Sunday, October 12, 2014

Gallowglass: Traditional Irish Music from the Marrow of their Souls

Gallowglass - Terra - December 8. 2014

Some weeks it seems that wherever there is great music happening, Jan Peters is there. He is either helping out at one of Julian MacDonough’s Jazz shows at the Majestic, performing with Peadar Macmahon at Irish Night Mondays at The Star Club, hosting a Tuesday Night Open Mic there or happily playing along with Robert Blake or Hot Damn Scandal at Boundary Bay or the Green Frog. Jan lives and breathes music and his passion is evident in how involved and supportive he is of the Bellingham Music community. Recently, he has a new band, Gallowglass, that was formed out of a passion for Irish Traditional Music.

Along with Peters, the other musicians in Gallowglass are some of the most talented in Bellingham, most also members of the other popular bands in town: Devilly Brothers, Giant’s Causeway, Snug Harbor, Robert Blake and the Put It All Down in A Letters. It is testimony to their devotion to Irish Traditional music that they gathered together to form Gallowglass.

Several years ago, Jan met Britt Keeton, a talented fiddle player, at the Subdued Stringband Jamboree and they performed a few Irish songs together. About a year later, as Jan was walking around Fairhaven, he says, “I heard a beautiful sound.  It was a gorgeous tune being played on a fiddle.  I followed the sound and there was Brit Keeton busking on her own. I was so happy to see her and was really impressed with her playing.” They each began to consider the possibilities of forming a band.

Not long after, Jan became aware of how strong the Irish music community was here in Bellingham, much to the credit of Cayley Schmid, of Polecat. Cayley also organizes the Bellingham Ceili Club, a monthly meeting of local musicians to play traditional Irish Tunes. It was through the Ceili Club and Giant’s Causeway that Jan met Zach Bauman, who plays the guitar and mandolin. Bellingham being the tightly knit community that it is, Zach and Britt were also part of the outstanding local acoustic traditional band, The Devilly Brothers. Jan says, “It wasn't long before we realized we shared something in terms of a sound we all loved and wanted more in our lives.”

The three of them began meeting about once a week to play songs. They were soon joined by David Pender Lofgren on drums and the Irish Bodhran, a traditional Irish hand drum. David also performs with Snug Harbor, Robert Blake and the Put It All Down in A Letters and the Giant’s Causeway.  When David wasn’t available, Steven Tate, another talented local percussionist, joins in.

A strong commitment to the music is evident in how well rehearsed they are and how steadily the perform around town and county. They are booked two to three times a month out at Semiahomoo in Packer’s Oyster Bar. And they also perform regularly around town at Star Club, Honey Moon, and Green Frog.

At a recent show at The Conway Muse, Gallowglass began with the beautiful sorrowful Cuckoo's Nest moving gracefully into the Flower's of Edinburgh through the Blackberry Blossom and Follow Me Up to Carlow and others to finish the set with the Hare’s Lament. Britt’s fiddle often begins a new tune, the melancholy strings singing in solo until the other musician’s steadily  join in. Zach and Jan compliment each other as if they have been playing together all of their lives. And the dual percussion from David and Steven is outstanding. There is a palpable sense of the joy that each of the musicians radiates in performing this music as an act of love.

This is aptly summed up in something Jan tells me later: “sometimes I play a tune, one tune, for hours, over and over.  Little by little, there is a language - if you know how to listen for it - wherein how to vary and express the piece reveals itself to you. I'll not likely ever be someone profoundly accomplished or knowledgable with this music. But I know how it makes me feel, what it brings out in me. I know if I can take what material I can play into my marrows, it will be part of who I am as a musician and as a human being, always.”

And that, essentially, is Gallowglass as a band: taking the music, the beautiful beast of Irish Traditional music, taking it down into the marrow of their souls and performing it as an exquisite moment risen from the depths of time and brought forth as a bright new wonder for the fortunate audience to experience.

Gallowglass at The Conway Muse 

Sunday Oct 12

There is something simultaneously joyful and beautifully sad about Traditional Irish Music. Here in the well-worn tavern interior of the Conway Muse, listening to Gallowglass perform on a rainy evening, I can feel the spirit of the music making me want either dance like a fool or drink myself under the bar like one. There is a full range of generations here from dancing children to young couples to boisterous tables of older folk. With a little imagination, you can fall back a hundred years or so. The music of Gallowglass takes you back to an earlier age where the ache of the fiddle, beat of the bodhrán, the chime of mandolin and guitar, were all the entertainment you wanted in your life.

The music begins with Britt Keeton on fiddle slightly mournful but circling around into a lively jig as Jan Peters chimes in on bouzouki, adding sweet layers of sound. This is followed by Zach Bauman echoing and elaborating on the melody with a mandolin. The music steadily gaining momentum and weight as David Pender Loftgren knocks out beats on the bodhran and Steven Tate plays grace note percussion. All of these songs seem like I have heard them all my life. The DNA of their melodies down in the roots of Western music. Gallowglass shifts effortlessly from the time signature of Morrison’s jig to The Drunken Landlady reel. Following it with Boys of Bluehill and Longford Weaver. At times, Peters accompanies with a harmonica, somehow making it sound like a button box accordion or Uilleann Bagpipes. The music circles and passes like a merry-go-round, each of the musicians moving out to the edge and then stepping back into the center.

Listening to Gallowglass perform, there is no denying the passion and dedication each of these musicians has for traditional music. Not as an archaic form but as a present and living thing. This is music to dance to, sing to, drink and think to. Go see them and may God hold you in the palm of his hand.

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