Musicians search for right tune to perform at Kell's programs
Cary Novotny, guitarist/vocalist for the Portland Irish band Cul an Ti, and Danny O'Hanlon, bassist, percussionist and singer, have just finished a happy hour set at Kells in downtown Portland.
The men settle into a booth in the cigar room downstairs, and O'Hanlon lights up a stogie as they both drain their pints.
The duo then starts to talk about the years since 1995 they've spent plying their musical trade everywhere from classy Celtic cultural festivals to boisterous barrooms.
O'Hanlon is from Nebraska originally, Novotny from South Dakota. Neither man grew up playing Irish music, but both became interested in it as adults and bonded in Portland in the early 1990s over a common love for its spirited sound.
O'Hanlon met Novotny when both were neighbors in the Hawthorne district back in 1993.
'I saw a bass guitar in his window and knocked on the door,' O'Hanlon says with a chuckle.
Since then, they have played with some of the finest Irish musicians on earth before respectful audiences and also witnessed more than a few pub brawls and bachelorette parties gone wrong.
Both men confess to having been obsessed from time to time with Irish music, given its ability to evoke emotions through its drive, drones and tunings.
'I listened to the instrumental tunes,' Novotny says when asked about how he went from playing classical guitar to Irish. 'They dance back and forth between minors, majors and modals.'
Both men note that you can't just learn a few ballads or reels or jigs to become an Irish musician. You have to immerse yourself in hundreds of instrumental tunes and songs. Guitarists, in particular, need to become adept at playing with speed, Novotny says.
'You're playing grooves that are really fast,' Novotny adds.
But Irish music isn't about shredding, so to speak, O'Hanlon notes.
'It's one thing to play it fast - it's got to be musical,' he says.
'You have to have a certain ability to play a chord in the right place that doesn't cause the tune to come to a screeching halt,' Novotny adds as both men break into laughter.
Cul an Ti - Irish for 'The back of the house' - has a revolving cast of members, with Novotny and O'Hanlon the constants.
During the years, Cul an Ti has included Larry Nugent on Irish flute, Bob Soper, Eddie Parente, Maire Eagan and Griff Ocker on fiddle, Dave Cory on tenor banjo and Joe Trump on percussion.
The band can play everything from songs centuries old to hits by the Pogues and first made their mark at Biddy McGraw's on Northeast Glisan Street as well as Kells. The band has also played numerous festivals but has only released one CD, back in 1999.
Both men say the record market is awash in Irish music CDs so they don't see much point in creating another.
'It's really hard not to do something that's really not hokey and schlocky,' O'Hanlon says, ceding the record field to such Irish music giants as Solas. 'We don't really want to do one unless it's really compelling.
'I think it's more about focusing on the live show,' O'Hanlon adds. 'It's about the spontaneous fun, like capturing the spirit of an amplified session at a pub.'
Cul an Ti will play at Kells as part of its St. Patrick's Day Festival from Wednesday, March 16, through Saturday, March 19.
The band features renowned Dublin-born button accordionist and Green Linnet Records recording artist Johnny Connolly and will play in the Kells Pub, 112 S.W. Second Ave., at 2:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. on March 17; 5:30 p.m. on Friday, March 18, in the festival tent; and at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 19, in the pub.
Cul an Ti will also play The Moon and Sixpence, 2014 N.E. 42nd Ave., at 9:30 p.m. Friday, March 18.
You can also catch Connolly at 7:30 p.m. March 17, at the Aladdin Theater, 3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave., along with renowned Irish fiddler Kevin Burke and guitarist Cal Scott, and a host of other great players.
Irish music has a deep history
Irish music includes drinking songs, rebel songs, religious tunes, poetic ballads, mournful laments, instrumentals, reels, hornpipes, jigs and polkas.
It's been sung in Gaelic and English, sometimes in the same song.
Traditional Irish instruments include the Irish hand drum, known as the bodhrán; the uilleann pipes, which are inflated by the player using his or her elbow instead of mouth; and the tin whistle.
Through the centuries, Irish music been one of the streams that fed the river of American popular music, and Irish and Scotch-Irish melodies and lyrical ideas have helped shape vaudeville, Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, rock 'n' roll, country and Americana.
Meanwhile, traditional Irish music has undergone several revivals over the years, from the rise of such stars as Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers in the 1960s to the explosion of interest in Irish music fueled by 'Riverdance' in the 1990s.
The Web has countless sites devoted to Irish music and dance, but probably the best is the Comhaltas site found at http://comhaltas.ie/ .
Get ready for St. Patrick's Day events
• Kells Annual St. Patrick's Irish Festival, includes music, starting with Tom May at noon Wednesday, March 16, through Saturday night, March 19, as well as party tent activities, family events, boxing tournament, Irish dancers and bagpipers. Admission is free-$25. Address: 112 S.W. Second Ave. Info: kellsirish.com.
• Paddy's St. Patrick's Day Festival, includes Irish dancers, bagpipers and live bands (Patrick Lamb, Darby O'Gill and three others) and party on Southwest Yamhill Avenue, starting at 11 a.m. March 17. Admission is $10. Address: 65 S.W. Yamhill St. Info: paddys.com.
• All-Ireland Cultural Society's 70th Annual St. Patrick's Day Celebration, starting at 4 p.m. March 17, includes face painting and children's activities from 4:30 to 7 p.m., a Grand Opening with the TVF and R Pipe and Drums, Tír Eoghain Céilí Entertainers at 5:30 p.m., a parrot show from 5 to 7 p.m., a traditional Irish band with Mikey Beglan, Brendan Fitzgerald, Matty Sears and Dave Cory at 6:30 p.m., and the Molly Malone Irish Dancers at 8:15 p.m. Admission is $10, $5 ages 12-20. Address: The Ambridge Event Center, aka Rosary Hall, 376 N.E. Clackamas Ave.,
• The Crystal Ballroom Ringlers Pub, offers a free show at 6:30 p.m. with the Chancers, a band that combines humor with 80s hits and Irish songs. Address: 1332 W. Burnside St. Info: mcmenamins.com.
• The Thirsty Lion, presents four days of live music and dancers, March 16 to 19. Address: 71 S.W. Second Ave. Info: cegportland.com/thirsty_lion
• County Cork Public House, features live music and Irish dancers starting at 3 p.m. March 17. Address: 1329 N.E. Fremont St. Info: countycorkpublichouse.com .