While Irish music in Tucson has a long, somewhat unlikely tradition, most of its practitioners have strayed far from its traditional roots, merely snatching the Irish elements that suit exactly what they were trying to accomplish. From the ragged, Irish-influenced rock of '80s acts like The Host, to '90s acts like The Mollys, who infused their rootsy Irish rock with a healthy dose of Tex-Mex swing, Tucson's musicians have tended to tweak Irish music into something new entirely.
And while, on the surface, Tucson foursome Round the House would appear to be staunch traditionalists, their depth and breadth of knowledge of Irish music's roots and variations has allowed them to take their own risks, even if they're not as readily apparent as those of the aforementioned artists.
In addition to their obvious chops and sheer talent, knowledge is key to the success of Round the House's music, which has garnered them TAMMIES awards in the Traditional/Ethnic category for the third year in a row, as well as, for the first time, this year's nod in the Best New Release category, for their second self-released disc, 2003's 'Til the Wee Hours.
Members Dave Firestine, Sharon Goldwasser, Mike Smith and Claire Jamieson Zucker met through local Irish music jams, where they honed their skills and learned the intricacies of all aspects of the music. By the time they teamed up in 1999 to form Round the House, they had gathered a collective knowledge of how to mesh their styles, as well as the strengths that each member brought to the proceedings.
Firestine, who also performs with the old-time string band the Privvy Tippers and the New Potatoes (another traditional Irish band), can seemingly play just about any instrument with strings--mandolin, banjo, guitar, bodhran, and bouzouki--with a prodigious flair. He is a joy to witness in a live setting, calling songs and providing the group with a fresh dose of energy.
Though no Irish blood runs through her veins, you'd never know it from listening to Goldwasser's supple fiddle playing and hearing her give background information about the group's songs while introducing them from the stage. Though she learned guitar, recorder, mandolin and classical violin before learning Irish fiddle, during the last decade-plus, she has immersed herself in the latter's traditions and styles, learning the ornamentation unique to that mode of playing.
Smith's guitar playing is especially elastic, allowing him to either play in a largely traditional style or add his own phrasing via relatively radical chord progressions and picking techniques. As with the rest of the group's members, he knows just when to recede into the background to let the other players emphasize their sections, and just when to step up and take the proverbial wheel.
In addition to playing the bodhran, Zucker serves as Round the House's primary vocalist. Singing in both Irish Gaelic and English, sometimes a cappella, her gorgeous voice and authentic phrasing could easily fool a listener into believing she came straight from the Emerald Isle.
As a unit, the group can perform in just about any style--jigs to polkas, waltzes to hard-driving reels for contra dances, even songs for Scandinavian dances. As accomplished in a multitude of styles and informed in the music's traditions as they are, like their Tucson forebears, they are knowledgeable and insightful enough to adapt songs in tempo or arrangement and make them truly their own, while still demonstrating a reverence for the music's heritage.
Round the House are a true emerald in the desert, and 'Til the Wee Hours, this year's selection by you, the readers, for Best New Release, provides all the proof you could ever need.