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How to Be Irish in Philly, Music

How to be Irish in Philly this Week

Hi, gang.

Here’s what’s what for the coming week as we head into a big month for local Irish (and Celts of all stripes).

Let’s start with Brittingham’s Irish Festival, Sunday starting at noon at Brittingham’s (of course) , 640 East Germantown Pike in Lafayette Hill. Be prepared for the long haul. After 7:30, the party continues inside and continues on into the night. Look for Jamison, Oliver McElhone, Five Quid and Bare Knuckled Boxers. Food, drink, dance, and fun for the kiddies, too.

Wednesday at 7:30, two Irish musical stars, piper Cillian Vallely (of Lunasa) and his concertina-playing brother Niall, perform in a house concert sponsored by the Barn Star Concert Series. It’s a cozy little space on Bainbridge Street in Philly, and tickets are limited. Contact the organizer to reserve a space: More details on Barn Star’s Facebook page. Tickets are 20 bucks. You can bring drinks or goodies to share. You don’t have to, but it really adds to the fun. Continue Reading

Music, News, People

Hall of Famers Twice: Kathy DeAngelo and Dennis Gormley

Kathy DeAngelo and Dennis Gormley

Kathy DeAngelo and Dennis Gormley

Emma Gormley was kicking to the beat of the bodhran in utero, laying as an infant at the foot of her mother’s harp, and up on stage at the age of three singing the Irish folk song, “Johnny Todd,” to a huge audience for which her musician parents, Dennis Gormley and Kathy DeAngelo, were providing “the background music.”

DeAngelo laughs as she recalls the moment. “They weren’t paying any attention to us as they drank their glasses of wine, then suddenly, when they heard this big voice coming out of this little girl, they started listening. Dennis said to me, ‘She’s going to be just like you!”

When Emma took up the violin at school, her parents weren’t surprised. Between them, they play a full orchestra’s worth of instruments. Kathy is a self-taught guitarist, fiddler, and harper who also plays mandolin and banjo; Dennis plays anything with strings, flute and whistle. The entire family sings. They occasionally perform together. (See a photo of the whole family below.)

Kathy and Dennis, who met when they were college students in New Jersey in 1973, have been the Irish trad duo (and sometimes trio, with other performers), McDermott’s Handy since 1978. They have two CDs, the latest of which is “Bound for Amerikay: The Irish Emigrant Experience: Coming to America as Told Through Music, Song & Story.” They recorded and mixed it in their own basement studio.

Their lives have been steeped in music. But in 1997, when Emma was 10, her parents thought she needed a group of kids her own age to play with. Then that year, a friend who was director of the Garden State Discovery Museum in Cherry Hill asked DeAngelo if some of her and Dennis’s students could play Irish music during multicultural month celebrations. They rounded up a few kids, asked friend and fellow music teacher Chris Brennan-Hagy of Philadelphia to bring some of hers, and booked Tom Slattery, an Irish storyteller, for the event. “This is how things always happen,” says DeAngelo. “You think, okay, this will be easy!” Continue Reading


They Are Women: Hear Them Roar

The ladies of Girsa

The ladies of Girsa

There was no grand plan. It didn’t start out this way. No one was advocating, one way or another.

But here’s what happened: The grand finale concert of the 41st Annual Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival (September 10, 11 & 12th) is going to shine a big, bright spotlight on female Irish musicians.

The sweet-singing Mary Courtney will open the Saturday night concert—a treat in and of itself—and the all-female Irish traditional band Girsa will wrap things up, most likely with their usual burst of energy. Continue Reading


Celtic Thunder’s Emmett O’Hanlon Headed to Philly

Emmett O'Hanlon of Celtic Thunder

Emmett O’Hanlon of Celtic Thunder

As someone who grew up with adults who loved the big bands, show tunes, and the occasional opera (I can still hum many parts of Madame Butterfly), I shouldn’t be surprised when someone younger than I am-say, 23, young enough to be my child—has equally eclectic musical tastes.

