When the Irish band FullSet played three gigs in Montana earlier this month, the musicians were taken aback by the locals' fervor for all things Irish.
"There's a huge Irish community," Seán McCarthy reported by phone last week from Grand Rapids, Mich., where FullSet was playing at a festival. "They're very proud of their Irish heritage. The Irish language is even taught at the University of Montana" in Missoula.
But the traditional musicians, on a six-week tour of the United States, have been wowing audiences everywhere, not just in Irish enclaves. At Disney World, the reception to the bands' three shows was "brilliant," McCarthy said. "They want us back next year."
FullSet plays Tucson Saturday night, Sept. 22, at the Berger Performing Arts Center. The band is young—the oldest member is 25, and McCarthy, at 23, is "the baby of the group"—but has already won plenty of acclaim back home in Ireland.
Named New Group of the Year in the 2012 Live Ireland Music Awards and Best New Band in the Irish American News Music Awards, the band released its first album, Notes at Liberty, last year.
Hailing from counties Cork, Dublin and Tipperary, the six musicians play the classic traditional instruments. McCarthy handles the uilleann pipes, the difficult Irish "elbow" pipes that have a mellower sound than Scottish bagpipes.
"I spent quite a few years squeaking and squawking," he joked, but he went on to become an All-Ireland uilleann champion—six times over. Likewise, the band's fiddler, Michael Harrison, is an All-Ireland winner.
FullSet also features Janine Redmond on button accordion; Eamonn Moloney on bodhrán, the Irish drum; Andrew Meaney on guitar; and Teresa Horgan on voice and flute.
"Some bands do all very new tunes," McCarthy said. "We try to find old tunes that haven't been recorded before, and give them our own twist. We put a lot of time into finding them."
McCarthy heard the song "Half Hanged MacNaghten" as a child. His father runs two musical festivals in the family's native County Cork, and "an awful lot of musicians stayed at our house. I heard Peter O'Hanlon sing this song when I was very young."
Based on a story that McCarthy swears is true, the old song tells of a young man who was sentenced to hang for accidentally killing his true love.
"The rope broke," McCarthy recounted. "He could have run away, but he put the rope on again. He wanted to die, because he had lost his sweetheart."
In addition to the rediscovered songs of old, "We do have some new tunes on our album"—in the old style. Harrison wrote the instrumental jig "Corofin Nights" and has already composed a few more for the next album.
The band members have known each other since they were teens.
"Four of us spent a summer together playing in a show in Tipperary meant for tourists. We've been very close friends ever since. Four years ago, we came together as a band. A year ago, we released our first album. We've had a good start."