Ah, the memory of good St. Patrick brings a tacit call to celebration this Saturday and all of Tulsa is longing to respond this weekend. Before you don a silly hat and imbibe too much cheap beer that will still have you seeing green the next day, you'd be better off to consider the true luck (and love) of all things Irish this weekend.
True, this is the time of year that everyone embraces Irish folk and Celtic tunes, but Tulsa has a number of solid bands that prove Irish music isn't just for St Patrick's Day.
The most active of such bands is Cairde na Gael (translated: friends of the Gaelics), a multigenerational group that serves as the unofficial house band at Arnie's Bar in the Blue Dome District.
T-Town's Irish bands cover all of the extremes, from the raucousness of local favorites Larkin and the "joyous noise" of Celtic Cheer to the traditionalism of Kilkenny Road or The Four Fiddlers of the Apocalypse.
Cairde na Gael fits somewhere in the middle, effectively marrying Irish folk and dance tunes with pub songs and sing-alongs to reach a happy medium that both honors tradition and appeals to the younger, 20-something crowd that responds to the music's celebratory, feel-good vibe.
As easy as it is to credit Arnie's for providing a venue to perform at with a standing gig every first and third (and occasional fifth) Thursday of the month, few people realize there literally might not BE a band without the bar that the group calls home.
Arnie's has long been a supporter of Tulsa's Irish community and music and hosted a weekly Sunday evening open "jam session" that laid the foundations for Cairde na Gael.
Once the key players decided to start rehearsing outside the Sunday night sessions, a more formal band started taking shape. The group then started playing Thursday evenings at Arnie's, ultimately winning over a new group of fans and, eventually, the final members of the group.
Although guitarist/vocalist Frank Smreker and vocalist/bodhran (Irish hand drum) player Mike Roohan are among the most outspoken in representing the group and its Irish tradition, it is commonly agreed that Phil Duffy is the patriarch of the group.
Dubbed "The Original St. Patrick", Duffy was born and raised in Ireland before settling in Oklahoma and is often credited, along with John Fleming, for establishing Irish music's presence in Tulsa.
Phil's musicianship and talent on the button accordion are even more amazing when considering the fact that he does not read music, but plays by ear and memory, drawing from a catalogue of songs that he remembers from his Irish youth.
The group finally adopted its current name and officially became a band roughly three and a half years ago, after singer Kelly Lamb joined. As Mike and Frank recall, one evening they noticed that a girl in the audience was singing along and knew all of the songs so they asked her sit in. Lamb's voice undoubtedly added a beauty and another dimension to the group and she was asked to join the band.
Each of the members of Cairde na Gael has their own unique history, but the thing that is most interesting about the group is the way they are all tied together, like an intricate spiderweb, by intertwining relationships and similar stories.
Just as Kelly was plucked from the audience, Smreker had been called onstage at one of the Sunday evening sessions when the others noticed he was wearing a t-shirt bearing the Epiphone guitars logo.
Current guitarist and mandolin player Gene Curtis and his wife were "the best fans any band could ask for", as Lamb relates it. "They were at every gig, more consistent than even the band members." As a result of that allegiance to the band, Frank began to occasionally call on Gene to play guitar for him when he got tired of playing both harmonica and strings at the same time. Eventually, after original member and banjo player Rusty Starbuck left the group a little over a year ago, Gene was honored to be asked to join the band.
Another interesting similarity is each of the band members had laid down their instrument for a number of years before picking it up again and eventually landing in the band.
Violinist Tony Clyde's story weaves even more tangles into the web: Tony hadn't played, other than scales and basic exercises, for some 12 years. Once he decided he wanted to learn to play some Irish folk music, Lamb referred him to Karen Naifeh (of Larkin) for instruction.
In a weird twist of fate, Karen and Tony had known each other growing up and fallen out of contact, so the lessons served as a reuniting of friends.
Eventually Tony caved in to the request of his neighbor from across the street to come sit in and play with his band. That neighbor was Smrecker and yes, Tony ended up a member of Cairde na Gael with the same young lady that referred him to his old friend for violin lessons.
All About the Music
What really brings the group together, beyond the similarities and intertwining relationships, is its shared love and understanding of the music. Above all else, Cairde na Gael isn't just about the songs, but about celebrating Irish tradition as a whole.
"I think the music resonates on multiple levels" says Lamb. "It's a beautiful expression of the culture."
"It really expresses the human condition, human emotions" adds Smreker.
"People think Irish music is drinking songs or the "Three Tenors" or "Riverdance", but it's more than that" Frank continues. "It includes The Clancys and Tommy Maken, who influenced the folk revival and Tin Pan Alley. American folk music is derivative of Irish folk."
If the thought of Irish folk tunes and drinking songs, doesn't sound appealing, you probably haven't experienced it with a live band as good as Cairde na Gael. The group isn't as rowdy as Larkin, but it doesn't take long before the pints of Guinness are flowing and the audience is singing along. Sure, the drinking songs like "Whisky in the Jar", "All for Me Grog" and "Jug of Punch" help set a jolly mood, but once the Irish spirit gets hold of you, it's hard not to join the celebration.
Even when the band leans into more traditional fare, it still stirs the soul. Just listen to Kelly's delivery of "The Unquiet Grave" (a standout on the group's self-titled debut CD) and try to claim you're not impressed. The CD is currently available, in limited quantities, at Under the Mooch and House of Celts, on Cherry Street. Of course, you can always just catch the band at a gig and hope they have a few copies on hand.
This year looks to be a big one for Cairde na Gael as the group will be stepping up to headline a show at the PAC's Norman Theater on July 27 as part of the "Summer Stock" series. The group is also laying plans for the First Annual Irish Heritage Festival in Stillwater and hoping to record a new CD, both scheduled for later this year.
All in the band agree that they look forward to playing bigger shows with their local contemporaries, whom they count as friends, whenever opportunities arise. According to Roohan, there is no sense of competition for the groups don't step on each other's toes musically. Even if they happen to play the same song, they don't sound the same as each group has its own take on the music. Mostly however, Smreker and company insist that Irish music "isn't just for St Patrick's Day".
A Cairde na Gael show is all about having fun and the band enjoys it most when the audience really gets into it, singing along and participating in the call and response numbers in groups of a dozen or more. "We're the sort that loves it when people enjoy what we're doing" says Frank. " . . . when we encounter people who enjoy and love it too."
Whether it's at a Thursday night gig, a private party, an Irish Festival or, yes, even -- St Paddy's Day, the "Friends of the Gaelics" always bring the party to life. This year put down the cheap beer and head over to Arnie's Bar to celebrate the Patron Saint of Ireland with a pint of the real stuff and Cairde na Gael. Before too long, you'll be regular on Thursday nights as well.
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