That would be Emmett O’Hanlon. The son of Irish immigrants (Armagh, Tipperary), this young New Yorker is one of the fresh faces of Celtic Thunder, the all-male, all-ages singing quintet that has dazzled audiences all over the world (and, notably on PBS) with their highly staged numbers that are, to borrow a turn of phrase from pop singer Meghan Trainor, all about that voice.

O’Hanlon will be bringing his voice—a strong, rich baritone—and a playlist of the songs he grew up with to the Hard Rock Café in Philadelphia on Friday, August 21, as part of his first solo tour.

“I always say I was born in the wrong age,” said O’Hanlon as we chatted by phone while he walked through the streets of Manhattan a few weeks ago. “I belong about 30 years ago. I’ll be doing a good mix of classical musical theater, a bit of crooner ‘rat pack’ music and some opera. And a touch of classical Irish—some of the things I do with Celtic Thunder and some surprises.” Continue Reading

Music, News

CD Review: The Immigrant and the Orphan

The John Byrne Band

The John Byrne Band/ Photo by Lisa Chosed

A few years ago, not too long after the release of his first, critically acclaimed CD, “After the Wake, “ singer-songwriter John Byrne was assembling a playlist of new songs for a second when something happened that altered both his professional and personal path. It’s happened to all of us. Life intervened, in this case like a series of violent microbursts.

“I don’t think there was anything wrong with the songs,” he said not long ago, sitting in the livingroom of the  Fishtown row home the Dublin native shares with his wife, Dorothy, and rescue dog, Frankie. “But then life took a few twists and turns and I suddenly realized I had more important things to write about.”

Over the past three years, he turned those more important things into the songs that make The John Byrne Band’s soon-to-be-released third CD, “The Immigrant and the Orphan,” such an emotional feast.

He runs through the litany of misfortunes, not all of which have been converted to lyrics: “I had an accident [playing indoor soccer] and broke my hip. I had a business setback. My Dad got sick. Dorothy and I were trying to have a baby—we were going through procedures every month which was like having another mortgage—and we went through a miscarriage which I now know is something that happens to a lot of people.”

It was author Anais Nin who said, “We write to taste life twice, once in the moment and once in retrospection.” John Byrne had a couple of years that he might not have wanted to taste again even in retrospection, but he did for this new release.

For his ailing father, whom he often calls “the original John Byrne,” he wrote “Sing on Johnny,” a modern day folk ballad with lyrics that find echoes in Dylan Thomas’s poem to his own father, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

“Sing on, Johnny there’s a war ahead, sing on Johnny, there’s a battle ahead, when the wind blows ill just take a deep breath. Sing on Johnny in the salty wind, ‘cause you can’t get to heaven in a sinking ship.”

And he wrote two songs about a subject rarely explored in popular music, the complicated grief and heartache of infertility and miscarriage. “I thought it was something that needed to be written—for me,” said Byrne. While the lyrics may open a barely closed wound for those who’ve gone through it, the songs proved to be healing for him. “I’m a very private person in general, but as a writer the only way you can be really, really good and touch people is to get at the very raw nerve of some things.”

What he didn’t want to do is upset his wife. “I talked to Dorothy and said if I record these songs I’m going to play them live, and if I play them live I’m going to tell the story, at least initially, are you okay with that? Are you able to do it? If not, I’m going to have to rethink it.’”

Dorothy, who is usually found handling the band’s merchandise at concerts, was okay with it. Byrne has already played the songs at his ballad session at Fergie’s Pub and at the band’s sold-out CD preview concert at the Tin Angel.

“When we were at Fergie’s, I sang “Betsy Ross Bridge,” which we went over many times when we were getting fertility treatments in Camden. [Bandmate]Maura [Dwyer] said to me, how can you sing that song? The thing is, once you write it and use it to get through, rather than having an emotional response you step back from it. Then once you record it and play it enough times, it becomes a song that’s not just for you anymore. The more you play it, the more people start to hear it, the song gains another meaning, the one other people put into it. It becomes a shared experience, not a single experience, but one that many people have had.

