Switchback with Billy Shelton of the Spaniels

By Paul Schneider

It’s St. Patrick’s Day! What better question to put to a couple of grizzled old Irish musicians like Brian FitzGerald and Marty McCormack, than “What does St. Patrick’s Day mean to you?”

In separate interviews, they came up with the same answer.

“I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way, but I always associate St. Patrick’s Day with the beginning of spring and the end of winter,” said Brian.

Later in the day, Marty offered: “In Chicago St. Patrick’s Day takes on a celebration that spring has finally arrived. That’s the way most people look at it.”

See? I guess you know and work with someone long enough, you start thinking like them. It won’t be long before they start finishing each other’s sentences, if they don’t do that already.

“There’s added meaning and inspiration that comes with the holiday, too,” Brian added. “It’s like you’re on your way into a new beginning. You’ve made it through the winter. It’s like a releasing. There’s a lot of high spirits that accompany St. Patrick’s Day because the day is full of celebration.”

“You don’t have to be Irish to have a great time with it,” Marty added. “That’s what makes St Patrick’s Day such a unique holiday. It’s all inclusive, like the 4th of July.”

For Switchback, the holiday usually means playing a lot of shows in one day (what else is new?). But this year, with the coronavirus rearing its ugly head and nursing homes and schools taking precautionary measures, the band will have played only seven shows this year – down from an original 21 scheduled.

“It’s different this year,” Brian said. “We’re used to going from 10 in the morning until 1 a.m. driving all over the place through all kinds of weather, through the snow. And all the potato dishes that get served. I remember one place offered like 20 different dishes.”

Coronavirus-induced dearth of potato dishes aside, Marty agreed that there’s a different vibe this year, and he is grateful to Tom Lounges Entertainment in Hobart, Indiana, who let the show continue at the venerable Hobart Art Theatre.

“Everything was changing by the minute,” said Marty.  “By the time we reached Friday, it felt that this was to be the last show for a while.  Even the audience picked up on that surreal feeling.”

Marty and Brian’s “musical dad,” the great Billy Shelton, 85, surprised them by making the hours-long drive to Hobart from Michigan. The audience spread throughout the theater to avoid social contact.  Along with Takeshi Horiuchi on the bodhran, Switchback gave it their all. 

“I thanked everyone for not only being brave, but for making the decision to attend with full respect to the gravity of the moment,” Marty commented. 

Martin Hughes, a fan from Dublin, requested “Danny Boy” as the encore; the audience supported this request.  Switchback collectively dedicated the song to first responders, caregivers and medical personnel. 

“It was a very somber ending to what is proving to be a very somber time,” Marty said.

As of this writing, all of Switchback’s shows are cancelled through the end of March. Stay tuned for further developments.

By Paul Schneider

Ah, the life of a musician. Getting paid to create, to entertain, to pursue a passion armed with talent.

Practically stealing money!

Yeah, right.

Want to know a day in the life of a musician? Let’s follow a fairly typical day in the life of Switchback, shall we? On this particular Thursday not too long ago, Marty McCormack and Brian FitzGerald set about on one of their outreach programs, playing to four schools in one day, followed by a private concert after that.

Now, to be fair, five gigs in one day is a bit excessive. Switchback is usually doing three or four, but when kids are involved, what’s another show, yeah?

And to put everything in proper context, we actually have to back up a couple of days. You see, after spending 11 days playing shows in Arizona, Marty and Brian arrived back at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport at midnight Tuesday. The pair then dispersed to their respective lodgings for the night, Marty arriving in Rogers Park around 2 a.m., while Brian headed for Oak Park, a suburb west of the city where he has family.

Wednesday morning, Brian drove back to his home in Iowa for a doctor’s appointment – he’s still on the mend from a broken leg – then returned to Oak Park later in the day, where Marty picked him up and the pair drove to Macon, Illinois, some 3 ½ hours away, to play an evening show at a retirement home.

After staying overnight in Springfield, the pair were awake and on the road by 7 a.m. the next morning to grab a Starbucks and begin the five-show day, playing for kids between the ages of 3 and 15 during Catholic Schools Week, before ending the day in front of a more contemporary crowd.

First stop – St. Aloysius in Springfield. The pair arrived at 7:45 to set up for an 8:30 a.m. show for a group of grade-school kids, unloading their equipment, checking to see where they’re actually going to play, etc. A 50-minute program included songs and fun interaction with the kids, who asked myriad questions about being a musician.

One down, four to go.

Pack up the equipment and head down the road to St. Joseph the Worker Church in Chatham. An easy, non-stressful 25-minute drive down Route 4 – unless you’re stuck behind a Driver’s Ed vehicle.  At any rate, it gives the passenger some time to conduct the business of the band – making phone calls, trying to schedule other gigs because, after all, it’s music, but it’s show BUSINESS. And who knows, maybe another song gets written between shows.

Brian and Marty finally pull up at St. Joseph and find the classroom that will serve as today’s concert hall. Another 45 minutes, this time acoustically in front of a mix of enthusiastic younger kids who can’t wait to tell the band about some family member or imaginary friend who plays an instrument, as well as some older students who perhaps are a bit more sullen about all this, to say nothing of the teachers and administrators who have stopped in to listen and make sure they’re getting their money’s worth.

Then it’s on to Our Lady of the Lourdes Catholic Church, about an hour northeast in Decatur, Ill. Along the way, more calls and band business and trading about of song ideas, working out structures and finding new chords.  Once at Our Lady, it’s time to unload the van and set up again for another group of K-8th graders. Repetitious? Boring? Hardly. As every concert in an auditorium is different, so it is with different schools. Brian and Marty are constantly challenged with understanding the depth of a school’s music program – if the school even has one – as well as trying to strike a balance between educating and entertaining, connecting not only with the kids, but with the faculty.

The gig at Our Lady deemed a success, it’s three down and one last school to go. Pack up the van again and head for Holy Family, a mere 15 minutes south on SR 51. Here, Switchback does something different – leading a worship service, featuring original sacred music – for a group of students, teachers and whoever else from the community decides to wander in.

That task finished, the schools wrapped up, the pair get a well-earned break until they arrive at a private residence at 7 p.m. for a one-hour concert, followed by a meet-and-greet that finally finishes around 8:45 p.m. Then, it’s off to Marty’s brother’s house in Decatur, where he and Brian will sleep it all off until… well, the next morning, when they do it all over again for more schools during Catholic Schools Week.

Beats working, yeah? Maybe. Maybe not.