|photo by Kevin Gilbert|
by Susan Kepecs
Here’s your chance to get warmed up for St. Patrick’s Day – Gaelic Storm, at the pinnacle of pan-Celtic pop, whips up a tornado at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Sat., Feb. 19. Once a humble bar band playing weekend gigs at O’Brien’s Irish Pub in Santa Monica, CA., Gaelic Storm catapulted to international success by serving up traditional Irish dance tunes as the Titanic went down in James Cameron’s eponymous 1997 movie. The whirlwind band has blown away Milwaukee’s Irish Fest a time or ten and rocked the rafters at the Majestic, the Stoughton Opera House, and other venues in the vicinity, but this is its first appearance ever on the Union Theater stage.
The band’s seen some personnel shakeups over the years, though lead singer / accordionist Patrick Murphy (a native of Cork, he’s the only born Irishman in the bunch) and guitarist Steve Twigger, who’s English, have fronted the outfit since its start. The rest of the current lineup includes fiddler Jesse Burns, who’s also English, drummer Ryan Lacey, who grew up in California but drank in Irish culture by the pint over a four-year resident stint, and bagpiper Pete Purvis, who hails from Canada.
I had a chance to talk to Twigger about the band’s evolution the other day. Here’s what I found out:
Q: What led to the classic Irish storytelling that goes on during your sets?
A: When I met Patrick, I was playing in rock bands and he’d been doing backroom pub gigs. I was in a transitional period in my life. He and I would party out at my house – we’d have 25-30 people just sitting around telling stories and passing the guitar around. That’s a very old-fashioned way of entertaining yourselves. There were copious amounts of beer that went along with it, of course. And that’s the true story of how the band got started.
Before that I’d been in bands that did showcase gigs every two weeks – we rehearsed four times a week to get ready for that, and I was sick of it. I just wanted to play and have the music happen. So we got up onstage [at O’Brien’s] unrehearsed and made it up as we went along. We’d play the same music every week and the same people would come to hear it. We’d do the same song 200 times, but it was always different because of somebody’s reaction to it, or because of what had happened that day with one of us, or what was in the news. We reacted spontaneously to the people and events around us – the music was almost incidental. It’s same process today. Go put on the CD if you want to hear one of our songs exactly as you heard it last time. We’re very organic – every live show is gonna be different.
Q: How did your appearance in Titanic change the band’s trajectory?
A: We weren’t teenagers who’d just had their first beer – we’d already been around the block. So we were very careful and conscious of what was happening. After the movie the phone was ringing off the hook, but we’d set out to play music purely for the fun of it. We turned down many offers because we didn’t want anything to take away that pure joy. Those Sunday evenings at the pub were so magical – we refused to let anything ruin that. When we signed the contract for the movie – it wasn’t a lot of money, by the way – we stood our ground and insisted that they had to fly us back to L.A. for our regular gigs. That was where our purity came from. So when we had the chance to hit the road we said “we’re only gonna do this if it scales up our sound.”
And it has. We’ve improved our craft over time, but we’re the same band. Of course, we don’t do the Sunday night gigs any more – in fact we hardly ever do pubs now. We pop into O’Brien’s or some other small venue every now and then and it’s fun – you’re right there, practically standing on people’s tables, but it’s mayhem.
You miss some of that life and you don’t miss some of it. But what’s gone is replaced by bigger and better elements – more great people, more energy, more stories. And that all translates into our music. We’ve seen it before. The Rolling Stones are still out there touring in their 60s because it’s such a kick to be a catalyst to somebody else’s good time.
Q: Early on when you played Irish Fest in Milwaukee it was clear you were a party band. You partied hard onstage. How has that aspect of your show changed over the 16 years you’ve been doing this?
A: Behind the scenes there’s a lot of professionalism to what we do now. Other bands that think of us as party guys are shocked to find out about our work ethic. The comedians we all love practice their spontaneity, you know, and it’s the same with us. I love it that people want to party with us all night, but we do work very hard.
Q: Given the personnel changes the band’s gone through, how do you maintain the high quality of your performances?
A: I’ve often said that personnel change is an opportunity to go to the next level – it’s a shot in the arm. All our players have been fantastic and each brought new strengths to the lineup. I’m a very optimistic person and I like to move forward. I find musicians all over the place, and the more we get our name out the easier it is. The big change for us was when the first drummer left – he’s 67 and he’d been on the road for years and it was time for him to go home. But I set about finding a new one – I went to all the drumming schools in the country and asked for their most talented grads and that’s how we found Ryan.
Q: Here’s a followup – how do changes in personnel influence the directions the band’s taken, from really traditional to the pan-Celtic pop-rock sound you seem to favor lately?
A: There’s always been some of both. I’ve been with Gaelic Storm from the start, and my influence is wide. I listen to more rock in general than Celtic. My background was rock, I started playing in a rock band in 1976. We were doing everything from Led Zeppelin to Rod Stewart back then. So I’ve been an influence on what we play, and Ryan the drummer had a background in rock as well, though he played a lot of traditional music when he was living in Ireland. We all bring our enjoyment of different forms of music to the table. I think music in general has become more eclectic in the last 15 years – it’s less compartmentalized than it used to be. There’s this wonderful cross-breeding now, and we’re just part of that. It’s the convergence everybody’s been talking about for years – finally, here it is.