Dear friends of Switchback,
Welcome to the High Holy Season of the Year! No, not Easter, but St. Patrick’s Day Season, which for us began in February and will not end until around April 10th. We are pretty busy at this time of year, celebrating our Irish heritage through music with as many people as we can. And we are pretty far-flung these days too, heading across the Midwest and on to Arizona and ending up playing Kona and Oahu in Hawaii. It could be argued that our season never really ends.
But at this time of year I always go back in my mind to the early days before Switchback, when Brian and I were with the Wailin’ Banshees. This was in B.R.D. time (Before River Dance) when there really was no such thing as the Irish pubs we see in abundance today. Yes, there were Irish pubs in Chicago, but they were pubs that had Irish in them. They had names like The Abbey Pub, Sixpenny Bit, and The Goalpost. And there were Irish cabaret-style places like the Irish Village, which would have dances and bring entertainers over from Ireland. The Irish Heritage Center on the north side of Chicago was still a vacant high school, and Gaelic Park on the south side didn’t have the hall and pub it has today. It was a park for Gaelic football.
In those days during the mid-1980's, you were identified as being either a “greenhorn” which was an Irish-born immigrant or a “narrowback,” an Irish-American. Irish dance and certainly Irish music were still an “ethnic” thing, not the form we see today, embraced, celebrated, and often played and danced by people without any Celtic blood. And that is a good thing, in my opinion.
Still, as a band that was comprised of one greenhorn and three narrowbacks, the Wailin’ Banshees was an unusual group. That we also were four people, two of whom were 40 years our seniors, united in the love of Irish music was also unusual. We made for a fun but slightly dysfunctional Irish band, acting more like a family band than anything else.
Some of the pubs we played were only for greenhorn Irish. And in those days there were pubs that leaned heavily toward the IRA. And I don’t mean places that just sang rebel songs either. As narrowbacks, Brian and I were not always welcomed and always viewed with suspicion. But with Galway-born Bert McMahon along, with his easy demeanor, glint in his eye, and fantastic banjo playing, we were safe. Some pubs and events were more politically oriented. These were places where Irish aldermen held sway, and their lackeys would uphold fealty to the point of obnoxiousness.
I remember Brian and I once played a fundraiser for a northside Alderman. We were hungry and went to where the food was being served. As musicians it was customary to be fed at such events as part of the deal. We got two plates of mostaccioli and chicken (which people don’t realize is really the food served at all Irish weddings and events, not corn beef and cabbage) and were about to sit and eat when a crowd of angry looking men gathered around us.
“You bettah make a donation for the alderman,” growled one. “That food ain’t free.”
“Well, if it isn’t free, I ain’t eating it,” I retorted.
“Oh, you’re going to eat it,” replied one glowering lackey.
So Brian and I, hired to play and already playing at a discount for that alderman, literally ate with a circle of people standing over our table. In came our fiddler Mary McDonagh who was known and respected by many in the Irish community, greenhorn and narrowback alike. She snarled at the pack surrounding her boys and they skulked off. But we got a lesson in Irish politics that day: always bring the alderman with you.
When Jayne Byrne ran for re-election as the first (and to date only) female Mayor of Chicago, our band was hired to supply the music. And since it was an Irish event, Jayne had to prove her own fealty to the homeland. She made a rousing speech and soon someone was yelling, “Sing with Marty, sing with Marty!”
I was pushed over to the microphone where Jayne stood.
“Do you know ‘The Town I Love So Well?’” Jayne asked.
“Sure,” I said, knowing that the song is about 20 minutes long and totally uncertain why she would ask for that song. But we did it.
We were standing eyeball to eyeball around a microphone, Jayne belting out every word as we went through the whole story of Derry. Perhaps for her, as Mayor, it was symbolic of her aspiration to make Chicago a better town. “I can only pray for a brand new day for the town I love so well,” goes the last line of the song, which is beautiful, except it comes 19 minutes and 45 seconds down the pike. Jayne wasn’t the best of singers, but enthusiastic. Her singing was better than her re-election campaign though. Still I smile when I think back on her and those narrowback politicians. They thought like Irish and fought like Irish. Jayne allowed the filming of the movie The Blues Brothers in Chicago, and for that she should have a statue erected to her. But in true Chicago fashion, something better has been done: the automotive interchange that unites I-290 and I-90 and spins off I-55 a couple miles south is all named after her. Thousands of swearing truck drivers, scared visitors on their first foray to the Windy City, and I-Phone reading commuters hunker down at that spaghetti bowl of roadway every morning and afternoon. Jayne would have loved the chaos, I figure.
It was St. Patrick’s Day that put the Banshees into high gear. For at that time of the year not only did the regular pubs want a band, but the Knights of Columbus groups, the country clubs with their WASP-ish take on the holiday, and the odd tour boat filled with St. Patrick’s Parade revelers would be vying for an Irish band. And a lot of bands fought to have a slice of the St. Paddy pie, Irish and non-Irish alike. There was a group, whose name I can’t remember, that had the right idea to dress up as Germans for Oktoberfest, Italians for St. Joseph’s Day, and all in green for St. Patrick’s Day. But for the places that wanted a bona fide Irish band, we were a good choice and the phones would start ringing to hire us in January.
