Think You Know Irish Music? Think Again
Circle of Friends brings back the John Byrne Band for another pre-St. Patrick's Day show featuring traditional Irish folk music.
If all you know of Irish music is drinking songs like "Wild Rover" and "Whiskey in the Jar" played in the background of loud pubs on St. Patrick's Day, John Byrne and his band have quite a show for you.
In his youth, Byrne—who immigrated to the United States from Ireland in his late teens—didn't have much interest in the music of his native land. Irish folk was "my dad's music," he said.
And when he came to America to begin his career as a musician, he was turned off by the kind of songs he was being asked to play ("Danny Boy") just because he was an Irishman.
But as he plied his craft, at first focusing mostly on American folk (he counts Bob Dylan as an early inspiration), Byrne began to recognize the deep similarities between folk music here in the States and the folk music of his countrymen. Eventually, he came around.
"I spent years trying to get away from Irish music," he said. "Then in the last few years kind of came back to it. When I came back to playing Irish music, it was nice, because I got to choose the songs I wanted to sing."
Byrne, who lives in Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood, has become something of a regular with Circle of Friends, a Riverton-based group that organizes and promotes local and house concerts. For the second year in a row, the group booked Byrne and his band for a pre-St. Patrick's Day show, which will be held this weekend at Sacred Heart Church.
It's Byrne's fourth performance for Circle of Friends, and he's excited for the opportunity to once again play for people who truly appreciate it.
"It’s just amazing people committed to music," Byrne said. "You're not dealing with a bar owner who doesn’t care what you sound like—'How many butts can you put on bar stools?' You’re playing for an audience that’s sitting right there and they’re listening ... It's really give the kind of show I love to give."
It's not a stretch to think that the seed for Byrne's love of Circle of Friends' model—the intimate shows, the house concerts—was planted in his boyhood home back in Dublin when he talks about his early musical inspirations.
"My biggest influences as singers were the people who would just come to our house and sing songs, which would happen a lot," he said. "They would just gather in our home, and some drink would be taken out, and people would start singing."
Byrne said he was taken with the purity of the music.
"There’s just no pretension to it, because they’re old folk songs, and a lot of them are written by regular people," he said. "So you’ll find cliches in there, but they’re delivered honestly."
After years of peppering them into his shows, Byrne and his band (aptly named the John Byrne Band) recorded an album of Irish folk songs, which is just about to be released. The songs from the album will be featured heavily in his show Saturday at Sacred Heart.
"It's a two-hour experience of all that Irish music has to offer," he said. "It’s really nice (Circle of Friends) will be the first people to hear something that was almost born out of the show we did for them last year."
Byrne, who handles lead vocals, guitar and bodhran (a type of Irish drum), will perform alongside: Andrew J Keenan (vocals, guitar); Rob Shaffer (vocals, banjo); Maura Dwyer (cello, fiddle); and Rosaleen McGill (guest vocalist).
Tickets for Saturday's show are $20 and can be purchased here.
Doors open at 7 p.m. The show begins at 7:30. Guests are encouraged to bring food, i.e. appetizers or desserts.
"It’s a communal gathering," said co-founder Geneva DiTaranto. "People get to talk to the band. It's really more of an intimate experience."
To learn more about Circle of Friends, visit the group's website.
To read up on the John Byrne Band and hear some of their music, visit the band's website.