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Isaac Alderson

Columns, How to Be Irish in Philly

How to Be Irish In Philly This Week

Double proof that you don’t have to be Irish to be an Irish musician: Isaac Alderson and Jonas Fromseier.

Isaac Alderson was 11 or 12 when he discovered Irish music. A friend of his mother’s gave him a set of practice pipes and he was hooked. By the time he was 17, he was being paid to anchor Irish sessions in his native Chicago. At the 2002 Fleadh Cheoil in Ireland—the Superbowl of traditional musicians—Alderson was named the All-Ireland Senior Champion in three instruments, uilleann pipes, flute and whistle, becoming the first American ever to perform that particular hat trick.

Alderson will be on stage at the Irish Center this Saturday, bringing with him Fromseier, the Danish-born bouzouki and banjo player who, with a grant from the Danish government, wound up in Galway studying Irish music after a stint with a Danish Irish trad group called “The Trad Lads.” (The Danes, while not Celtic, do have an Irish connection: They conquered the little island long ago when they were members of the well known group, the Vikings.)

Before the Vikings land here, check out “Cherish the Ladies,” Joanie Madden’s fabulous girl group, performing at the Sellersville Theatre on Friday night. Band members change, but the quality of these amazing musicians never dims. Plus, Madden is a hoot.

Another unusual sighting this week: Belfast-born indie musician Henry Cluney from the group Stiff Little Fingers will be performing at Kung Fu Necktie in Philadelphia on Sunday.

Sunday is also the second in a series of fundraisers for the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Parade, this one at AOH 39 on Tulip Street in Philly. On board for this one: Winners of the “best Irish band” in the US battle of the bands sponsored by Strangford Lough Brewing Company in Northern Ireland, Jamison Celtic Rock.

For Valentine’s Day, the Irish Immigration Center is hosting a luncheon and party at the Irish Center, 6815 Emlen Street, in Philadelphia on Monday at noonish. Great food, music, dancing—and love, they promise, will be in the air.

This week, two great Irish plays debut as part of the Philadelphia Irish Theater Festival. The Abbey Theatre of Dublin’s “Terminus,” a playing serial killers, avenging angels, and love-sick demons (of course, you’ll laugh), is at the Zellerbach Theatre. On February 16 and 17, Father David Cregan, OSA, PhD, associate professor of theatre and English, will host a post-show question and answer session with the cast. On February 17, catch the opening of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, one of the Martin McDonagh’s wildly dark and comic plays about a soldier who returns home to find that his only friend. Wee Thomas, the cat, has been assassinated. Bad things ensue. This one is at Plays and Players Theatre on Delancey Street in Philadelphia.

On Friday, Boston’s Matt and Shannon Heaton (with new baby, Nigel!) will be performing at Trinity Episcopal Church in Swarthmore. Shannon, whose newest CD is “The Blue Dress,” was named Live Ireland’s Female Musician of the year two years running (2010 and 2011).

Friday night is also the kick-off concert for the Mid-Winter Scottish-Irish Festival in Valley Forge, now in its 19th year of making winter bearable for fans of Celtic everything. There’s music, drink, food, dancing, and Irish tchotchkes for sale. Always fun.


All-Ireland Champ Isaac Alderson, Singularly Focused on the Music He Loves

Isaac Alderson

Isaac Alderson, on one of the several instruments at which he excels, the flute.

Isaac Alderson is many things…

At age 27, he‘s young.

As a musician, he’s talented in a manner many dream of but few can lay claim to: In 2002, he was named the All-Ireland Senior Champion on the flute, the whistle and the uillean pipes, in the process making this Chicago native the first American since Joanie Madden to win a tin whistle championship.

For a profession, he is making a living playing the Irish music he loves. “Irish music… I came across it when I was 11 or 12. My mom had a friend who gave me my first practice set of pipes, and I started playing them at 14. The pipes, they’re the most awkward thing for a beginner…I was really enthusiastic about it; through my high school years it was almost like an obsession. I practiced all the time,” Alderson recalled.

