Music, People

Irish Musical Merriment Afoot with Maggie’s Boots

Maggie’s Boots is one of the many music groups gearing up for a summer of events after not being able to play live music very much over the past year. They are a traditional Irish music ensemble made up of Hollis Payer on the fiddle, Rob Curto on the button accordion and Melissa Brun on cello.

Payer has been playing music from a very young age and played violin, piano and guitar throughout her youth. Her interest in Irish music came after hearing The Chieftains.

“I certainly played folk music, but I didn’t know Irish traditional music until I heard what The Chieftains were doing and I just thought, ‘What is this?’ and I immediately gathered up all the money I could and went to Ireland with my fiddle and just traveled around for three months,” Payer explains.

She spent those months hitchhiking and going to music sessions and began learning traditional music. Back in America, she started learning under musicians like Kevin Burke and James Kelly. “I tell people that Kevin Burke was my first fiddle teacher because when I came back from Ireland, I moved to Portland, Oregon, and that’s where he lives,” says Payer. “I didn’t even know he was famous. I just started going to him to learn more about playing the fiddle.”

She notes that there is a deep history of Irish music in Philadelphia, but there are pockets of people playing the music everywhere now. Payer also teaches tune and fiddle classes which led her to meeting one of her bandmates.

When accordion player Rob Curto moved to Philadelphia five years ago, he picked up the button accordion. “I took a lesson and met Hollis. I learned from Hollis in her class and learned from the community here in Philly,” Curto recalls. 

Curto had a different path before finding his way to Irish music. “I spent about 20 years playing Brazilian music, mostly on piano accordion.” Curto says. “But I always loved Irish music, and there’s actually a tradition of button accordion in Brazil, so I sort of already have this connection to it.”

This is when their musical collaboration started to form. Curto began to learn more about the button accordion and was playing all the time. When he was playing with Payer it provided even more of a learning opportunity.

“There’s a tradition in Irish music of very close unison playing,” Payer explains. “Particularly with the fiddle and the accordion, so Rob and I decided to work on that. Then with Maggie’s Boots, we originally had a guitar player, but Melissa Brun came in and replaced him as our rhythm section and she’s excellent. She’s classically trained and came into this having a sense of groove and knowing the music, so we took off from there.”

Payer talks about how difficult it was to come up with a band name. After tossing around so many different options, the group landed on Maggie’s Boots. The name comes from a polka in the band’s repertoire by the name of “I’ll Buy Boots for Maggie.”

The ensemble setting allows Maggie’s Boots to arrange the music more by bringing in harmonies, counter melodies and rhythms that makes the project unique. Each musician brings his or her own specific skills to the group, while still keeping focused on the long tradition of the music.

Although the pandemic put a pause on live music for much of the past year, Payer and Curto got together and played music on Payer’s front porch. This, along with a Facebook livestream and virtual classes taught by Payer, provided an emotional lifeline through music during a difficult time.

Before the pandemic, Maggie’s Boots was planning on going into the studio and recording their first full length album. Now that restrictions have lifted, they are hoping to get back to that and are working on original material. Payer, Curto, and Brun all write original tunes. “So far we’ve each brought something that we’ve written and then we work on a range,” Curto explains. “And then the person who wrote it usually has a vision of what they want they want the piece to sound like, but we go back and forth in terms of arrangement and everyone contributes their musical ideas.”

The group is also very eager to get back to playing live in front of audiences this summer. On July 18 at 11:30 a.m., you can see Maggie’s Boots play the High Point Sunday Market on Allens Lane Train Station in Mount Airy. If you can’t make that performance, they will be playing at Rigby Mansion on July 25 at 1 p.m. You can keep up with the band through their Facebook page.

July 18, 2021; 11:30 am

High Point Sunday Market

Allen Lane Train Station

7210 Cresheim Road

Philadelphia, PA 19119

July 25, 2021; 1:00 pm  

Rigby Mansion

523 E Church Lane

Philadelphia, PA 19144

Performance with session to follow!

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