That is not to say that every song on the new CD comes from personal experience. “Diamond and 4th,” a catchy melody and “a warped ass story I had in my head” is about a man who meets up with an old flame and thinks the fire might be rekindling—until she asks him for money. “There’s plenty of autobiography in that song, but no, my ex is not a hooker,” he says, laughing.

While Byrne is a fine musician and singer and has surrounded himself with a group of top musicians (multi-instrumentalist Andrew Jay Keenan, who also performs and records with Philly’s Amos Lee; fiddler-cellist Maura Dwyer; multi-instrumentalist Rob Shaffer; Dorie Byrne, who is no relation and who sings and plays everything from accordion to trombone; drummer Walt Epting; and Vince Tampio, who plays bass and trumpet), he is first and foremost a writer. “A lyricist looking for a tune, but I think I’ve gotten much better at the tunes,” he says.

He does share credit for one song on the new CD, a provocative break-up song called “Lie to You.” The tune came from his brother, Damien, “my favorite person in the world,” who had written different lyrics. Byrne tinkered with them, relying on the memory of a trip he took with an ex during which he realized that it just wasn’t going to work out.

While you may pick out parts of John Byrne’s life in his new songs, what you won’t be hearing are Irish tunes. The John Byrne Band got its start as a Celtic folk ensemble and even produced an Irish folk CD a year ago, thanks to fans across the country who were clamoring to take home some of the songs they’d heard during the band’s concerts.

“That helped us get a lot of Irish festival things, but what’s good about those songs is that people have heard us playing them and have followed us into our original stuff,” says Byrne. And it is clearly important to him as a songwriter to have fans hungering for his creative endeavors, and not just a novel arrangement of a favorite Irish trad or folk tune. “I’m not complaining,” he insists. “It’s gotten us on stage at the TLA and other great stages to open up for the big Irish bands [The Saw Doctors, The Young Dubliners, Gaelic Storm, Finbar Furey, Lunasa, Dervish, Luka Bloom, The Irish Tenors, to name a few]. It’s always, hey, let’s get the Irish guy.” He laughs.

Another departure for Byrne: For this new CD, he’s doing something he vowed never to do, which is use crowd-sourcing. He set up a Kickstarter campaign to pay for last half of the production costs. “I thought long and hard about it because we’ve generally paid for it ourselves, through CD sales, but it takes a while,” he explains. “I’ve never been afraid to put it all in myself because I believe in the album. . . But I was talking to Dorothy, who works for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and so much of her job is working with the patrons who give money to the orchestra. A large percentage of their money comes from these gifts. It’s how the arts have to run.”

He had also learned from an industry insider that there are people who use Kickstarter as a way to spot new talent and worthy projects “to get behind.” It seemed like a smart move. It still has a week to go and needs only a little more than $1,000 to hit its goal. You can donate here and get your preview CD.

Byrne is certainly no stranger to taking chances. A year after the band’s first CD, “After the Wake” debuted and started to get airplay locally at WXPN and around the country, he quit his teaching job to pursue music fulltime. Of course, he held on to his part-time bartending gig at Kelliann’s Bar and Grill in Spring Garden. The arts don’t pay that well.

“The money hasn’t changed for gig in a long time,” he says wistfully. “After the recession, luxury items went by the wayside a little bit and music is a luxury. Still, there are ways of making a living at it. You definitely have to hit the road.”

The Band has crisscrossed the country, picking up fans in the Midwest and New England, and in the pubs and venues in Ireland they hit when conducting tours for American music lovers.

But no matter what happens, Byrne says, he’ll have achieved his goal. “The only thing I’m really, really afraid of is regret,” he says. “I have some regrets of the things I’ve done and not done. I wish now that I’d pursued soccer a little harder. I regret taking defeats and letdowns too hard. I know I couldn’t be a happier person in later years if I didn’t give this a shot, a 100% shot. I can handle failure. I can totally handle failure. Not everything I’ve done has gone well. But if I can walk away and say I gave it the best I’ve got, that will be my success.”

