Thursday, March 13, 2008
March Madness doesn’t apply only to college hoops. For traditional Irish musicians, the weeks surrounding St. Patrick’s Day are the busiest of the year, as clubs, pubs and restaurants make sure they’ve booked at least one Irish act to fulfill the Hibernian hankerings of their patrons.
Indeed, just as the holiday has become a secular American celebration, embraced by anyone who wants to associate with the Emerald Isle, St. Patrick’s Day generates an ecumenical musical tide that lifts all boats, bringing some of the finest musicians from across the Celtic world to Northern California.
No group better captures the deep ties between Ireland and the Bay Area than the Black Brothers. This year’s dates include a Sunday show at the Pacific Grove Art Center presented by the Celtic Society of Monterey Bay.
Featuring San Francisco-based Michael on banjo, Oakland’s Shay on guitar and Dublin-based Martin on fiddle, the Black Brothers are accompanied by keyboardist Bryan Seet and cellist Myra Chaney. The show reflects the brothers’ musical passions, ranging reels, jigs and traditional ballads, as well as tunes by contemporary Irish, Scottish, English and Canadian songwriters.
Their performances also are peppered with sea shanties that Shay collected during the two decades he lived in Liverpool, when he toured widely throughout Europe with the legendary shantyman Stan Hugill. “We encourage a lot of audience participation,” says Shay, who also performs with the quartet Nauticus. “Shanties and sea songs lend themselves to that.”
The brothers have occasionally toured and recorded with their sisters, Frances and Mary Black, two of Ireland’s brightest music stars. But they mostly worked individually until they started performing as the Black Brothers in the late 1980s.
“We’ve never gone out to look for gigs,” says Michael, who moved to San Francisco in 1984 to study, eventually earning a Ph.D. in sociology from UC Berkeley.
Michael’s solo career advanced significantly last year with the release of his self-named debut solo album on Compass Records. Produced by the powerhouse Irish guitarist John Doyle, the CD features stars such as fiddler Liz Carroll, Solas multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, and all of his siblings.
While the Black Brothers come together every St. Patrick’s season, the Celtic music scene around the Monterey Bay hums all year round. For musicians and music fans alike, there are a multitude of opportunities to play and hear Irish music every month. Michael Black credits the efforts of Bob Breheny, the guiding spirit behind the Celtic Society of the Monterey Bay, for helping maintain a healthy musical community.
Born in the Bronx to Irish parents, Breheny became passionate about Irish music as a teen. When he moved to Gilroy around 1979, he found ways to satisfy his Celtic music jones.
“Growing up in New York there were plenty of options to indulge,” Breheny says. “When I did move out here, one of the things I missed was the music. What started as a hobby became a passion.”
Breheny maintains a website, celticsociety.org, and sends a monthly electronic newsletter with updates about gigs and sessions (to sign up e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org). While he mostly presents in Santa Cruz area venues (including Kuumbwa, Don Quixote’s and Cayuga Vault), he’s always looking to move south if he can connect with a receptive audience.
THE BLACK BROTHERS perform 7pm Sunday, March 16, at the Pacific Grove Art Center, 568 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove. Tickets are $20 in advance and $22 at the door. For reservations, call Dave at (831) 645-9390 or e-mail Bob at The Celtic Society at email@example.com.