A typical St. Patrick’s Day would consist of four or five gigs of one or two hours, with a lot of driving between. There were no cell phones in those days, so I wore a watch and had to call each venue the day prior to confirm the start time, save a parking spot for us to quickly park, and most importantly supply some food to keep us going. It was supposed to be pulled off with military precision, but never did that happen.
We would try to dress well for the shows. In the early days we all wore different outfits. Brian would have an Irish cap on. I would have a vest and white shirt, and Bert would wear a jacket. Mary always wore a lovely green flowered dress. Later we got wise and had the three lads all decked out in matching Kelly green Arnold Palmer jackets with grey slacks. It was a good look and set us apart even more from most groups. We were an odd outfit: part Irish showband, part bluegrass group, part family-band, and part traditional Irish, and we didn’t give a damn what others thought of us.
The first gig would be playing on the boat the Spirit of Chicago. We would all pile into Mary’s Crown Victoria and put the sound system and our instruments into the trunk. Down to Navy Pier we would roll, and we would trundle out the sound system and set up for the early revelers. A group of excited step dancers, released from grade school for the day, would also be on hand to help us celebrate. These kids would have simple Irish outfits on. It would be several years before we would start seeing the result of A.R.D. (after River Dance) with the $1000 glittering, bejeweled dresses and bouncy curl wigs.
Down the Chicago River we would sail to where the river was dyed green near the Michigan Avenue bridge. Revelers would be out early, wearing loud green hats, scarves, and huge sunglasses. The deck of the boat would be swarming with Irish-for-the-day types, having green beer and enjoying the view of other revelers lining up over the bridge.
We would play several sets and then play for the step dancers. I would look nervously at my watch, for we had to keep moving to make our next stop at WGN Radio. We would do a radio interview and play a tune or two for Kathy O’Malley and Judy Markey. They both loved Bertie. Bert was a handsome man, with sparkling greenish grey eyes and snow white hair. His soft brogue could charm any lady within hearing distance of it. So Bert would chat with them and then we would play a couple of traditional Irish tunes. All the time, I would be checking the clock to make sure we would make our next stop on time.
And soon it would be on to a pub for another two sets. Depending on which pub hired us, that could be a dash out to Palatine, Illinois for a stint at Durty Nellie’s or over to Grandpa’s in Glenview for their St. Patrick’s celebration. Soon it was two o’clock and we were only halfway into the day. It was a tradition to play at FitzGerald’s, and so we would run out to Berwyn. There we would wolf down corn beef sandwiches and play another two sets. Paul and Mary McHugh would play for the step dancers, then we would get up and play. Finally, we would vacate the stage for the big act of the evening, the Dooley Brothers.
All the time, the clock is ticking. Now it would be close to 7 p.m., and I had already sung “Danny Boy” four times. We all are tired and Bert, not wishing to be rushed, would be seated at the bar having a beer and a shot of VO. Brian would be off securing some food for us to eat as we drove to the next show. Mary would be pacing nervously, her fiddle packed and her jacket on. And I would be trying to get paid. Somehow we would make it back to the Crown Vic, maneuver the big hulking beast out of the crowded parking lot, and running late, hightail it back out to the suburbs to a country club for their St. Patrick’s affair. Nothing ran smoother than Mary’s Crown Victoria after I got it up to 80 miles an hour. St. Patrick’s Day was the only day of the year that the car had its speedometer over 25 mph, and as I hit the gas, a puff of carbon would kick out of the tailpipe. Mary would nervously say, “Oh no, Marty, too fast.” But we had to get to the next show and set up.
Thankfully, the country club gigs would be rather subdued events. The manager would always look at us like we were savages brought in from the wild. And I guess in some ways we were. We would be set up in a far corner, and the general rule was to be “heard but not seen.” No drinks at the bar. Bert would have to get his beer on the sly.
The members of the club would come politely dressed in green in complete contrast to the hooting and hollering hordes that were crowding the bars 40 miles to the east. The whole evening would consist of us playing background music as they dined. We would have to dive into Irish-American standards like “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” And I would be asked to sing “Danny Boy.” It was never too long of an evening, and the great pay made up for us missing all the fun going on back at the clubs. But by this time the whole band would be exhausted, and there was a huge relief that all the clubs and obligations had been met with no hiccups.
After the last number was played, the guests would vanish like a receding floor. The manager, assured now that the band he hired had delivered and free of the need to maintain appearances, would invite us over for a drink at the club bar. And we would head over to the bar and have some drinks. Slowly we would pack up one last time for the day. We would all pile back into the Crown Victoria and rumble back into the city at a respectable 55 miles per hour. It would be about midnight when we would get to Bert’s girlfriend Eileen Fleming’s house. Eileen would have some tea waiting, and we would sit around laughing about the day and not really wanting to let the excitement of St. Patrick’s end.
American Roots & Celtic Soul