“The Immigrant and the Orphan,” which is due for release September 19, is unlikely to fall into the “not gone well” column. John Byrne may be raising the bar on what he considers success.
You can hear The John Byrne Band on Sunday, August 16, during the Celtic Afternoon at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in Schwenksville. The CD release party for The Immigrant and the Orphan is on September 19 at the World Café Live, featuring Citizens Band Radio. Tickets are available on the WCL website and from the band

Arts, Music, News, People

James Joyce, Set to Music

John Feeley, left, with Joyce's guitar, and Fran O'Rourke.

John Feeley, left, with Joyce’s guitar, and Fran O’Rourke.

Had they consulted a marketing wizard before naming their CD, “JoyceSong: The Irish Songs of James Joyce,” singer Fran O’Rourke and classical guitarist John Feeley might called it “James Joyce’s Greatest Hits: A Soundtrack from the Collected Works of Ireland’s Foremost Writer.”

If you’ve casually read  The Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Finnigan’s Wake, or Ulysses, you may have missed Joyce’s musical references, though they’re prominent symbols throughout his body of work.

But Dublin’s favorite son was a singer and guitarist, the son of a singer and guitarist, who was leaning toward a musical career before he was captured by the lyricism and harmonies of language. In fact, he once shared a stage with renowned Irish tenor John McCormack. And his wife Nora, the inspiration for many of his female characters, once bitingly remarked, “Jim should have stuck to singing.”

Though writing took primacy over a career on the stage, Joyce remained captive to song—from Wagnerian opera to the Irish traditional music he learned as a boy, what O’Rourke, professor of philosophy at University College, Dublin, calls “the music of the people.”

O’Rourke and Feeley, who is considered Ireland’s leading classical guitarist, will be performing Joyce’s greatest hits on Saturday at 4 PM at the Rosenbach Museum and Library at 2008-2010 Delancey Place in Philadelphia, as part of the Rosebach’s annual “Bloomsday” festivities, marking the fine June day (June 16) Leopold Bloom wandered the streets of Dublin in the 900 pages of Ulysses. The Rosenbach houses one of Joyce’s handwritten copies of the book.

O’Rourke, whose first “artistic connection” with Joyce came when he was 14 and sang a traditional song on Irish television, “a line of which occurs in Finnegan’s Wake,” revisited Joyce as a scholar because of their mutual interest in philosophy. He was delighted—and remains delighted—to also find the music there.

“The story, ‘The Dead,’ from The Dubliners, almost the entire tenor of that story, the ‘mood music’ of that story, comes from the Irish traditional song, ‘The Lass of Aughrim,’” said O’Rourke, whom I met, with Feeley, this week in the lobby of their hotel in Center City. “The story is so sparse, so beautiful, not a word out of place. The atmosphere of the story was inspired by that song.”

It is the recreation of an Irish family party attended by one of the main characters, Gabriel, and his wife who, listening to someone singing the lachrymose song about a lover’s death at the party, finds her mind wandering back to her teenaged sweetheart, Michael Furey, who died of a cold after coming to visit her. When the two return to their hotel after the party, Gabriel faces the truth that he is not his wife’s first—nor greatest—love. You can see and hear Feeley and O’Rourke performing “The Lass of Aughrim,” with Feeley playing Joyce’s own guitar, here. 

Ulysses is composed of 18 episodes and in each episode a different art dominates,” says O’Rourke. “The episode called ‘Sirens’ is the counterpart of the sirens who bewitched Homer’s sailors in ‘The Odyssey,’ [the Greek story of Ulysses’s travels]. The episode takes place in a hotel where people are singing two songs. One is “The Croppy Boy” and the other is “The Last Rose of Summer,” by Thomas Moore. Practically every word is quoted or parodied in that episode.’

