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Leap of faith

Cliffs of Dooneen die and rise again as Superfly

by Brett Milano

You can tell a lot about a local band by the way they stage a farewell show. Sometimes such gigs represent a band's history in a nutshell (the Neighborhoods' last show was an endless blast, as was their 13-year career). Sometimes they reflect a band's irreverence (who can forget Peter Prescott's opening words at the final Volcano Suns show: "Let's bury this sucker!"). And sometimes they reveal why a band had to split up (consider Orangutang's last show, a no-glory suburban date for which only half of the regular group showed up).

So it's no surprise that Cliffs of Dooneen chose to go for a grand gesture and a big uplift during their official last encore, which they played at T.T. the Bear's Place to a packed house last weekend. The last original tune Cliffs did was "Carol," from their largely overlooked second album, Undertow (Critique, 1992). The song coaxes a depressed friend/lover out of the house for some friendly reassurance, and singer Eric Sean Murphy chose to make it a bit of a psychodrama. During the quiet midsection he motioned the audience to sit down on the club floor while he said his goodbyes and talked about new beginnings. Gradually the music rose in power and volume, with guitarist Martin Crotty piling on the powerchords he's become particularly good at lately, and Murphy hovering messianically over the crowd. The moment was unfashionably earnest, potentially cheesy, ultimately convincing -- much like the group itself.

Unlike most bands who no longer exist, Cliffs of Dooneen were back in the rehearsal space the next day. They've got a brace of gigs coming up next month, a new CD about to hit the stores, and a long haul coming up after that. But they won't be Cliffs of Dooneen anymore: they'll be Superfly, the name chosen for the new band whose personnel -- Murphy, Crotty, bassist Ira Nulton and drummer Lex Lianos -- is identical to that of the Cliffs.

They're hardly the first long-running local band to go for a change of sound and image, but they may be the first to change the name, drop everything in their repertoire, and pronounce themselves an altogether different band. (We're not counting Seka/Strip Mind, whose name change was a copyright-prompted token gesture.) It's a risky, and some might say unnecessary, move. True, it allows them to shake their history as a band who once seemed poised for a national breakthrough, only to join the swelling ranks of major-label dumpees. But the name Cliffs of Dooneen still carries weight in this area -- their gigs tend to be packed, their national single "Through an Open Window" still gets airplay, and they've won numerous Boston Music Awards, plus Best Local Rock Act and Best Local Male Vocalist in the Phoenix's Best Music Poll for the past two years. If they're going to be Superfly from now on, they run the risk of alienating the audience that's stuck by them in recent years.

"I'm feeling a weird duality right now," Murphy said a few minutes after Cliffs played their last encore. "I was all fired up before we played, but you get here and see all the faces that showed up for us -- definitely makes you a little sad." So what exactly is changing? "Everything. I don't mean to over-intellectualize this, but Cliffs of Dooneen was a group of people, a household, a period of time that we're shutting the door on."

A number of friends and well-wishers were backstage at T.T.'s -- including Murphy's mom, who greeted this writer with "Please try to be nicer to the next band," possibly recalling the lukewarm review I gave Undertow. Meanwhile Murphy was cornered by a fan: "So you're not going to veer too far away from your old sound, right?" Murphy rolled his eyes to indicate that yes, they were. "So what do you mean, different?" the fan persisted. "You mean Smashing Pumpkins, or you mean ABBA?" "Neither," Murphy replied. "It's gonna be Bachman-Turner Overdrive all the way."

Some of the mystery got cleared up the next morning, when Crotty met me at the 1369 Coffeehouse with a copy of Superfly's demo tape, as yet unheard by anyone outside the band's inner circle. "The first song's called `Sex,' and the second's `Royale with Cheese,' " he announced with a grin -- the titles alone mark a change from the lofty themes favored by Cliffs. Then he looked away while I slipped the headphones on. "Sex" kicked in with a lurching bass line and metallic, alterna-rock guitar leads. It's a good song, though not a million miles away from the raunchier direction that the Cliffs were moving in. But it's tighter and punchier than nearly anything on either Cliffs album. Murphy's voice still reaches for the skies, but the subject of sexual paranoia (the chorus hook is "I don't believe in the sex you want") marks a turn to the nitty-gritty.

