'Christmas for Irish musicians'

Local musicians gear up for full day of St. Patrick's Day gigs

Ann Arbor singer/songwriter Mike Vial will perform a set of mostly Irish favorites at the Claddagh Irish Pub on St. Patrick's Day.
Photo by Ronald Werntz

Local musician Mike Lynch will begin this year’s St. Patrick’s Day at 7 a.m. with a four-hour gig at East Lansing’s Dublin Square. His day concludes with a three-hour set at Lansing Brewing Co. that ends at 11 p.m. Sandwiched in between is a three-hour slot at the Green Door. It’s the type of marathon schedule Lynch has come to expect on St. Patrick’s Day.

“If you’re an Irish accordion player, it’s a 14-hour day. That’s all there is to it,” he said.

Locals may recognize Lynch as the accordion player from Celtic rock group the Lash or as longtime piano/organ player with Steppin’ In It. For St. Patrick’s Day, Lynch will play accordion with Americana/roots group Dregspel, which includes fellow the Lash alum Rob Klajda.

Lynch is just one of the dozens of musicians who will be stationed throughout Greater Lansing on St Patrick’s Day, providing the musical backdrop for the all-day revelry. And a full day of gigs, of course, means a financial boon for musicians.

“I call it Christmas for Irish musicians,” joked Drew Howard.

Depending on the day, you may find Howard playing banjo in a klezmer band, backing up a folk singer on pedal steel guitar or teaching rock ‘n’ roll riffs to guitar students at Elderly Instruments or the MSU Community Music School. But on St. Patrick’s Day, Howard churns out jigs and reels with the Stringtown Trio.

“The trick is to stack as many gigs together as you can,” he explained. “I’m playing two or three gigs this year, but I know people who are playing twice that many.”

Ann Arbor-based musician Mike Vial also subscribes to the gig-stacking approach. A few years ago, he booked nine hours’ worth of St. Patrick’s Day gigs.

“I paid a month’s worth of bills in one day,” he said.

Vial played his first St. Patrick’s Day gig in 2012 at the now defunct Black Rose in downtown Lansing. The next year he played at the Claddagh in Eastwood Towne Center and has been back every year since. This year’s gig at the Claddagh runs noon to 4 p.m., then Vial heads back to Ann Arbor for an evening gig.

(“It’s still seven hours of music,” he pointed out when teased about having “just two” gigs this year.)

Local musician Mike Lynch will play three sets with Americana/roots band Dragspel this St. Patrick's Day.
Ty Forquer/City Pulse

For Vial, the annual foray into Irish music turned into something more.

“It started off as a once-a-year thing,” he said, “But it’s inspired me to dig deeper into my Irish roots.”

Vial, who said his heritage is “37.5 percent” Irish, remembers an uncle teaching him his first swear words in Gaelic. Studying Irish music has helped him connect to his family’s history.

“Music is a great bridge for community, family and culture,” he said.

Howard said he doesn’t know of any Irish in his heritage, but said a blood test indicated 99.9 percent of his genetic history traces back to the British Isles. He knows that one of his ancestors lived in Liverpool, almost directly east of Dublin across the Irish Sea. His ventures into Irish music, like his experience playing klezmer music, give him a window of sorts into others’ heritage.

“It’s like being in a movie,” he said. “I get to visit these cultures that I don’t belong to.”

While a day full of bar gigs may include some surprises, Howard has a pretty good idea of what to expect.

“Typically at a gig there will be a dancer. The kind with the big, curly blond wig and dressed in a kilt,” he said. “Sometimes a bagpiper will show up, and that can be loud and obnoxious. You can’t play along with them — bagpipes are tuned between a B and a B-flat — so you just wait for them to finish. Bagpipes are Scottish, anyways. Why are they even there? But you just go with it.”

Drew Howard, seen here playing banjo with Heartland Klezmorim, will be playing across Michigan this St. Patrick's Day with the Stringtown Trio.
Ty Forquer/City Pulse

For his gig, Vial plans to hit most of the Irish favorites but said that 10 to 20 percent of the set will be non-Irish tunes.

“Even though it’s St. Patrick’s Day, people still want to hear some classic bar songs,” he said.

Vial also has some surprises in tow. He’ll be bringing along his mandolin and mountain dulcimer this year, both of which he has taught himself how to play.

While revelers hoist pints of Guinness and shots of Jameson, Howard steers clear of the alcohol during gigs.

“I don’t drink because I have so many gigs to play,” he said. “I’ve got a job to do. Other people have a drink while they play, and that’s their thing, but I would fall asleep. I’d probably get fired from the gig.”

Lynch takes a similar approach to the day’s festivities.

“I don’t drink anymore,” he said, “But I had my fun with the Lash. I drank a lifetime’s worth of Guinness and Jameson with that group.”

Vial will also be avoiding the whiskey this year. In addition to performing and driving responsibilities, the singer has a 1-year-old at home, which changes the shape of his day.

“My day starts at 5 a.m. with a different kind of bottle,” he joked. “But I’ll probably have a Guinness on stage. I’ll really celebrate on March 18th when the gigs are over. That should be the holiday for musicians.”


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