Those songs are part of the program the two musicians are bringing to the Rosenbach on Saturday, then to the Irish Embassy in Washington and Solas Nua, a DC nonprofit dedicated to the promotion of Irish arts, next week to honor both Joyce and Irish poet William Butler Yeats, whose 150th birthday is Saturday, June 13. Their tour is sponsored by Culture Ireland (Cultur Eireann), which provides funding for the presentation of Irish arts internationally, and, in Philadelphia, by the Irish Immigration Center.

One treat you can hear on their CD but not in concert is Feeley’s rendition of “Carolan’s Farewell” on Joyce’s guitar, which is now owned by the Irish Tourist Board and housed in the Joyce Tower Museum since 1966. In 2012, O’Rourke helped fund the guitar’s restoration (along, he says, with a “generous donation” from New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon) by UK luthier Gary Southwell.

It went from playable to barely playable, but Feeley was able to coax out the tune. “It was in very bad shape to begin with,” says Feeley. “Gary Southwell dated it to 1830, which means it was an old guitar when Joyce got it. It’s not a top guitar which you can see the way the finger board is worn down. As a guitar, it’s not particularly great, and that’s being generous, but it’s actually a sweet instrument, with a small sound. It also has a small problem. The turning pegs are irregular. They’ve worn down quite a bit so it tunes in installments.”

But, he says, that didn’t diminish the thrill of playing it. “It’s amazing,” says Feeley. “You feel you’re playing a piece of history.”

Because they’re only scheduled to play for an hour on Saturday, you also may miss the highly entertaining banter between the two men. How did they meet, I asked them.

“I had John’s first album,” said O’Rourke.

“At least he had some taste,” Feeley remarked with a glint in his eye.

“That first album was fabulous. Happily one day we met on the street  and said hello,” O’Rourke continued. “What was your first album anyway?” he asked, turning to Feeley.

“It was just called ‘John Feeley,’ actually,” said Feeley, returning the gaze. “It came out in 1985. I was two years of age.”

And so, I asked, are you two friends?

“Oh no. No, no,” said Feeley, barely surpressing a laugh.

“Intermittently,” deadpanned O’Rourke. “We have a lot in common.”

“Yes,” said Feeley. “We live in the same country.”

You don’t need to be a Joyce scholar—or even a fan—to enjoy the JoyceSong concert, but a love of Irish traditional music helps. Purists may be thrilled to hear O’Rourke’s and Feeley’s rendition of “Down by the Salley Gardens”—one of Yeats’ compositions– which is historically accurate. That is, it may not be the tune you’ve heard or played—it’s been done by everyone from John McCormack to the Everly Brothers, the Clancys and Black 47. But it’s probably the one Joyce sang in his sweet though thin tenor voice.

You have a second chance to hear John Feeley this weekend. He’ll be playing classical guitar the the Settlement Music School, 416 Queen Street in Philadelphia, at 3 PM Sunday, a concert sponsored by the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society. 

Music, News

Celtic Thunder’s Emmet Cahill Leaves Them Laughing–and Crying

Emmet Cahill at the Irish Center in Philadelphia.

Emmet Cahill at the Irish Center in Philadelphia.

“Did you see Lady Gaga on the Grammies?” singer Emmet Cahill asked the audience at one point on Wednesday night at Philadelphia’s Irish Center. “Oh don’t worry,” hastily added the 24-year-old, who just recently parted ways with the supergroup, Celtic Thunder, to launch a solo career. “I’m not going to sing Lady Gaga.”

He could have. With an exquisitely and classically trained baritone voice, Cahill can pretty much sing anything—even a dry lawyer’s brief set to music—and still bring audiences to their feet and, on occasion, to tears. He could do wonders with “Bad Romance.”

The native of Mullingar, County Cavan, joined Celtic Thunder at the age of 20 and spent three years traveling around the world entertaining audiences filled with “Thunder Heads,” as their die-hard fans call themselves. If you arrived at the Irish Center at 7 PM on Wednesday, you would have been choosing a seat in the ballroom behind eight rows of them. They’d bought “meet and greet tickets” so they spent the hour before chatting and having their pictures taking with Cahill, who is warm, friendly, and funny whether he’s telling stories on stage or chatting with a roomful of strangers.