"Royale" does introduce a new sound though -- not quite BTO, but definitely on the fuzz-guitar, rock-animal side of things. The title's Pulp Fiction reference never turns up in the lyric, but it does suit the lowlife feel of the words and music (Chorus: "I'm going full-on down to the sea again, going full-on down the drain"). An obvious local parallel would be Heretix, who took a raunchier turn on their third album (The Adventures of Super Devil, the best thing that now-defunct band ever did). Cliffs/Superfly also seem to be coming into their own. Suddenly it makes more sense that Cliffs chose the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" for their last encore at T.T.'s; the new material seems designed to shake their goody-goody image once and for all.

"Well, we're still nice guys," Crotty said when the tape is over. "This is just something that's been developing for a while with us, a more in-your-face kind of thing. Like the title `Royale with Cheese' -- it started as a joke but it sounded good, so let's just use it and not give a bollocks about it."

It's lately been an open question where Cliffs of Dooneen fit on the local scene. Their story was a familiar one: signed by a major label, stirred up a minor national buzz, released a single ("Through an Open Window") that got some MTV play. Picked up some criticism along the way, notably for a resemblance to mid-period U2 (a resemblance the band have always denied, but trust me, it's there -- especially on the first album, The Dog Went East and God Went West). Got more thoughtful on their second album, Undertow, some of which dealt with the career hurdles they were facing. ("The first album came out and we sat there and watched it die. That's why the second was so dark and cynical," Crotty says.) Parted company with Critique (the band claim their career was sabotaged when they couldn't get a national tour funded while "Window" was charting) and went back to the clubs with their tails between their legs -- though they rejuvenated somewhat by beginning to play acoustic sets in local Irish pubs.

There have been fewer gigs in the past two years, though a renewed spirit has come through in the ones they've played (notably last year's WFNX Christmas party, where they pulled out an unlikely but successful cover of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer."). And Crotty says that the real work has been done behind the scenes. Although they haven't released anything since Undertow, they've recorded more than 50 songs in recent studio sessions -- some with Mike Denneen, some with Paul Hager (brother of The Elevator Drops' Josh Hager), and some with local promoter/entrepreneur Michael Striar (who produced the two songs I heard). A six-song EP will be released in late winter, and some of the new songs will be on the eventual Superfly album, but others will be deemed Cliffs songs and thrown out.

So where did they get the money to record four albums' worth of material? "You're asking me!", Crotty replies. "We've been lucky in that we could take up and play a couple of shows, get some money, and go into the studio with it. Splitting up was something we never thought about doing. It baffles me, but we're closer than we ever were -- I mean, we spend more time together than some guys spend with their wives."

It's only recently that they've chosen the name change as a way of wiping the slate clean. "We didn't want to run it into the ground. To a certain extent we were classified as Celtic rockers, and we never thought we were that. I'm from Ireland and Eric's parents are Irish, but I always thought we were just a rock band. Not to sound pompous, but I felt we weren't taken as seriously as we could have been." And yes, they've checked to make sure that the folks who made the Superfly films hadn't copyrighted the name, and neither had Curtis Mayfield. "I know we're taking a risk, but that's fine. We're not going away, we've got something new and exciting, and we're looking forward to giving it to you."

Last week's show was a last go-round for the Cliffs repertoire, and it peaked with the latest of their out-of-character covers, the Velvet Underground's "Rock & Roll," along with beyond-urgent versions of the best song on each Cliffs album, "Causeway" and "Through an Open Window." Crotty smiles when I ask what they'll do when audiences at Superfly gigs start shouting for those tunes. "I'll look back at them and I'll say, `Cliffs of who?' "


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