Beer and ballads with
Fire in the Glen
Fire in the Glen does a volume business. That's volume, as in loud. It's hard to believe two guys can crank out so much sound, but these particular two guys really know how to turn it up to 11.
This high-energy duo consists of Tom Knapp on fiddle and bodhran (the traditional Irish hand-held drum), Chet Williamson on guitar, and both singing -- loud and hearty. I caught up with them at their CD release party at Appalachian Brewing Company in Harrisburg in January.
The CD in question is their second, Pirates, Wakes & Whiskey, part of which was recorded live at Bube's Brewery in Mount Joy. The first CD, On the Road to Lisdoonvarna, was released in 2000 with a different lineup (Knapp on fiddle and John Varner on guitar).
After their set, we talked about, among other things, the band's name. I know "Fire in the Glen" as a hard-driving fiddle tune by the legendary Bothy Band; Knapp knows it as a slower tune by the also-legendary Silly Wizard.
You needn't be Irish to love Irish music. It helps, of course, but the success of such varied examples of Celtic artistry as Riverdance, Van Morrison, The Waterboys, flutist James Galway, and the syndicated NPR show "The Thistle and Shamrock" prove it's not a prerequisite. A good jig or a rollicking reel can inspire your soul and move your feet no matter what your heritage may be.
But if any corpuscle of Irish blood flows in your veins, this is music that will speak to you in amazing ways, in a language that has no need of language. Knapp says he is "one-eighth Irish -- and that's the part that's important." The other seven-eighths is German, but, he adds, "there's no oom-pah in my soul."
Hmmm, Germans and Irish? A fine combination. The Germans perfected the making of beer, and the Irish have no peers when it comes to consuming the stuff. A great deal of Irish music involves itself with the celebration of inebriation.
Pirates, Wakes & Whiskey taps into that tradition, where death and booze seem to be the major themes. But there's plenty of room for fun. FITG encourages audience participation. "Stomp along, hoot, and holler," Knapp exhorts. "The Irish are not a quiet people!" And Williamson's size-13 boots are made for stompin'. They hand out sing-along sheets with the choruses, and coach the audience on when to come in to lend even more volume.
FITG's Web site describes them as "a Celtic eclectic duo," and it's as good a description as any. Their playlist is a mix of classic Irish tunes and sea shanties -- "Barrett's Privateers," "Finnegan's Wake," "Whiskey in the Jar," "Wild Rover" -- with a sprinkling of original tunes like "Scots-Irish" (whose lyrics, "I'm Irish when I drink/But I'm Scottish when I pay!" are guaranteed to offend both nationalities), "Keep It Up," and "Susquehanna Pirate." That last one's a fine example of FITG's shtick of Williamson singing and Knapp kibitzing. "Chet will sing the song," Knapp says, "And I'll provide the color commentary."
Sure enough, when Williamson utters the word "buccaneer," Knapp yells, "That's pretty expensive corn!" Yeah, that's corny, but he's right on the mark, as "Susquehanna Pirate" concerns a local privateer who specializes in "stealing ripe tobacco, and Silver Queen white corn."
Williamson's voice is a fine, clear baritone with good range and a fluent tremolo -- better than the genre really calls for on many tunes. He admits to being "classically trained," and puts the training to good use on tunes like "Beggars to God." Knapp's pipes are accurate, if somewhat less refined. Taken together, they balance one another quite nicely.
FITG is a sort of self-appointed Irish ambassador to Central Pa. Says Knapp, "Years ago, you weren't getting any Irish music in this area. The big thing here is rock and folk-rock." Ergo, he says, "It's neat to see" more and more people appreciating the form. "The Irish takes a little getting used to," he states.
Besides their regular gigs, the duo leads Irish jams at venues in Lancaster, New Cumberland, and Elizabethtown. The format is simple, Knapp explains. "We sit in a circle, and people bring their instruments and play."
I've witnessed the event at Lancaster Malt Brewery (now Walnut Street Grille at Lancaster Brewing Company) with eight or 10 musicians joining in. Williamson says the jam draws anywhere from "a half-dozen to two dozen." The two also take their music to, of all places, retirement homes.
Retirement homes? Yep. Lots of 'em. And to their surprise, they've found the residents don't want to hear slow airs and gentle fiddle tunes. Nay, they want something "lively and pumped up," says Knapp. "Whether it's a pub or a retirement home, we like to do something lively. We like people making noise when we play." And in a masterful stroke of understatement, he adds, "We ham it up a little bit."
Like most local musicians, Knapp and Williamson have day jobs. Knapp's a reporter for Lancaster Newspapers. Williamson's also a writer, but more of a freelancer -- "mostly fiction," he tells me, with "about 16 novels published." Before that, he wrote and produced theater, from summer stock to industrial shows for Armstrong, back when that company did serious stage shows twice a year for its conventions, with a professional cast and musical numbers written just for its ceiling and flooring divisions.
Before that, Williamson played "a little folk music in high school -- longer ago than I want to remember." And beyond that? "I didn't do any music."
Knapp also experienced a gap in the continuity of his career as a violinist. "After studying violin "since third grade," he found it hard to continue. As an adult, he says, "I quit. I was tired of it."
His violin, like Williamson's guitar, sat in the closet for years. And then a friend invited Knapp to a jam session, and urged him, "Bring your fiddle." That was the catalyst. Thinking of the instrument as a fiddle, not a violin, made the difference. It became "a totally different instrument. I fell in love with it all over again."
So when the two got together, Williamson says, "I hadn't touched a guitar in years." Knapp interjects, "It showed." But they hit it off, they rehearsed, they coalesced, they got gigs.
The two like to rib one another. With all that professional and classical background, says Knapp, "Chet had to learn to relax, like me." Williamson retorts, "You mean I had to learn to be sloppy, like you."
So don't count on holding a quiet, polite conversation anywhere near while Knapp and Williamson have the stage. They don't do background music, and they hate to be ignored. But do count on having a good time if you'll give yourself over to the moment, the music, and the stomping. Slainte!