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March 10th, 2011 |




The pipes are calling


A look at the music surrounding the St. Pat's day parade


By Jared Curtis


A number of holidays are celebrated throughout the year, but one in particular brings an intoxicating smile to people's faces — St. Patrick's Day. While some honor the day as the "biggest bar holiday of the year," others celebrate the life of Saint Patrick himself. Regardless of your celebratory ways, most everyone loves the holiday with plenty of spirits, celebrations and music.

The annual parade (running east on Locust Street from 15th Street through downtown, ending at Embassy Suites, 101 E. Locust St.), which is put on by the local chapter of The Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, is a Des Moines tradition. Thousands flock downtown to enjoy the festivities, which unofficially start a day-long celebration.

As the parade ends, attendees spill into the surrounding downtown areas, packing into bars and events including the parade's public reception at the Embassy Suites and the State Historical Museum's family-friendly Irish Fest.

"Irish Fest was created in response to requests the Historical Museum received from Iowans who were looking for a day-time event they could attend with their families after the annual St. Patrick's Day parade," said Jeff Morgan, Public Information Officer for the State Historical Society of Iowa. "It is fun for all members of the family. Admission is free, and participants can enjoy themselves while learning about the history of Irish culture and its impact on Iowa."

Along with bar specials (see the sidebar samples), the music of the day also draws crowds. Traditional Irish/Celtic music is available throughout the year thanks to The Celtic Music Association. But on St. Patrick's Day, the tunes take center stage.

"The Celtic Music Association started in 1992 when a group of people were sitting at Cooney's Tavern and thought we needed an outlet for Celtic music in Des Moines," said Virgil Kleinhesselink, president of The Celtic Music Association. "Our first show was kind of a house concert setting. But when more than 300 people showed up, we knew the interest was here."

The group has been going strong and is booking acts for its 20th season.

"I think the big reason people like the music is tradition," Kleinhesselink said. "I got drawn in by the ballads, but if you go back and trace the history of bluegrass and Americana, you'll see the influences brought here by Irish/Scottish immigrants."

The association knows that drinking green beer all day is not everyone's cup of tea, so they encourage people to seek out the performances that take place surrounding the holiday.

"I tell people to take a chance on the music, and you'll find something you like," he said. "It's not just something you listen to on St. Patrick's Day."

Along with a number of events, a mix of shows will take place, too (see the sidebar listing some of the performances). We highlighted a few acts that put the rock in shamrock.


The Vandon Arms

Although the majority of the music you'll hear on St. Patrick's Day leans more to the traditional folk side of things, The Vandon Arms kicks audiences right in the bagpipes with its Irish punk sound. Following the musical styling of popular acts like Flogging Molly or Dropkick Murphys (who recently rocked a sold-out Val Air Ballroom), The Vandon Arms started their onslaught of the local music scene in 2005.

"We all lived together and would have drunken sing-a-longs. We thought we could put a group together and get free beer if we played Hairy Mary's [the onetime Des Moines staple venue for punk/metal/skate/rock bands]," said guitarist Clint Meek. "We didn't start out too serious, but after a while we had a pretty good thing going, so we cleaned it up a bit."

At the time when they started, seeing an Irish punk band in Des Moines was not really an option.

"People were only familiar with Dropkick or Flogging Molly, so we started messing around with their tunes," Meek said. "But then we got into the more traditional Irish folk groups, fun songs that were boisterous and included big group sing-a-longs."

The group has played alongside fellow genre mates The Tossers and Flatfoot 56, but one of their bigger shows was the first 80/35 Music Festival.

"It was great to be included with so many types of music, and it was awesome after we finished because so many people came up to us not knowing we were a local band," Meek said. "It was a cool experience and a lot of fun."

Playing on the 80/35 stage provided a big boost for a band that had trouble breaking into the local scene.

"It was real tough at first, because we were unique to the local scene," Meek said. "But it works because it brings together so many different types of fans from the hard core kids to the emo kids to the metal heads — everyone can be themselves while singing along and having some beers."

The band called it quits a few years back but began to miss the experience. They decided to play only a few shows a year, with their most recent performance in Des Moines last summer.

"No matter if we play all the time or not at all, we're going to be rusty. But that's the thing about the music — it's not supposed to be perfect," he said.

The Vandon Arms makes its triumphant return to Des Moines on a rare St. Patrick's Day appearance. (The band normally would play bigger celebrations in surrounding Midwest cities on the holiday, playing Des Moines some time during the week.) They are pulling out all the stops including two opening bands — North of Grand and Look Out Loretta — and special guests the Iowa Scottish Pipes and Drums and the Foy School of Irish Dance.

"This show is about as Irish as you can get," Meek laughs. "North of Grand is one of the best bands in town, and we have been playing with Look Out Loretta since the beginning. We're hoping for a great turnout since we're actually playing on St. Pat's Day. Hopefully the Dropkick Murphys show will have people riled up for some Irish Punk."

Meek says for those who have not experienced The Vandon Arms show, this will be an opportunity not to be missed.

"We offer a different atmosphere than a lot of the other local shows people are used to seeing in Des Moines," Meek said. "It's a party atmosphere with a great mix of fans from all genres, and we're excited to play for all our fans."

Four Shillings Short

The Celtic/folk/world music duo known as Four Shillings Short (Aodh Og O'Tuama and Christy Martin) return to Iowa after two years of touring including numerous stops in Ireland. They will be bringing their show to "Irish Fest" at the State Historical Museum on St. Patrick's Day as well as a few other gigs around the metro.

"We've played in Des Moines for years and always ask, 'When can we come back?' " Martin said. "We have lots of great friends and musicians we love spending time with, so we always make sure Iowa is on the list when we come through this part of the country."

