Rick Kogan Contact Reporter Chicago Tribune
They are road warriors with the gentlest of souls, these two musicians named Martin McCormack and Brian FitzGerald who are the band Switchback. And they will tell you that there remain great adventures and special joys after nearly 30 years of playing and writing and traveling together.
“One year we decided to log the miles we were driving. It was more than 35,000 and we decided never to log the miles again,” says FitzGerald. “Now, if I wanted to be a melancholy Irishman, I would tell you that there is a semi out there somewhere with our names on it. We’ve been very lucky.”
They have also been very good. “Fighting against being pigeonholed,” as McCormack puts it, they have powerfully mingled the genres of American roots and Celtic soul, writing and playing songs that have created a distinctive and engaging body of work.
They have produced, through their independent Way Good Music label, more than a dozen albums as well as three PBS specials and some concert DVDs. For three years in a row, the pair was named the Top Irish Group by the Irish Musicians Association. They have opened for Jethro Burns, John Hartford and Leon Russell, shared stages with Gaelic Storm and Chicago’s fiddle-playing wonder Liz Carroll.
Praise has come easy, as this from Music Connection Magazine: “The words ‘American Roots & Celtic Soul’ only begin to describe this unusual act, whose vocal prowess is as pure as it is unique. There is no denying the stunning vocal blends that are achieved by this duo."
Then there is this from the liner notes for their 2005 album, “Falling Water River,” a tribute to fallen soldiers in contemporary wars, written by former Chicagoan Ron Pen, who was a music professor at the University of Kentucky: “(This) is an astonishing ramble through the heart of Americana soul, a love story redolent of Walt Whitman’s lyrical verse. … It is the sound of America itself.”
But there are, on a consistent basis, subtler rewards.
“If you really want to make music for a living and for a life, you have to get out there and play everywhere,” says McCormack. “We will share our music through community outreach. We play retirement homes, we play churches, we play schools and we play prisons.”
“It is a good thing to get off the beaten path,” says FitzGerald. “There are a lot of small towns where people have a real hunger for live music. There is something almost religious and something certainly magical about a live performance.”
They told me that five years ago and they told me that again a few weeks ago when they stopped here to play this year’s one and only local appearance.
“We are still at it. Two hundred shows a year and there are a lot of other artists doing the very same thing, toiling away, driving from place to place to share their music,” says FitzGerald.
Their road began in the mid-1980s at the corner of Bothwell and Wilson streets in northwest suburban Palatine. This was the location of a tavern/music club named Durty Nellies, and still lively at 180 Smith St., its home since 2003.
McCormack was on stage with some brothers and a sister. There were 10 kids in his family, a brood that made up, as McCormack puts it, “the von Trapp family of McHenry County.”
He was wearing a green V-neck sweater while playing bass, guitar and singing. FitzGerald, who has eight siblings, was in the audience and was eventually lured on stage to play guitar and mandolin and sing. He and McCormack hit it off and would play together for some ensuing years in a band called the Wailin' Banshees, which focused energetically and effectively on traditional Irish music.
“As a rebellion against that, Marty and I started writing our own songs and playing them between sets. That basically alienated the others in the band,” says FitzGerald.
They absorbed all manner of sounds and words at FitzGerald’s, the Berwyn bastion of musical eclecticism conveniently owned by Brian’s father and two of his brothers. “Our music and songwriting were so deeply influenced by being there so much,” says McCormack. “It was our musical finishing school.”
In 1993 they formed Switchback and have been on the road ever since.
Somehow, during all the shows and all the miles, they find time to keep writing songs as well as a lively blog and newsletter. McCormack has also written a very good book about his growing up in Woodstock. Titled “Rose Farm Road,” it is now making the rounds of publishers.
Sunday they are performing at a place called Shep’s Riverside Bar and Grille in Lansing, Iowa, roughly 250 miles from Chicago and where FitzGerald lives with his wife, Maggie; they have two grown children, Chris and Siobhan. McCormack and his wife, Anne Baudouin de Courtenay, live in Rogers Park with their 4-year-old daughter, Aine.
Switchback’s schedule then takes them to Virginia, Florida and Colorado. In November, as they have for more than a decade, they will be leading a group on a tour of Ireland. Then in February they will embark on their third group trip to Costa Rica.
That Central American country is 3,500 miles from Chicago. You could drive there, of course, but Switchback and the 20 some people who will be joining them will be flying (there are still spaces available; more at www.waygoodmusic.com).
“It’s an amazing country, a tropical Ireland, filled with people who have a genuine kindness and sense of humor and an eagerness to get to know you,” says McCormack. “We do wind up doing a bit of driving there and the roads are pretty rugged. But there have always been good angels looking out for us, and if you are going to hit potholes, why not do it when it’s 75 degrees outside and there’s a bar on the bus?”
Chicago band Switchback keeping musical options open »
American Roots & Celtic Soul