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John Byrne


Pandemic Put the Kibosh on his Band’s Jobs, But John Byrne Gains New Fan Appreciation Online

Play it, and they will come, if only online.

For John Byrne, a Dublin-born crooner, fan appreciation is pivotal, especially when grappling with a pandemic.

Since suspending all concert venues of his eponymously-named band in March, follower outpouring for his regular Facebook “quarantunes” concerts has been the ultimate covid antidote.

“I have lost track of the amount of cards and notes of support I’ve gotten. I’m moved beyond belief by them – I don’t know what we did to deserve it,” enthuses Byrne, a Philadelphia resident. “I’ve done multiple shows on Facebook Live and the fans have been wonderful. People have tuned in, shared them, supported them, and used them to connect with fellow admirers all over the country and even the world.” Continue Reading


The CD the Audience Demanded

The John Byrne Band Celtic Folk, available now.

The John Byrne Band Celtic Folk, available now.

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.

How to Be Irish in Philly

How To Be Irish in Philly This Week

Blackthorn's Michael Boyce at a prior Penns Landing fest.

This is one jam-packed weekend if you like rugby, Irish music, dancing, and fun. Surely, one of those things will entice you out either to the 2011 USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships in Chester on Saturday and Sunday, the Irish festival in Mont Clare throughout the entire weekend,  or the Irish Festival on Penns Landing on Sunday.

Notre Dame is one of the teams competing over the weekend at the Philadelphia Union’s waterfront soccer stadium during the sevens—so-called because the team is made up of only 7, rather than 15 players, which amplifies the action. The matches will be televised by NBC, but only if you go out can you also enjoy the Saturday night concert by the Dropkick Murphys.

Speaking of Notre Dame, the AOH Notre Dame Division 1 annual Irish festival is this weekend too. The fun starts Friday night at St. Michael’s Picnic Grounds under the pavilion in Mont Clare, PA. Enjoy the music of Jamison, the Belfast Connection, Misty Isle,  the Bogside Rogues, and a ceili with Tom McHugh, Kevin and Jim McGillian.  There’ll be food, vendors, pipers, Irish dancers, $2 pints all weekend long and tickets are only $15 for the entire weekend. Doesn’t get any better than that. Oh, wait, yes it does. All proceeds from this annual festival go to support AOH charities.

It’s year 13 for the Penns Landing Irish Festival which draws thousands to the Delaware River for free music and entertainment along with plenty of vendors selling beer, food, and Irish stuff. This year, Blackthorn, the Hooligans, and Jamison will appear on the main stage. There will be nonstop Irish dancing and kids activities.

The events simmer down during the week (though there’s a session every night somewhere) until Friday, when the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion and the Rosenbach Museum present the world premier of “Stoker’s Dracula,” adapted and performed by Philadelphia actor Josh Hitchens. The story by the Irish writer will be told by candlelight in a dark room. Sounds like spooky fun!

Also on Friday night, catch Philly-based, Dublin-born singer-songwriter John Byrne with jazz vocalist Lili Anel at Milkboy Café on Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore. Byrne has received accolades for his debut album, “After the Wake,” and Anel, who grew up in New York but now makes Philly her home, was recently honored as best female singer/songwriter and best female jazz vocalist in the prestigious New York Music Awards.

As always, there’s more information on our calendar, the cutest, most cuddly calendar in the entire Delaware Valley.

News, People

Aon Sceal

John Byrne Band: Free tickets for the "unwaged."

When John Byrne was growing up in Ireland in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was common to see two sets of ticket prices listed for a concert or play: regular and “unwaged.”

“That’s a nice way of describing Ireland’s half a million unemployed, and this in a country of only four and half million,” says Bryne, a Dublin transplant to Philadelphia whose “John Byrne Band” has gathered critical acclaim with the release of its first CD, “After the Wake,” in 2010.

When he returned home late last year, he was walking into the Abbey Theater and found that he had gone back in time—there, again, were the special ticket prices for the “unwaged.” The unemployed were also welcomed—for free—into Whelan’s a live music venue on Dublin’s south side.

“It made me sad, but at the same time I loved it,” says Byrne, who has been in the studio recording his second CD. “It’s a true example of people just doing what they can to help others. Giving folks who are struggling to make ends meet, living on unemployment or welfare, tickets to a show isn’t really solving anything—it’s just providing something pleasant, a comfort at a time when comfort has had to be sacrificed.”