Four Shillings Short performs traditional and original music from Ireland and Scotland on an array of instruments (more than 30) including hammered dulcimer, mandolin, mandola, bouzouki, tinwhistles, recorders, medieval and renaissance woodwinds, north Indian sitar, charango, bowed psaltery, banjo, bodhran, guitar, percussion, vocals and even a krumhorn. 

"I handle most of the stringed instruments, and Aodh handles most of the woodwinds," Martin said. "It's a very entertaining, educational show, and it's a great opportunity for people to celebrate their Irish heritage."

The husband and wife duo have been performing together since 1995, although O'Tuama has been fronting the band since 1985.

"Originally, the band had a lot of different members, but I was the central leader," O'Tuama said. "Christy showed up to a show in 1995, I asked her out, we fell in love and we became a duo traveling the U.S. playing traditional Irish drinking and political songs."

Soon the duo broadened its sound, adding other world genres into the mix to create a unique mixture of songs and sounds.

"We've expanded into a broader concert setting, offering more educational events and family programs. But while in town, we'll be doing more of a St. Patrick's Celebration with lots of Irish pieces and some history of the songs," O'Tuama said.

The duo believes there is a number of reasons people are intrigued by traditional Irish/Celtic music.

"I love how Irish music breaks a lot of boundaries and captures people," Martin said. "The melodies are so wide range and complex; they grab your attention."

Adding to the show is the heritage O'Tuama (who grew up in Ireland) brings to the music.

"There is a lot of people performing Irish music, but not a lot of them grew up in that tradition like Aodh did," Martin said. "I think it really comes out in our music and takes listeners deeper into the Irish experience."

O'Tuama agrees.

"The music draws a lot of emotion from people due to the wide range of melodies, and it takes people on an emotional journey from being happy to sad to reflecting in two or three songs," he said. "Irish music is a living tradition that is vibrant and constantly evolving, and I believe people enjoy it because it evokes deep emotions that maybe pop music doesn't."

The group will be performing throughout the day (1 to 4 p.m.) at Irish Fest and they encourage everyone to hear what they're all about.

"It's a free event that offers something for everybody from learning about Irish history, to seeing traditional Irish dancing as well as hearing plenty of traditional music," Martin said.


Pipes and Drums

Although some people tend to lean more to the rock side of traditional Irish/Celtic music, two local groups have kept the original sound alive by forming pipes and drums factions. Both the MacKenzie Highlanders Pipes & Drums and the Iowa Scottish Pipes & Drums provide an authentic look and sound.


MacKenzie Highlanders Pipes & Drums

The mission of the MacKenzie Highlanders Pipes & Drums is to acknowledge and support Iowa's active military units, law enforcement agencies and fire departments. The group plays almost all of the Iowa National Guard deployment and homecoming ceremonies.

"We are proud to do so, and we hope to create a memory that the soldiers and their families will remember and appreciate," says Jim Jorgensen, Pipe Major.

Jorgensen received his first taste of the bagpipes while serving his country.

"While I was overseas, I was around a British unit that played the bagpipes, and I fell in love with them," he said. "When I got home, I made it my mission to play them. It took quite a bit of time to learn, and a lot of stamina, but I've been playing them ever since."

Although the group performs throughout the year, band members enjoy the lighter tones of their St. Patrick's Day performances.

"It's definitely our busiest day," he said. "We enjoy playing because it's a happier time than the majority of the events — send offs or funerals — we perform at throughout the year."

The group (consisting of 10 members) participates in the annual parade and loves hearing feedback from fans and first-time listeners.

"The pipes are very important to the Celtic culture, so it would be a shame not to have any pipes in the parade," Jorgensen said. "After the parade, we have a lot of people who tell us how much they enjoyed and were impressed with our performances."

Although both piping groups are popular draws on St. Patrick's Day, don't expect any bad blood between them.

"We are two completely different groups," Jorgensen said. "They are a competition band with very good pipers, and we take more of a military/police stance. We both provide good Irish/Celtic music for people to enjoy."


Iowa Scottish Pipes & Drums

The Iowa Scottish Pipes and Drums is based in Des Moines and was originally founded from the membership of the Iowa Scottish Heritage Society in 1975. For more than 30 years, the band has played for high profile events including the Archbishop of Canterbury's visit to Iowa, the Inaugural Ball for the Governor, the World Scottish Festival in Montreal, the Des Moines Arts Festival, the World Food Festival and the Hy-Vee Triathlon. The group performs throughout the country on a competitive level in the Midwest Bagpipe Association.

"We stay busy throughout the year, but our competitive season normally runs from May to October," said Sue Seidenfeld, Pipe Major. "The competitions are more nerve racking, which is why we love playing on St. Patrick's Day."

The group (consisting of 15 to 20 people) takes part in the St. Patrick's Day festivities by visiting local bars and events and performing traditional songs throughout the day.

"Bar performances are different than are other shows, but it's great experience and exposure," Seidenfeld said. "It's a lot of fun because most people on St. Patrick's Day are in really good spirits, and they give us great feedback."

Seidenfeld likes the fact that they add something a little special to the beloved holiday.

"It really adds a lot to what is essentially just a day for drinking," she said. "Most people will only hear snippets of the music, but it's good to expose them to that type of music and the culture the holiday is celebrating."

The group will end its St. Patrick's Day by teaming up with local Irish punk band The Vandon Arms at The House of Bricks, a new venue for the pipers.

"It's going to definitely be an interesting experience," Seidenfeld laughs. "We've never played at The House of Bricks before, but we're open to new experiences. Plus, any time we get to play in front of a new audience and expose them to the traditional sounds, it's great."

One thing's for sure, on St. Patrick's Day "the pipes, the pipes are calling." CV