Last year, the Philadelphia-based John Byrne Band toured more than 18 states, hitting venues large and small with a mix of original tunes (from their first CD, After the Wake), throwing in “two or three Irish songs,” says Dublin-born Byrne.
“Then invariably at the merch table, people were looking for the Irish songs,” recalls the singer-songwriter. “The only thing we had were some old Patrick’s Head [Byrne’s previous band] which isn’t what we’re doing now.”
When the band—including Andy Keenan (who also tours with Amos Lee), Maura Dwyer and Rob Shaffer—returned home from their Midwest adventures, they started talking about doing an Irish album.
What they put together at Turtle Studio in Philadelphia isn’t exactly an Irish album. In fact, it’s exactly what the photo on the cover says it is. The photo shows a handmade sign on a country road just outside Lincoln Nebraska, where the band played in an old barn. It reads, in white paint: “John Byrne Band, Celtic/Folk, Tonight 7 PM.”
Packed with traditional songs arranged by the band, honed on stages throughout the US, it includes familiar Irish standards such as “Follow Me Up to Carlow,” “The Parting Glass,” “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy,” and “The Irish Rover,” as well as roots-style music including the poignant and arresting “The Lakes of Ponchartrain” (rewind alert!) , the ballad of an Irish immigrant smitten by a Creole girl made popular by Planxty, and “The Ballad of The Old Black Pearl,” written by American Jim McGrath (while on a ship by the same name in the mid-Atlantic).
“Andy heard a bunch of guys [The Reprobates] on Block Island singing [McGrath’s song], he bought their CD and learned the song,” says Byrne.
Before going into the studio, each band member made a list of the songs he or she loved. “And the lists turned out to be very similar,” says Byrne. “Some are straight-up barn-burners, pub songs, and some are the really delicate songs that we like to do best, like The Lakes of Ponchartrain.
When I asked Byrne which was his favorite, he paused. Turns out that’s as tough a question to answer as “Which of your kids do you like best?”
“I’m in love with all of them,” he confesses, laughing. “When you’re making the album you’re listening to the songs over and over, and you just have to stop. When I picked up the CDs and stuck one in the CD player in the van, I was really happy.”
As you may be. You can purchase Celtic Folk online at CDBaby and on Amazon or at one of the band’s gigs. They’re at Rosie O’Grady’s, 800 7th Avenue, New York, on Saturday, March 30, and Byrne and his bandmates do the Fergie’s Ballad Session on Sundays (next one, April 7) at Fergie’s Pub, 12th and Sansom in Philadelphia. The band will also be opening for Tempest at the Sellersville Theatre on Saturday April 13.