So if you’re unemployed and looking for a little comfort, Byrne and friend Jay Januzzi from the group Citizen’s Band Radio have 50 tickets available to their February 26 show at World Café Live where Byrne will debut two tracks from his upcoming CD. All you have to do is contact Byrne through his website.

Music To Remember Tommy By

Musician, radio host, and beloved fixture of Philadelphia’s Irish community, Tommy Moffitt, gave a concert every January at the Holy Family Home in South Philadelphia. Moffitt died last May, but his memory—and the music—will live on this Saturday as a group of musicians, singers and dancers gather to continue the musical tradition.

On the bill: the Vince Gallagher Band (Gallagher played with Moffitt and hosts the WTMR 800 AM Sunday Irish radio show that preceded his), plus singers Mairead Conley, the reigning Mid-Atlantic and Philadelphia Rose of Tralee; Jocelyn McGillian, last year’s Rose; Tommy Curtis, and Mae Roney. The Cara-McDade Dancers will also perform. Tommy Moffitt’s daughters will be on hand with photos from their father’s life.

While the show is for residents, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who run the home, are opening the doors to the public. Holy Family Home is at 5300 Chester Avenue, in Philadelphia. “Anyone who wants to celebrate his legacy or spend some time with the residents is welcome to come,” says Conley, who organized the event, which begins at 2 PM.

And big news about our Rose: She was just selected one of the Irish Echo’s “40 Under 40,” which honors young people from the Irish community who have made significant contributions. In the past, other Philly-region folks have made the list, including attorney and musician Theresa Flanagan Murtagh, Rose of Tralee director Sarah Conaghan, and Irish Immigration Center Executive Director Siohban Lyons.

Stolen Car His Lifeline

His car wasn’t going to win any beauty prizes, but George Lees’s rusty, trusty two-door 1991 Buick Skylark was his lifeline. Lees’, a longtime member of AOH Division #87 and its 2008 Man of the Year, has cerebral palsy. His car was equipped with hand controls and a bench seat that made it easy for him to get in and out.

His “lifeline” was stolen this week from Belgrade Street near his home in Port Richmond and Lees, who is on permanent disability from his 24-year job at Sun Oil, doesn’t have the money to replace it.

If you have any information about the car, call the 24th police district at 215-686-3240.

Music, News

Singing for the Swells

John Byrne at a recent World Cafe Live performance with his band.

John Byrne at a recent World Cafe Live performance with his band.

By John Byrne

I had just landed in Dublin in late July. My wife, Dorothy, turned on her phone and saw that there was a message from Laura, the booking manager from World Café Live, inquiring as to whether or not we might be free for a gig on Monday, September 13th. Now, I run the Trad and Ballad Session at Slainte every Monday—and I don’t like to mess around with regular gigs at a place where we have a great relationship with the owners and staff. So I told Dorothy to tell Laura that I do have a booking that day but if it’s a big deal we can definitely look at working something out. Laura replied, “Oh, it’s a big deal.”

Zoom forward about 6-weeks and we were at the Constitution Center on 6th and Arch setting up the sound for our performance at the Presidential Reception for the Liberty Medal Presentation. The Liberty Medal folks had contacted the World Café folks and asked them to recommend a band for the show; they had recommended us. The room was pretty bare and some workers were milling about moving tables and chairs out of the room. We finished setting up the sound and ran through a few songs to make sure everything was quality. We were set to play from 5pm until just before 7pm when all the VIPs would move outside for the presentation itself.

All of our background checks came out clean (ha!) and all that was left for myself, Maura Dwyer, Andy Keenan and Chris Buchanan was to show up respectably dressed and do what we do. There were rumors of Bono showing up although the official word was that he would show up only on the giant video screen to the right of the stage – this turned out to be the case.

On the day we arrived about 3:30 PM, escorted through the waiting crowds by big blokes in black suits, and couldn’t believe the transformation that the room had made. An area that functions as the cafeteria had been completely transformed into an indoor English country garden complete with park benches, fountains, patio furniture, excellent English-themed food, and an enormous arrangement of flowers and trees. At 5 PM we were given the signal to begin and as the VIPs were led into the room we began with the tradition tune “Merrily Kissed the Quaker” following it with one of my own compositions “A Song With no Words.”

There were politicians and faces from local and national news, photographers from Philadelphia Style Magazine, and all-in-all a very polite and appreciative crowd. About 6:45 PM, President Bill Clinton, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mayor Michael Nutter and others were ushered past the room to the stage. The guests followed to their section as we played “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Everyday”….and that was it. 

