Ready for some maritime music, arrrr ya?

Swashbuckling songsters keep a legend alive

Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
At the Renaissance Festival in Crownsville, (from left) Silver Spring resident Craig Williams, Linthicum resident Brad Howard and Gaithersburg resident Darcy Nair, all members of the band Pyrates Royale, perform sea chanteys Sunday for visitors to the annual festival.

There may not be proof that pirates sailed the high seas singing sea chanteys and swigging out of tin mugs, but the Pyrates Royale make an arguable case.

In fact, the five-some of raucous bootleggers — only by name, not by habit — make it their duty to accurately portray the seafolk of the golden age of pirates, the eras of Francis Drake and Edward Teach, or ‘‘Blackbeard.”

‘‘The vision now is Jack Sparrow,” said Craig Williams, better known by fans of the 20-year-old band as Long John Skivvee. Williams, of Silver Spring, plays guitar and bodhran, an Irish drum. He has been first mate with the band for 15 years.

The Pyrates Royale began as a comedy troupe of characters at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville who did mostly improvisation and physical humor. Music came later, and it has become dominant in their show. Most of the members have stayed on board for at least five years. Currently, the group includes Williams, lone founding member Brad Howard (or Capt. Fletcher T. Moon), Darcy Nair (or Kat Fairbanks), Chelle Fulk (or Molly Stubbs), and Paul DiBlasi (or Drake Mallard).

Today, pirates have been popularized by films such as the Johnny Depp hit ‘‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” — and its sequel — and pirate-themed establishments, such as the soon-to-be opened Piratz Tavern in Silver Spring.

The Pyrates Royale, while glad to welcome more work as a result of the pirate mania, are well-versed in not only sea chanteys, but the history of pirates as well.

‘‘There are varying degrees of viciousness among the most well-known [pirates],” Williams said. ‘‘There are those who pretended like they were going to rip you to shreds, but never did.”

And then there are those who cut off a subordinate crewmember’s ear and fed it to them, he added, referring to the very vicious French pirate Francois L’Ollonais.

But these pirates aren’t here to rob or pillage. They’re on shore leave, or ’oliday, they say.

Before Jack Sparrow, there were the Pyrates Royale. In fact, before the Pyrates Royale, singing pirates — or pyrates, the preferred traditional spelling — were nonexistent, the band claims.

Members have come and gone — but don’t say they walked the plank, that’s only in Hollywood, along with ‘‘shiver me timbers” — and the band has lived on, for the last 20 years. The band performs at weddings, shipyards and private parties. Much of its time now is devoted to the Maryland Renaissance Festival.

‘‘They’re fantastic ... our home away from home,” said Alfred Goodrich beside the pirates’ tent at the festival, furnished with gifts over the last 20 years like ‘‘Brittania,” a busty figurehead mounted on the wall, skulls, maps and a large ship’s wheel. Goodrich is a cellist with festival act Gypsophilia, a Philadelphia-based band that plays anything that sounds ‘‘gypsy.”

The group rarely breaks character. Howard is tough and cool, a tattooed baritone to be reckoned with on stage. Fulk the fiddler is the quiet one, an observer of the hooligans surrounding her. Nair is most comfortable as one of the guys, and leads on songs that detail her love of rum ‘‘in times of peace and in times of war.”

‘‘If someone told me 20 years ago I’d make a decent living singing sea chanteys, I’d have said, ‘What’s a sea chantey?’” said Nair, who has been with the band now since the early 1990s. Nair, who lives in Gaithersburg, sings and plays a variety of exotic-sounding instruments, such as the hammered dulcimer, a stringed soundboard hit with a mallet, and the concertina, of the accordion family.

DiBlasi, of Wheaton, is one of the more boisterous pirates, partaking in off-color jokes on stage and interacting with the audience. His favorite antics include serenading a lady he pulls from the crowd with an innuendo-laden song. He became interested in maritime and nautical music after attending the monthly public sing by the Ship’s Company Chanteymen at the Royal Mile Pub in Wheaton.

‘‘People began to notice that although I didn’t sing well, I sang loud,” said DiBlasi, who also works at the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park.

Behind the performers hangs their symbol, a ‘‘Jolly Roger,” or skull and crossbones. But the icon is more menacing than the group admits to be.

‘‘The dynamic in the band is more like a family than anything else,” said Howard, the captain, who said he comes from a family of ‘‘watermen.”

‘‘It’s been a godsend now that piracy’s become so popular,” he said. ‘‘To be honest, we were pirates before it was cool to be pirates.”