Types of Irish Band/Performance Styles

In Part 1, there was a quick discussion about whether the band wants to self identify as an Irish/Celtic band. But what does it mean to say a band is doing Irish/Celtic music? When the Arizona Irish Music Society, www.azirishmusic.com was formed, it was decided to use a fairly expansive definition of Irish music and performers. Rather than being a choice of “doing Irish” or not, it is more a question of how much of the material is either Irish/Celtic or performed in an Irish/Celtic style.

The decision as to what kind of band is being created is important. It is hard for a band without a clear identity to build a base. In particular, venue booking agents need predictability.

WHAT TYPE OF IRISH/CELTIC BAND DO YOU WANT TO BUILD?

While there is no standardized classification of Irish/Celtic bands, most reviewers use some variation of the following categories: folk, traditional, contemporary, and eclectic. To this, I add a special category I call “pub mix” that combines the four categories within a fairly specific format. Within those broad categories, there are numerous styles. They may vary their style somewhat from one engagement to another, but even that will be within just a few related styles.

CATEGORIES:

FOLK – The legendary Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem brought some classic Irish folk songs to America and became a phenomenon. The folk category includes all bands/performers that do primarily vocals. Some of the most famous bands also included the Dubliners, the Johnstons, the Wolf Tones, the Furey’s, Sweeney’s Men, to name but a few. In more recent years, the folk category has been more heavily influenced by solo artists such as Mary and Francis Black, Maura O’Connell, Karan Casey, etc. The recent vocal performers are more likely to include contemporary music as well, but are still put into the “folk” category.

TRADITIONAL – While folks songs are “traditional”, this term generally describes bands that play mostly instrumental music. This includes, jigs, reels, horn pipes, airs, and the like. Some of the more famous examples are the Chieftains, Bothy Band, Planxty, Altan, Lunasa, Danu, Dervish, Solas, Cherish the Ladies, etc. Many traditional bands will do a small number of vocals but they are defined by their instrumental work. Vocals done in Gaelic are much more commonly done by traditional bands.

CONTEMPORARY – There are a number of contemporary song writers that write music that is identifiably Irish/Celtic in style and tone, yet would hardly qualify as folk songs. Big names include Paul Brady, Christy Moore, Luka Bloom, to name but a few. There is vast range of styles that fall under contemporary ranging from Enya to the Saw Doctors. Several of our local bands not only cover contemporary material but have singer song writers that write in the Irish/Celtic style. Some of these include Shay Veno (The Clare Voyants), Brian O’Carroll (Carroll MacGreggor), both John and Jerry McMorrow (The McMorrows), and Nancy McCallion (The Mollys). A band/performer is classified as “contemporary” if that is the majority of what is being performed.

ECLECTIC – This is a “catch-all” category which describes the music of performers who do a majority of their material which is not identifiably Celtic, but continue to do some Irish/Celtic material and have a strong Irish connection. This category covers Irish rock, folk rock, and pop as well as material that might be called “contemporary new age.” Nancy McCallion (The Mollys) and Frank Mackey (Keltic Cowboys) write original material that tends to be more eclectic in style.

PUB MIX – This is the band or performer that generally does a mix of Irish folk, traditional tunes, and contemporary pieces. A majority of the pieces are vocals and most of the vocals being up-tempo. To this is added high energy instrumentals (typically fiddle tunes).

The category of a band is defined by the proportion of material performed – folk songs, instrumentals, contemporary, or eclectic. However, what is played is often less important that how it is played.

WHAT PERFORMANCE STYLE SHOULD YOU HAVE?

To understand the issue of “style”, imagine two performances of “Whiskey in the Jar.” In one case, there is a solo singer with an acoustic guitar performing the song softly at 80 beats per minute. In the second case, there is five-piece band with a full drum kit, electric guitars, and an amplified vocalist doing the song at 120 beats per minute at 75 decibels. The material might say they are doing a “folk song”, but the experience is quite different.

Realistically, there are as many styles as there are performers. None the less, I use some broad guidelines when I try to describe a band.

FOLK STYLE – Folk style means to sing songs in a moderate tempo with a relatively unadorned style. Usually the accompaniment is predominantly stringed instruments (guitars, banjos, mandolins, and fiddles) and the volume is fairly moderate. Folk style players often do a considerable number of ballads. Most folk style performers do not have any percussion and if they do, it is a relatively “light” bodhran or bones accompaniment. Some of the Arizona performers identified as primarily folk style include Pat and Rosie Maloney, Greg LaCosse, Rick and Steve, and Rossettistone. Some of the more prominent lead performers of the local bands will play solo in what is generally a folk style such as Steve Colby (Seanachie), Shay Veno (The Clare Voyants), and Paul Knight (The Clare Voyants). Frequent visitor Bill Craig of Toronto might be classed as having a folk style although he performs as a solo “entertainer” as well.

CELTIC ROCK STYLE – Rock style bands play louder, faster, and have a stronger percussion sound (often including a full drum kit) than other bands. They are more likely to have a higher percentage of contemporary and eclectic material than bands playing other styles. Groups such as the Saw Doctors and the Waterboys are good examples of this approach. Phoenix bands with most identified with this style include Carroll MacGreggor, Keltic Cowboys, and Ashling.

PUB STYLE – Pub style bands tend to fall about halfway between folk style and rock style. Pub bands are generally louder than folk style bands, but no where near as loud as rock bands. Pub bands tend to emphasize “energy” through speed, but will mix in fast and slow materials far more than rock style bands.

Many pub bands include the bodhran to add percussion, although the percussion it is no where near as pronounced as with a rock style band. Bands without percussion tend to have much more of a “folk-pub style” sound than ones with bodhrans. Pub style frequently includes a high proportion of high energy “sing along” and “clap along” songs. Virtually every pub band has a fiddle player to mix in some high energy gigs and reels into the mix. Local bands identified with this style include The McMorrows, The Clare Voyants, Seanachie, The Hooligans, Blackwood, and On the Dole.

