Gaelic Storm:
setting new courses

An interview by Tom Knapp

Gaelic Storm likes to throw a little improvisation into its shows.

But Gaelic Storm, an Irish music phenomenon for the past several years, isn't an improv band -- a small hitch in the plan that neither the musicians nor their audiences seem to mind.

"We frequently build sections into our music where we don't know what's going to happen," said band member Steve Twigger. "We play the same songs night after night, but they're never the same twice."

But spontaneity can be tricky on stage, he admitted.

"They frequently go nowhere. And those are the fun ones," he said. "That happened recently and we literally had to stop in the middle. We just burst out laughing. The audience realized it wasn't a master class in virtuosity ... but we were there to have a good time."

Twigger, from Coventry, England, sings and plays guitar, bouzouki and mandolin with the popular band.

He's joined onstage by co-founders Patrick Murphy of Cork, Ireland (vocals, accordion, harmonica) and New Yorker Steve Wehmeyer (vocals, bodhran, didgeridoo) plus newcomers Tom Brown of Ottowa (bagpipes, pennywhistle), Californian Ryan Lacey (percussion) and the most recent addition, fiddler Bob Banerjee, a native of Calcutta, India, who now calls Pittsburgh home.

Although the band lost popular fiddler/whistler Kathleen Keane in 2002, Twigger said recent additions to the lineup have kept the band strong and growing.

"Kathleen was fantastic," he said. "But Bob brings different influences to the band, which is kind of cool. He has a bit of a jazz background, which he works into the Irish sound." Banerjee also sparked the band's diversion into improv, Twigger noted.

"On the other hand, Tom's pipes make us even more Celtic," he said. "So as we've pushed in one direction, we've also pushed it back with a very traditional pipe sound."

Overall, the band is more versatile, Twigger said -- giving musicians leeway to switch instruments more often and explore new techniques. That doesn't mean a sharp change in direction is imminent, however.

"I think we've always had a bit of a world groove sound," he said.

Reference to Titanic, the blockbuster film that launched the band's career in 1997, is inevitable. Twigger sighs a bit, then chuckles when asked if he ever gets tired of the question.

"We do," he admitted. "But you know, people dream of getting tired of something like that. We're grateful for the opportunity it gave us. We appreciate that it's a big thing, and we're not denying that it took us from fun on a Sunday night to fun on a national level.

"We don't have anything new to say about it, that's the problem," Twigger added. "Thanks for asking different questions."

He's quick to note that, before Titanic director James Cameron walked into O'Brien's, the band's favorite watering hole in Santa Monica, Calif., no one seemed worried about fame, fortune and world tours. They were content to play sessions in the pub, where bandmate Murphy also tended bar.

"We had a modest outlook for our future," Twigger said. "We really wanted to just keep playing at the pub.

"I've been involved in music for many, many years on a serious level and I'd had enough of that. I just wanted to get together with my friends and have a good time," he said. "There were starting to be lines outside the door before the movie came out, which was great. Now we get to do the same thing for a lot more people. It's fun."

It's still a little surprising to see how many people will pack a venue to hear Gaelic Storm play, he admitted.

"I won't say it doesn't get tiring to do as much as we do, but it's always uplifting to see people enjoying our music," Twigger said. "We see no end to it. And it seems to be growing for us. We've covered a lot of ground and met a lot of people. The word's out."

Certainly, the band's fame grew with the release of Tree, its third studio recording. The 2001 album spent several weeks in the No. 4 slot of Billboard's World Music Chart, fell, then surged back up to peak at No. 2.

Twigger said there's noticeable differences between Tree and the band's self-titled debut album from 1998, which spent 30 weeks on the charts and peaked at No. 5.

"Our sound has matured," he explained. "I think it's a lot broader than it was. It's a bigger sound. And, playing as much as we do, we hope we've improved along the line."

Gaelic Storm has been back in the studio and plans to release its fourth CD, Special Reserve, later this year. The band continues to mix original music with its standby traditionals, and Twigger said the ratio seems to work well for folks on both sides of the microphone.

"We try to keep it fresh, but we don't want to be slick," he said. "I think we have musicianship, but I think we keep a spontaneous feel to it."

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 7 June 2003

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