We got to stand to the left of the stage and watch the speeches, the moving video tributes from Bertie Ahern and Bono and the beautiful performance given by the Irish Tenors. A little after 8 pm we were asked to move our sound equipment as the VIP Room was to be transferred into the Press Room after the presentation. Once again, the big blokes in the black suits appeared to escort us, and by 9pm we were playing “Merrily Kissed the Quaker” again, this time at Slainte, preparing for our show the following night at World Café Live with The Young Dubliners. One of the TVs in the corner was showing highlights of the presentation—by then it all seemed just a little surreal.


A Little Lunch Music

Kathleen Murtagh enjoys the music.

Kathleen Murtagh enjoys the music.

It takes a lot to quiet down the regulars at Wednesday’s Senior Lunch at the Irish Immigration Center of Philadelphia, but this week the usual chatter din dimmed as Dublin-born musician John Byrne and bandmate Chris Buchanan serenaded the ladies—and gents—who lunch.

There was some singing along too, though the many song requests caused Byrne at one point to retort, “Ladies, you need a jukebox.”



John Byrne Can Fill a Room

John Byrne sings at World Cafe Live.

John Byrne sings at World Cafe Live.

Friends, family, and fans of the Dublin-born folk singer filled World Café Live upstairs last Saturday night for the party launching his new CD, After the Wake, his first with his new group, The John Byrne Band. Byrne was previously front man for Patrick’s Head, a Philly-based group with a large local following. They appear to be following Byrne in his new iteration—the event was sold out days before.

Singer-songwriter Enda Keegan opened for Byrne and his group, and Byrne’s brother, Damien, sat in—with his whistle—on several songs.

We were there and got some video.

Enda Keegan, who opened for Byrne:

New Band, New CD, New Bride: John Byrne’s on a Brand New Road

That's John Byrne and his new bride, Dorothy, on the cover of his new CD. Photo by Lisa Chosed.

That's John Byrne and his new bride, Dorothy, on the cover of his new CD. Photo by Lisa Chosed.

There’s a lot about John Byrne’s latest CD that’s autobiographical, but the line “I was a mediocre singer with a mediocre song” from his paean to Dylan isn’t. Not by a long shot. In fact, it’s hard to understand why Bryne, who grew up in a family of ballad singers in Dublin, didn’t come to music until he was in late teens.

“When I was a teenager, my obsession was playing football, which kind of gave me an out,” he says, explaining why he had no party piece when his parents and grandparents were warbling theirs in the parlor. “They just said, ‘He’s a footballer, that’s what he does.” He laughs.

Byrne has immortalized those evenings at his grandparents’ house in the track, in “Various Verses,” on “After the Wake,” his first CD effort since splitting from longtime partner (and brother-in-law) Patrick Mansfield with whom he was “Patrick’s Head,” a Philadelphia-based group that played to sold-out crowds in some of the city’s jewel-like acoustic venues like World Café Live and The Tin Angel.

From the opening chords, you know the song is going to grab your heart. In his handwritten liner notes on the song, Byrne admits, “the thing I miss most about being home are the nights when the whole family would gather and sing songs. There’d be parents, grandparents, brothers, aunts, uncles, and friends all singing their own versions of the songs they loved, the songs that spoke for them and through them. These songs and singers will always be my greatest inspiration.”

Those same inspirations appear again in other tracks, like Old Man’s Disguise, in which Byrne muses on how much like his father he’s become. “Like any teenage boy I butted heads with my dad,” he says. “But as you get older you get wiser and begin to see things from their perspective. You look in mirror and see you’re getting more and more like them physically. I have the same mop of curly hair as my dad. This song is about understanding what your folks are as people. You don’t often see them as people like you, but as you come to understand your own flaws, you come to understand theirs too. “

“Midnight in Dublin,” a song about wanting to call home but having to be mindful of the time difference, reinforced the idea that John Byrne gets occasionally homesick. “The homesickness is always there,” he admits. But he’s clearly put down roots in Philadelphia. Last year, he married Dorothy Mansfield and it’s his new bride—dressed in red—he’s dancing with in the Italian Market that serves as the cover photo of “After the Wake.”

“We took dance lessons for our wedding and it was amazing how much I reall enjoyed it,” he says, still sounding a little surprised. “It really fit the morning after feeling we were going for—‘after the wake,’ celebrating the life of somebody and hopefully moving on.”

