New life in old-time Irish tunes

Photos courtesy of KPC. From left is John Walsh, Pat Broaders and Sean McComiskey.

Photos courtesy of KPC. From left is John Walsh, Pat Broaders and Sean McComiskey.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Usually at concerts, if performers say they’re playing a classic, it might be a song from their garage days 20 years ago, perhaps a Beatles tune from the 1960s or maybe a Sinatra hit from the ’40s.

At a concert next week at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus, when the musicians play an oldie, they won’t be harkening back 20 or 30 years, more like hundreds of years. Yet it’ll be as foot tapping today as it was when it was written. That’s the epitome of timeless, and that’s the charm of Irish music.

“There’s just this huge depth of music that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. If nobody wrote another tune for the next hundred years there’d be plenty for us to play,” said John Walsh, who will perform a free concert of traditional Irish music, sponsored by the KPC Multicultural Consortium, the UAA Diversity Action Council and KPC Showcase, at 7 p.m. Jan. 23 in the KPC Commons.

Walsh will play tenor banjo along with Pat Broaders, vocalist and guitar, and Sean McComiskey, button accordion. Their set list will cover traditional Irish tunes 200 to 300 years old and up, and perhaps some brand-new songs — well, “new” by Irish music standards.

“It’s not unusual to be playing music that’s hundreds of years old, so when somebody says, ‘This is a newer tune,’ they could mean it might be 10 or 20 years old. To an Irish person, it is a newer tune because the music is so old,” Walsh said.

Some tunes might be nigh on historic but they’ve still got freshness and vitality in them, as Irish music comes to life through interaction with an audience. Proper Irish concert etiquette is to be a little improper. Tap you feet, clap your hands, holler approval, sing along if you know the words — anything but sit still and listen quietly.

“Basically, dance tunes are what we play and people are very welcome to get up and dance. And some people do, but it’s not often you see people dance because I think they’re under the impression that they have to do Riverdance-type stuff, but you don’t,” Walsh said.

The group will perform various examples of several styles of Irish dance music, including jigs, reels and hornpipes. Don’t know what, exactly, that means? Then come find out.

“We’ll explain a little bit about what we’re doing with each thing, because they all have different tempos,” Walsh said.

“And then the forms of music change, too. The jigs may have been set dance pieces 100 years ago and got turned into a 6/8 piece, or 4/4 piece. Even today people will do that, they’ll take a jig and play it as a reel. So there is (some flexibility and interpretation), but we try to keep the music within the tradition,” he said.

Walsh’s music tradition comes primarily from his experience as a commercial fisherman. Growing up his family was musical, though he didn’t take up the banjo until the 1980s when he found himself amid a sea of musicians and singers in the fishing industry. Originally from Dublin,  he fished in Ireland, and in Alaska in Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea. While living in Alaska he performed quite a bit in Anchorage with various local and touring groups. He’s toured across the country, too, and currently lives in Baltimore.

After fishing Walsh transitioned into construction, and now plans to travel the Lower 48, flipping houses to recharge his bank account and playing music to recharge his cultural account. His kids still live in Alaska, so Walsh expects to still be a regular visitor to the state. This time he’s bringing Broaders, who grew up in Dublin, and McComiskey, from Baltimore, where he also plays in an Irish band with Martin O’Malley, governor of Maryland.

After the Jan. 23 performance at KPC, the group will perform at the Trail Lake Lodge in Moose Pass at 7 p.m. Jan. 24, then a few gigs in Anchorage.

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