There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to his eclectic set list, which included fellow (circa early 1900s) Cavan singer John McCormick’s “Macushla;” the sentimental “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and “Danny Boy;” Lionel Bart’s “Where Is Love” from “Oliver,;” and one of the most emotional versions of “A Parting Glass” ever heard.

But there was a theme—a very personal one. These were songs he grew up hearing on vinyl, played by his father Martin, a music teacher. “Where is Love,” the poignant song sung by the lonely Oliver Twist, was the first song he ever learned to sing as a boy soprano.

The Irish tunes, including “I’ll Take You Home, Kathleen,” were “some of the old Irish songs I used to listen to,” he told the audience. “Bing Crosby, Elvis, ad Johnny Cash all sang a version of ‘I’ll Take You Home, Kathleen,”’ he said. “You know it’s a great song when it can jump between genres.”

He sang an Irish folk tune called “Cavan Girl” for his grandmother who, he said, told everyone who asked, ‘So, how is Emmet getting on,’ that they could see for themselves ‘on the Tube,’” meaning YouTube.

Trained in opera and theater, he also brought the skill and emotions of both to “Bring Him Home,” the iconic ballad from “Les Mis,” in which he appeared in 2004 as a boy.

Reminiscing about his time as a child singer, he recalled a gig he did with two of his Celtic Thunder mates at a theater where he’d once performed. There were old cast photos on the wall and when he “found the little fella—I was 11 or 12 at the time—I suddenly realized I had ginormous ears,” he said to laughter. “I went to my mam and said, ‘Did I have giant ears as a child?’ She gave me a look only a mother can give, that is to say, of pity and said, ‘Well, you grew into them.’”

Accompanying Cahill was Peter Sheridan, part of a terrific opening act, with his wife, Erika, known as Monaco & Alameda. Sheridan is from Milltown, also in County Cavan and he and Cahill have an easy, George and Gracie/Stiller and Meara comedy delivery that punctuates the music.

“We go back over 20 years,” Cahill told the crowd who were clearly quickly calculating—Cahill would have been four when they met.

But, he explains, when he first really met Sheridan, as a musical director for Celtic Thunder, their first exchange went something like this:

Cahill: “Where are you from?”

Sheridan: “County Cavan.”

Cahill: “I’m from County Cavan. Who taught you to play the piano?”

Sheridan: “A piano teacher named Martin Cahill.”

Cahill: “I know a man named Martin Cahill who teaches piano. He’s my father. “

“So,” Cahill told the audience, “Peter used to be in my house getting piano lessons when I was running around in diapers.”

“If I was lucky,” retorted Sheridan.

“No need for that,” shot back Cahill.

“That’s what I said,” Sheridan said to a big laugh.

Cahill’s first solo tour will be taking him to Buffalo, Albany, Boston, Connecticut, New York City and Atlanta, Florida, Texas, Oregon, Washington, and LA, before coming to a close in early August. Some Thunder Heads will be seeing him in more than one state—they’re that dedicated.

And, he said, most of the shows end the same way. He says, “It’s that time,” and the audience in unison, cries, “Nooooooo.” But he leaves them not only with “The Parting Glass,” but with a parting gift of sorts. Before the tour, he went into the studio for two days and recorded—virtually nonstop—10 of the songs he does in the show, which is available at the merchandise table, all ready to be purchased and signed.

“That’s my thanks to you all,” said Cahill, who went on to thank the audience at least a dozen more times. And it was all heartfelt.


Charlie Zahm Sings “Grace”

Charlie Zahm

Charlie Zahm

One of the performers at Sunday’s fundraiser for the restoration of St. Columba’s Church in Glenswilly, County Donegal, was the great Charlie Zahm. One of the best songs he pulled out of his hat was the one you’ll hear on this page. It’s “Grace,” written about Irish patriot Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford. They were wed just a few hours before Plunkett was executed for his part in the 1916 rising.