, and one of their sound guys was out in back, and he
hadn't yet seen the James brothers in their kilts yet. And he comes
up to me and says, ‘So, what's the name of your band? What do you
guys do?' And I was, like, ‘Well, we're Wylde Nept, and we play
Irish and Scottish drinking songs.' And he goes, ‘Ha ha ha ha
ha! No,really.' It was definitely a strange mix."
Since then, Wylde Nept has continued a steady tour of Midwestern
concert appearances - they performed for Moline's annual Robert
Burns Dinner this past January, and are set to return to the Quad
Cities for Rock Island's Erin Feis festival on September 17 - and
has released four CDs, with their most recent, All's Fair
... , released this past March. Good news for fans, and
especially good news for the group's most enthusiastic fans.
"There's a handful of people out there who are proud to call
themselves Neptiles," says Curtis with no small measure of
"We can't say enough about 'em," adds James. "We're very
"We can go to a venue," Curtis continues, "like an event or a
pub we've never been to before that's a long ways away from home,
and we'll find out that the first people to grab tables and get 'em
early are people we've seen before. And we
really appreciate that. Not just for the support on
stage, but they kind of get the rest of the crowd going, too.
People who've never seen us before - who might not know what
to make of us - suddenly have an idea. Because
there's something more going on here than sitting quietly and
listening to music."