California felt a little too much like the damp North of Ireland in the first days of Réalta's trip to the United States.
"It's rained for three days," lamented Conor Lamb, speaking from a van that was piloting the Belfast musicians along a muddy highway in the Golden State.
Taking pity on the chilled travelers, I told Lamb that a shining sun, blue skies and warm temperatures would surely welcome the Irish trad musicians when they hit Tucson this week.
"Can I get that in writing?" Lamb asked wryly, speaking in his lilting Irish brogue.
"But the tour has been great so far," he added. "We've had nice audiences. We're having a blast."
Réalta will kick off St. Patrick's weekend in Tucson this Friday night, March 15, at a foot-stomping double-bill concert at the Berger Performing Arts Center.
The two Irelands will merge in the concert: the band HighTime from Connemara in the Republic of Ireland will open the show. In a grand finale, the two bands, north and south, will play together, with champion step-dancer Séamus Flaherty of HighTime breaking out into Irish dance. Réalta's five musicians play an interesting array of traditional instruments: No fiddle is in the mix, but there are whistles, bodhrán, guitar, bouzouki, banjo, double bass, and of course vocals, provided by Deirdre Galway.
Setting the band apart from others is its rare deployment on stage of not one but two uilleann pipes—the Irish instrument that's a distant cousin to Sottish bagpipes. Along with the multiplicity of whistles, this innovation creates a sound that one critic called a "full bodied pipe and whistle extravaganza."
"It was a happy accident," Lamb explained. "Aaron O'Hagan and I were good friends and we started playing [the uilleann pipes] together and it really worked. We get a strong and powerful sounds from the pipes. It became our signature." For this tour though, Réalta's first in America, French musician Loïc Bléjean subs on the pipes, while O'Hagan awaits the birth of a child back home in Belfast.
"He's a fantastic piper from Brittany," Lamb said.
The Briton musician fits right in with Réalta's interest in traditional music from across the Celtic diaspora. On their current album Clear Skies—named one of the best of the year by Irish Music Magazine—they play music from Asturia, one of two Celtic-heritage provinces in northwest Spain, as well as from Brittany, another Celtic stronghold, in northwest France.
"We're interested in music from all over," Lamb said. The band searches out traditional music from the past by traveling to assorted Celtic festivals in Europe, and the members scour books and recordings both old and new. "We're trying to absorb from everywhere."
Their home base in Belfast is a fertile source as well.
"We have a very strong music scene," Lamb said. "We all know each other. It's a great city."
The founders of HighTime
first met as kids across a cattle pasture in Connemara on the rugged west coast of Ireland.
"We are actually next-door neighbors," Ciarán Bolger, the band's guitarist, reported in an email from Ireland. The two brothers in the band, Conall and Séamus Flaherty, lived on the other side of the field from Bolger, and the three began playing music together "from a very young age," he said.
Growing up in the village of Ardmore, they were steeped early on in traditional music, dance and folklore. Those traditions infuse the work they do in their newish band, HighTime, performing songs in both English and Irish.
All three band members sing, but 19-year-old Séamus Flaherty specializes in singing sean-nós, a "decorative" vocal style that goes back centuries.
"We all were taught to sing in this style as children," Bolger said, "and are intent on continuing to sing it in order to keep such a rich and unique tradition alive. Sean-nós singing plays a considerable part in our set list, but we also sing folk songs in the Irish language which we acquired from singers in our locality and elsewhere."
Even so, they often add contemporary elements. Sean-nós is typically sung unaccompanied, but HighTime performs it with three-part harmonies and instrumental music.
Like their confreres to the north, they don't include Irish fiddle in their musical mix, but their rich array of instruments includes flute, whistle, bodhrán, guitar and the prized Irish harp. Séamus Flaherty, the champion dancer, is also a virtuoso on the harp. His older brother Conall Flaherty, the flute and whistler player, was unable to join the others on the American tour. Flutist Michael Coult, a graduate of the University of Limerick program in Irish music and dance, will sub for him.
The band is young, and just produced their first album, Sunda, but they've already performed intensively in Europe, particularly in Germany. Individually they've worked on international Irish tours sponsored by Disney and others, but this is their first tour as a band in the U.S.
"It's been a wonderful experience seeing how enthusiastically people of all ages, cultures and nationalities respond to traditional Irish music dance," Bolger said. Now they're eager to take on the U.S.
Local Irish bands are also
ringing in St. Patrick's. On the big day itself, Sunday, March 17, the 32nd annual St. Patrick's Day Parade kicks off at 10 a.m., starting at Sixth Avenue and 18th Street, going north on Stone Avenue to 12th Street, and ending at Armory Park. A free festival of Irish music, food and dance unfurl at the park, starting around noon and continuing through the afternoon.
On St. Patrick's night, Irish music abounds. Fans longing for fiddles will find them in abundance in a double-bill show at La Cocina restaurant in Old Town Artisans, 201 Court Ave. A new local band, Hawthorne Hedge, comes equipped with fiddle, flute and guitar, and the seasoned Out of Kilters deploy fiddle, bodhrán, bass, accordion and guitar. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Advance tickets $6 at Antigone Books and the Folk Shop; $7 online at inconcerttucson.com; $8 at the door. Food and drink available from La Cocina. 981-1475.