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Seamus Kelleher

Music, People

Seamus Kelleher: Singing a New Song, and the Message is Hope

Hope, optimism and resilience can be rare commodities in the age of coronavirus.

You might not expect any of the above from an Irish musician whose last booking came just three days before St. Patrick’s Day.

Like so many Irish musicians, Seamus Kelleher—a Galway-born virtuoso guitarist-singer-songwriter and alum of the celebrated band Blackthorn—lost work when the pandemic triggered state-mandated shutdowns at all the pubs, taverns and clubs where musicians typically find work during St. Patrick’s month.

“I did the Green Parrot in Newtown, Bucks County, on the 14th of March,” Kelleher recalls. “That was the last. It was an afternoon show. And it was surreal because at that stage there wasn’t a definite decision made to close everything down. It was just drip, drip, drip. But the owner and staff could tell. There was a real sense of impending doom. It was a very strange gig, and we just barely made the best of it, as we always do, but there was the sense that things could be changing, and that was very sobering for me.”

Right up until that day, Kelleher had been extremely busy. In fact, he explains, he was on target to have the best year of his solo career. In January, he embarked on a cross-country tour that included Colorado, Indiana and Kansas City. After that, he finished a 23-day tour of Florida before returning to Philadelphia for March madness. “I had 200 shows on the books, all across the country,” he says. To then only get halfway through March before everything closed down, he says, “was like having the rug pulled out from under me … but I wasn’t alone.”

Other local Irish musicians have regular jobs—assuming they still have them—and music is a sideline. For about 15 years, that was the case with Kelleher, who was employed as a speech writer in the corporate world, penning addresses for the presidents of Lincoln Financial and Drexel University, among others. But for the past five years, Kelleher has been committed to music full-time. But now, as a musician with no conventional day job, losing work had an impact. He continues to perform “porch concerts” live to Facebook, and they’ve been helpful, but Kelleher has been unexpectedly fortunate in another way.

During the past five years, Kelleher has devoted roughly two-thirds of his time purely to the performance of music, a lifelong passion dating back to the days when he was opening for the likes of Thin Lizzy. The remaining third of his career he devotes to motivational speaking. And he has quite the inspirational story to tell.

“I suffer from depression and anxiety and I’m a recovering alcoholic,” Kelleher explains, matter-of-factly. “So my motivational speech really talks about my journey. I incorporate some music into it, but the idea is to give hope for those who struggle with mental health and addiction. I also talk about suicide prevention. That’s a big, big part of what I talk about. I’ve been doing that the past three years, doing more and more of it.”

On March 22, Kelleher received a call out of the blue from Texas A&M College of Medicine. “I had spoken there a few times,” he says. “The last time was two years ago. And they asked me if I would talk to faculty and staff because a lot of their people were just starting to really stress out—as you can imagine. So I did a Zoom meeting for several hundred of their faculty and staff, and some of the students. Then, I did a few more meetings for them. After that, they asked me whether I would consider teaching a two-week class for the med students on mental wellness because the topic that I talked about was mental health in times of crisis.” Continue Reading

Music, People

Blackthorn’s Lead Guitarist Says Farewell

Seamus is going solo.

After 15 years, Seamus Kelleher, the lead guitarist for the ultra-popular Celtic rock band Blackthorn—their name in Irish means “sold out”—played his last gig with the guys he calls “my best friends.” It was last Saturday night at an Archbishop Ryan benefit (that was sold out, of course).

That doesn’t mean he’s not going to sit in occasionally. But after a near-death experience and launching his first solo CD a couple of years ago—two events that were nearly simultaneous—the Galway native says he wants to take a shot at “getting my own music heard by a wider audience.”

Kelleher is in his late 50s, a time when every birthday party reminds you that you’re closer to “last call.” But a few years ago, he got up close and personal with his own mortality. After a show, Kelleher tumbled down a steep staircase at the Kildare’s Pub in King of Prussia, fracturing his skull and suffering a traumatic brain injury. He was taken by helicopter to the University of Pennsylvania Trauma Center in critical condition. Miraculously, he came through with no residual effects though, he jokes, “that depends on who you talk to—some say yes, some say no.”

He’s also the father of four young children, ranging in age from 7 to 13; vice president of Philadelphia firm for which he travels; and in addition to his Blackthorn gigs he’s been soloing both here and in Ireland, playing his own brand of Celtic blues.

“I cherish my time with Blackthorn,” Kelleher told us this week. “I’m going to miss the guys so much, all the camaraderie and all the Blackthorn fans, but I feel an obligation to myself to make time to do this. I can only serve so many masters and I want to be 100 percent focused on what I’m doing. With all that going on, I didn’t have much left for the family. I believe that unless you have balance in your life you’re not going to be happy.”

After his debut album, “Four Cups of Coffee,” he began doing solo shows in Ireland (Monroe’s Live and The Crane in Galway, and Portmarnock Country Club  in Dublin as well as Ulysses, a folk club in New York City, Puck in Doylestown, and lately, the Moose Lodge in Doylestown). He plays his own compositions and salts the evening’s playlist with covers of Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, and Dylan. And comedy. There will always be funny stories and jokes.

“People come to my shows expecting me to be serious while immersed in my solos, but I can’t do that,” he says. “I’m too screwed up an individual to do that. I see the humor in things.”

Then he tells the story of when the paramedics were trying to take a history from him after he woke up in the chopper, post-staircase acrobatics. “I see lights flashing all around me and I thought to myself, is this me going to the other end?” he laughs.

They wanted to know if he had a family history of heart disease (both parents), and about his smoking (“only when I drink”), drinking (“five to six days a week, and on the weekends it could be 7-8 drinks looking at each other”), and whether he had high cholesterol (“Yep!”). “And I know they’re thinking, this guy’s dead. Then they asked me what I did. I told them, ‘I’m a musician.’ They looked at each other and started laughing. I know they were thinking, with that history, I should have been dead 10 years before I had that accident.

“Well there’s no better defense than humor,” says Kelleher, who cleaned up his act after that. “You can disarm the most miserable bastard in the world with a sense of humor and protect yourself from the bad times.”

That’s something he can share with his CD producer Pete Huttlinger. Kelleher has been in Nashville with Huttlinger, a renowned guitarist, recording some tracks for a new CD. Not long ago, Huttlinger, who is only in his 40s, suffered a stroke, leaving him paralyzed and speechless. “But he’s playing now with Darryl Hall and it will be a while but he’ll be back,” Kelleher says.

The new CD, he says, won’t be as eclectic as the first one, which reflected Kelleher’s many interests, from traditional Celtic music, to Southern blues, to the music by famed Irish rocker Rory Gallagher. “That first album had everything but the kitchen sink,” he laughs. “The new one will have a singer-songwriter feel to it. I’m putting together 10-11 songs that have a common thread. There will be a lot more continuity.” He expects it to debut in the spring.

Until then you can see and hear him again at Puck in Doylestown and on Friday, March 11, at the Moose Lodge  in Doylestown. And maybe, occasionally, with the boys of Blackthorn. He’s not planning to stop the music any time soon.

“I’ve been been very blessed,” he says. “I’ve been in music 42 years professionally. Most musicians my age have long stopped doing it. I’m doing it more than ever and enjoying it more than ever. In last five years my playing has progressed much further than I ever imagined it would. And as long as I can see improvement, I’ll continue to play. Once that stops, it won’t be as interesting.”

See photos by Patti Byrd of Kelleher’s swan song with Blackthorn.