Byrne first came to the Philadelphia area as a teenager. “I went where every Irish person went in the ‘90s—Wildwood,” he laughs. “The first stage I ever played on was in a bar at the shore.”

He didn’t arrive as a performer. His first job was running the go-kart rides on the boardwalk “14 hours a day, seven days a week, for minimum wage. And I thought it was a great job. You could go to the bar afterwards and the all-you-could-eat breakfast place after that.”

One of his songs, Already Gone, is set in Wildwood in the winter. It’s a “break-up” song with the memorable line, “I used to wallow here, with the men I followed here.” Anyone who’s ever gone to the Jersey Shore off season will pick up the mood immediately. “After I moved here and went to visit the shore towns in the winter, I felt that tremendous sense of melancholy and hibernation of the locals that exists for the months the tourists aren’t there. They’re sitting in the bar just getting through the winter, keeping tabs on Memorial Day,” says Byrne.

He caught the American folk music bug while he was here—he’s Dylanophile and one of his songs, Boys, Forget the Whale, is a tribute to his hero. After leaving college in Ireland (where he studied electrical engineering), Byrne returned to the US to try his hand at performing. But he didn’t want to be just another Irish act.

In fact, in the beginning, he tried to avoid Irish music altogether until bandmate Patrick Mansfield talked him into adding a few songs to their playlist. “Even now I’m very selective about the Irish songs I will and will not do,” Byrne says. “I won’t play ‘Oh, row, the rattlin’ bog’ for example.” He laughs. “At some gigs I was asked to play pro-IRA songs and I didn’t want to go down that road either. One of the ones that got me the most was ‘The Unicorn Song’ [by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem]. I don’t know how a unicorn song got all mixed up with Irish music. I’d never heard it. I’d say, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about. Are you sure you don’t mean ‘The Leprechaun song.’ Then I heard a tape of it. I was horrified.”

When he heard he was going to share a stage with Tommy Makem at the Long Island Irish Festival, he says he was ready. “I was going to say, ‘So, The Unicorn Song, lads. I have to ask and I hope you’re going to tell me this was your manager’s idea.” Unfortunately, we’ll never know: the festival was cancelled.

That’s not to say Byrne had rejected the Irish sound altogether. The most autobiographical songs on his CD have a Celtic lilt and one, The Ballad of Martin Doyle, is a trad song in the making. Traditional songs were all new once, after all.

“That song came from my uncle, David O’Brien, who works with a nonprofit organization in Northern Ireland that is trying to bring communities together,” he explains. “He tells this story when he’s trying to show people from different communities that they have more in common than they have differences.”

It’s the true story of an Irishman named Martin Doyle who joined the British Army to fight in World War I, lured by the promise the British made to the Irish that if they did the patriotic thing, the British would consider home rule. After his service, for which he was highly decorated, Doyle returned to Ireland—a post-Easter Uprising Ireland, where those who were martyrs to the free Irish cause made anything British very unpopular. He and the other World War I veterans from Ireland came home to less than a hero’s welcome.

Though Doyle joined the Irish Republican Army and again fought bravely—this time against the British–at his death he chose to be buried in his British World War I uniform. “When David was telling me this story, he asked me, ‘What do you think?’ What I think is that Doyle was trying to honor the Irishmen who fought in World War I and were betrayed by both the British and their own people,” says Byrne. He chose his British uniform, as Byrne writes, because it was “the uniform of another war that treated us like men.”

His uncle encouraged him to write a song about Doyle. “Usually, I can’t just write about something, but this one just came,” he says.

He’ll be playing it—and other songs from “After the Wake”—at his World Café Live CD party on February 20 (better get tickets now—it’s almost sold out). Joining him on stage will be recent transplant, singer-songwriter Enda Keegan, and Byrne’s brother, Damian, also a musician.

“After my grandfather passed on, those music nights at the house got less and less frequent, but Damian really took up the mantle and started them again,” says Byrne. “He and his group of friends get together at somebody’s house and do mostly ballad singing, like we did when we were younger. I’m really looking forward to performing with him onstage.”

You can also catch John Byrne and The John Byrne Band at O’Donnell’s at 139 North Broadway, Gloucester City, NJ, (just over the bridge from Philly) on Friday, February 12, and February 19, or at Slainte, at 30th and Market in Philadelphia, on February 15 and 25.