“I grew up in a musical household, not Irish music, but my dad had been a professional musician for a short time when he was young. He played the bass, the guitar, the harmonica. I played the saxophone when I was 10.”

Alderson’s teachers, once he discovered his passion for Irish music, were the likes of John Williams, Laurence Nugent, Al Purcell and Kieran O’Hare.

“I had a lot of people helping my interest along the way. I played a session in Evanston, and I learned a lot, hearing them play. Laurence Nugent was a primary influence.”

“My parents, my mother especially, worried about me a lot, about whether I’d be all right financially. When I was 17, my parents said, ‘Well, we think it’s about time you got a job,” and then I got handed down the session at The Hidden Shamrock in Chicago, paying $75,” Alderson laughed.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 2005, Alderson made the decision to move to New York to pursue professionally the career that had begun as a fascination with Irish music and culture.

“I never saw myself getting into it in a professional capacity… I had no idea I’d ever make any money in it at all. New York’s a great place. There are tons of bars to play in, and always lots of traffic from Ireland… you don’t feel like you’re stepping on each other’s music toes.”

There’s a regular crowd of Irish musicians in New York, many of them around the same age, having arrived in the city about the same time. A camaraderie has developed among them, and an ease in playing together.

For Alderson, a collaboration between two of those musicians in particular has emerged: Fiddle player Grainne Murphy and guitar player Alan Murray.

“Alan and Grainne and I started playing together about two and a half years ago, a regular session at the Pig ‘n’ Whistle on 3rd. Six hours of playing together every Sunday for two years… slowly over the course of time, we’ve started to feel really comfortable together musically. We work very well together.”

The Philadelphia Ceili Group has thoughtfully and affectionately arranged for the trio to play at The Irish Center tonight, Friday, April 30, at 8:30 p.m. A last-minute scheduling conflict for Murray is bringing John Walsh and his guitar to town instead with Alderson and Murphy.

“I’ve played loads with Johnny. He was born in The Bronx, but raised in Kilkenny… he’s a remarkably versatile trad musician. He often plays with Paddy Keenan. He also has a recording studio in Westchester.”

The same studio, in fact, where Grainne Murphy recorded her recently launched CD, “Short Stories.”

Murphy hails from Boston, where she was gifted with her first fiddle at the tender age of 4. She learned to play from County Clare’s All-Ireland champion fiddler, Seamus Connolly.

Alderson is effusive in his praise for Murphy, with whom he “absolutely loves“ playing. In addition to her talent on the fiddle, “she has an incredible ability to pursue lots of different things at once. She’s a lawyer by trade, and an avid runner… she maintained her job as a lawyer, finished up her solo recording, kept up her running, and went back and forth to Massachusetts to help her brother, Patrick, in his campaign for city council, which he won.”

For Alderson, for now, his focus is on the music.

“It’s not a glamorous living, but I make enough to get by, and to have fun at the same time. I have thought at times of finding something a little more stable,” Alderson mused.

There doesn’t seem to be much need for that anytime soon. In addition to his regular gigs with Murphy and Murray, Alderson is pretty well booked.

“I freelance, and I get a lot of gigs by virtue of playing the pipes… I get way more gigs as a piper than as a flutist. They share me, I guess. The pipes are the quintessential Irish instrument, especially for stage gigs; people like to see the pipes.”

Oh, yes, Isaac Alderson is many things, including modest.

He can be seen playing with Shannon Lambert-Ryan, Fionan De Barra and Cheryl Prashker in RUNA.

He can be found performing with the group Jameson’s Revenge.

He recently returned from touring with Celtic Crossroads, and is set to go back out on the road with them in July.

And he is working on his first solo CD, which he hopes to finish up this June.

“What I like best above everything else is just playing tunes…playing trad music in its unadorned form.”

For information on their Philadelphia Ceili Group performance, Friday, April 30, visit their Web site.