FOLK/ROCK STYLE – The Tucson based band, The Mollys, is famous for doing mostly originals with a slightly folk sound yet includes a full drum kit. The Mollys have evolved over the years from a pub style to an electic celtic rock style to their more recent folk/rock style which is softer than the celtic rock groups.

POP STYLE – This is the style that might be identified with the Irish band The Corrs. The Phoenix girl band, CJA, mixes eclectic pop originals with Irish fiddle tunes.

ENTERTAINER STYLE – Entertainer style performers are frequently solo artists who include a considerable amount of “patter” in their performance – jokes, stories, and humorous comments. Entertainers often mix in a bewildering variety of material form sing-along pub songs, to rock classics, to novelty songs, to country western, and more. In many cases, the performers are Irish born such Pat McCrossan, Tony Cummins, Mike Donovan, and Bill Craig.

PURE DROP TRADITIONAL STYLE- This is Irish/Celtic instrumental music performed in a classic manner. Most of the music is instrumental. Vocals are often done without accompaniment. Pure drop players resist playing too fast and disdain being too “showy.” It is not clear that any of the Arizona bands are actually “pure drop”, but some like Round the House, New Potatoes, Crossbow, Trim the Velvet and Wild Thyme lean in that direction.

TRADITIONAL – FOLK MIX STYLE – Some bands mix a large number of folk style vocals into a fairly traditional instrumental mix. The Welsh/pan Celtic band Afan, Celtic Spirit, and Round the House are examples of this approach.

CEILI STYLE – A great amount of Irish instrumental music was written for Irish dancing. A ceili band has to play at a fairly regular beat structure and repeats tune segments a large number of times to permit the dancers to complete their dances. Round the House is the only Arizona band that bills itself as a ceili band, but most pure drop traditionalists, nearly all the contradance bands (see below) and several of the pub bands do ceili work from time to time.

CONTRADANCE/OLD TIME STYLE – “Old-Time” is a generic description of the American traditional instrumental music. Much of it was descended from Irish and Scottish music brought to the U.S. in the 18th and early 19th century. Old Time music tends to have slightly different rhythms and playing styles than modern Irish and Scottish music. There is a certain crossover between Old Time and Celtic as well as Old Time with Blue Grass music. Several of the Old Time bands play for a New England style square dance called “contradance” and are mostly identified by that. In the rare occasions when they perform in concert, they tend to sound like Concert Celtic musicians. Some of the contradance bands include Clusterfolk, Granite Creek String Band, Frayed Knots, and the Privy Tippers. Traditional Irish/Celtic bands like Round the House and Wild Thyme routinely do contradance music.

CONCERT TRADITIONAL STYLE – Most traditional players play from memory. However, there are situations where Irish music is performed using sheet music in much the way that classical music is done, an approach I call “concert style.” They generally perform while seated on stage to a concert audience rather than for dancers. While all traditional and old time style bands are equipped to play concert style, this description is usually limited to bands such as New Potatoes, Crossbow and Celtic Breeze that rarely play for dancers.

NEW AGE CELTIC STYLE – The ubiquitous term “Celtic music” is often being used to describe this style most popularize by the mega-star Enya. This is almost totally instrumental with soft vocals, yet has a large proportion of original material. The local band Meadowlark is most commonly described as having this style.

TRADITIONAL/ECLECTIC STYLE – Some bands/performers are almost impossible to categorize. For example, the Flagstaff duo of Bill and Patty Cummings do an instrumental mix that includes Celtic, old time, blue grass, classical, and other materials. Rose Blood mixes rock ballads, blues, and Bob Dylan songs with jigs and reels. Borderlands (formerly the Mesquite Bean Band) is another group that does a whole range of material from Celtic to blues. The Amazing Ripples mix original vocals with traditional instrumental material.

One thing that separates the various traditional/eclectic groups from the Celtic Rock, Folk Rock and Celtic Pop groups is that none of them have full drum kits or percussion background as a regular part of their instrumentation.

RENAISSANCE FAIRE STYLE – The Renaissance Faire is an eight week program where people dress up in outfits and pretend it is 1600 AD. There are innumerable stage performances which tend to be heavy of humor. The performances are short and the goal is to attract a crowd. Ren Faire performers are more like pub entertainers than concert performers. They range from folk style to ceili style to pub entertainer depending on the act. The local bands, The Bringers and Allanah, are most commonly identified with this style. The shows are short in duration and include a lot of patter. Allanah plays for Gaelic Thunder, a group of Irish dancers who do a modified Riverdance style program. Not all performers at the Renaissance Faire do a Ren-Faire style. For example, John Piggot on the harp does a fairly straight performance.

There is a bewildering variety of styles available. Even within these categories and style groupings, there a big difference between the various bands. In addition, bands will often sound different at different venues. A pub band might play at a ceili and do very few vocals. A concert traditional band might play a pub and do more vocals and faster instrumentals. None the less, most successful bands have a clear idea as to what they are trying to. A rock band may turn down a gig to play background music at a dinner just as a pure drop band may turn down a chance to play at pub.

Often bands change their sound. In some cases, this is reflected by a change in name. Local examples include when the fairly traditional One Eyed Fiona evolved into the pub band The Hooligans. Another example is when the old-time/bluegrass band Home Brew became much more of a traditional Irish/Celtic band now called Wild Thyme.

The approach used by the band needs to match the goals of the band members. A singer/songwriter who wants to showcase his/her material will have different goals than someone who covers standard pub songs. Saying the are both doing “folk music” is not enough.

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