With St. Patrick’s Day a few weeks out, a trio of local promoters is pouring a triple shot of Irish music distilled on the Emerald Isle itself. While the holiday is a handy excuse for importing some musical talent, the artists admit that St. Patrick’s Day is a much different occasion in the U.S. from the way it’s celebrated at home.
Irish-born Cathy Jordan, vocalist, percussionist and bandleader of Dervish, remembers a subdued holiday.
“St. Patrick’s Day for me growing up was you put on the shamrock and go to Mass, and there wasn’t much more than that,” she said. “There might have been a small parade, but there wasn’t anything the size and scale of America’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.”
Dervish, a six-piece band that describes its sound as “magical Irish traditional music,” plays Sunday in a performance hosted by Ten Pound Fiddle. The group was founded in 1989, and Jordan joined the band in 1991. The group traces its cultural lineage to some of the early stars of traditional Irish music.“We’re a traditional group based out of (County) Sligo, which is a very rich part of the country for music,” Jordan explained.
James Morrison and Michael Coleman, both from County Sligo, emigrated to the U.S. in the 1910s and were some of the first musicians to record traditional Irish music.
“The music of Sligo became world famous, because they were the first to be recorded,” Jordan said. “The tunes they recorded are like the pop music of traditional music.”
Like most traditional Irish outfits, Dervish draws on Ireland’s rich history of folk music, especially its dance music. While the melodies of these songs trace back a century or more, Irish groups in the 20th century began experimenting with accompaniment, adding in instruments like bouzouki, mandolin and guitar.
“It makes the tunes sound very different,” Jordan said. “That creates the Dervish sound. The tunes we put together are our own arrangements.”
Before Dervish takes the stage Sunday, Greater Lansing audiences will have two other opportunities to take in some traditional Irish music. Pioneering Irish group the Chieftains plays the Wharton Center Thursday, and guitarist/singer Tim O’Shea comes to REO Town’s Robin Theatre Friday.
Paddy Moloney, who has lead the Chieftains for over half a century, remembers his first exposure to American-style St. Patrick’s Day in 1960s New York.
“I did get a bit of a shock the first time,” he recalled. “Everything was green. It was so over-the-top.”
Moloney founded the Chieftains in 1962, and the band has seen several lineup changes over the years. The current touring lineup features Moloney alongside Matt Molloy on flute and Kevin Conneff on bodhran and vocals. Moloney plays tin whistle and an instrument called uilleann (pronounced “ill-yan”) pipes. Similar in some ways to a Scottish bagpipe, uilleann pipes is a fully chromatic, two-octave instrument that looks something like a miniature pipe organ crossed with a fireplace bellows.
“It’s quite an animal,” Moloney said with a laugh.
The Chieftains’ take on Irish music is broad and inclusive. The group has performed and/or recorded with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Madonna, Sting and Roger Daltrey. Of all the group’s collaborations, one sticks out in Moloney’s mind.
“I never thought we’d work with the Rolling Stones,” he said.
The two groups combined to record “The Rocky Road to Dublin” for the Chieftains’ 1995 album, “Long Black Veil.” Singer Mick Jagger also joins the Chieftains on the album’s title track.
“They were supposed to arrive at 2 (p.m.), and they got there at 7 with their whole entourage. It was a great commotion,” Moloney said. “We had a right good session and a few pints of Guinness.”
The group also charts a broad course through history. Its touring show includes a commemoration of 1916’s Easter Rising, where Irish fighters sought to cast off British rule. (“We said goodbye to our neighbors,” in Moloney’s words.) But the show also celebrates the San Patricios — Irish fighters who joined up with Mexicans to combat a U.S. invasion in 1846 — as well as anti-Apartheid forces in South Africa.
“We pay tribute to Nelson Mandela,” Moloney said. “He loved Ireland, and we supported him.”
While the touring core of the Chieftains is a trio, the group doesn’t travel lightly. Joining the band on this tour is fiddler/dancer Jon Pilatzke, harpist/keyboardist Triona Marshall, vocalist/percussionist Alyth McCormack, fiddler/saxophonist Tara Breen, guitarist Tim Edey and dancers Cara Butler and Nathan Pilatzke. The group will also be joined Thursday by Lansing’s own Glen Erin Pipe Band and singers from the Haslett High School choir and MSU’s Department of Theatre.
For those looking for a more intimate experience, O’Shea will be joined Friday by fiddler/mandolinist Philip Crickard for a night of Irish tunes in the 100-seat Robin Theatre. The singer/guitarist, who grew up in Killarney, Ireland, fell into Irish music early.
“It was unavoidable, I suppose,” he said. “We played at school. My father and grandmother were musicians, so it was in the family. My mother was a good dancer.”
All three groups are on tours that keep them in the U.S. through at least St. Patrick’s Day. O’Shea has dates throughout the Midwest and will be playing Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day. Dervish has a handful of Michigan dates before heading out to the East Coast, while the Chieftains are on a nationwide tour through March 20.
While this country’s exuberant St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are foreign to these traveling musicians, Jordan can see why Americans, especially Irish-Americans, would want to make a big deal of it.
“In Ireland, we are surrounded by Irish culture. We never had a need to celebrate it to that degree, because we celebrate it all the time,” she said. “In America, you can bring your Irish-ness out of the wardrobe and celebrate something you miss. We don’t miss it here, it’s here all the time, but people in America miss that part of their culture and use St. Patrick’s Day to express that love of the homeland.”
7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 3 Tickets start at $40/$15 students Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com
With Philip Crickard 7 p.m. Friday, March 4 $15 The Robin Theatre 1105 S. Washington Ave., Lansing therobintheatre.com
7 p.m. Sunday, March 6 $25/$20 members/$5 students MSU Community Music School 4930 S. Hagadorn Road, East Lansing (517) 337-7744, tenpoundfiddle.org