A Crack Team

There's a misconception among many of Clandestine's fans. They seem to think the Houston-based Celtic band should be doing something more to spread the wealth of its music. That the quartet should hire a manager, sign with a major label, hook up with a production company, secure a publicity agent, something, anything, to reach the level of success it so obviously deserves.

"There's a myth that all a band has to do is play music, and somebody will discover you and you'll live happily ever after," says bagpiper E.J. Jones. "There's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It doesn't happen like that. Instead, it's a slow progression. Labels are essentially publicity and distribution services that make all the decisions for you. The fact is we're at a happy level of success without a record company."

How happy? The band already plays 200 gigs on the road annually. It has sold about 10,000 copies of its latest self-produced CD. And most important: It has total control over its music and the arc of its career. That's success by almost any measure, certainly success in the circumscribed world of Celtic music.

Clandestine's lone concession to the standard procedures of the music biz has been to hire a booking agent. Everything else, the band does in a more organic fashion. The foursome relies on community radio, local music retailers, weekly newspapers and the Internet. Of course, Clandestine has benefited from a renewed interest in Celtic and Irish music, thanks to such spectacles as the Lord of the Dance and Riverdance.

But more than that, Celtic music holds out the promise of a good time, which may be its biggest selling point.

Jones, vocalist/guitarist Jennifer Hamel, fiddle player Gregory McQueen and percussionist/vocalist Emily Dugas are obviously talented musicians. When talented musicians, a friendly audience and good drinks come together, you get "crack." In Irish music circles, crack is the transcendence that comes from a quality pub-music session. Clandestine delivers the intimacy and authenticity of pub music in a concert setting.

At its most basic, Celtic music is folk music. Whether from Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain, Canada or the United States, Celtic music has its origins in a rural dance form. As an urban pub genre, however, Celtic music came about in the 20th century. But the sound is more than a fad. It has slowly spread from the pubs to more mainstream outlets. Hell, you can even find a Celtic music listening station in Walgreens these days.

"Celtic music is becoming a class of music that will equal jazz or blues in terms of sales," believes Jones. "Everybody knows what jazz and bluegrass is. And I think everybody will recognize Celtic as a legitimate musical genre."

People associate Texas with alternative country or the blues, but not Celtic music. Yet the Lone Star State is home to a large Scots-Irish population. For instance, there's a sizable pipe scene in Houston -- and we're not talking about the ones you can buy at hemp shops in Montrose. These are bagpipes.

Houston is also home to the St. Thomas Episcopal School program, where students can choose to play pipes or drums. Bandleader Mike Cusack, who teaches pipes, is a gold medalist and a winner this past year at the Festival Interceltique. Cusack has taken the school band to Europe, where it has won the Juvenile World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow three times in the past decade. The program produces a lot of good pipers. Then there's the Hamilton Pipe Band, an adult ensemble into which some of the kids graduate. Hamilton has won the Grade Three Championship in Glasgow. Clandestine's Jones studied with Cusack for years and used to play for the Hamilton Pipe Band.

Celtic and Irish musicians also hone their chops at a weekly pub session at the Mucky Duck. New players are welcome, but the sessions usually attract the heavy hitters. Members of Clandestine often will play there when in town. The pub session, the bedrock of Irish music, is something that by definition cannot be scheduled. You show up at the Duck on Wednesdays, around 8 p.m., and hope you get to hear Turlach Boylan, an all-Ireland flute player from County Derry. Or maybe you'll hear members from some of Houston's other Celtic bands like Wyndnwyre. Rex Shaver usually can be found playing the bodhran, the Irish drum made of goatskin. This is where members of the Celtic community gather and nurture one another.

The difference between a pub session and a Clandestine concert in front of 5,000 festivalgoers has more to do with image and sound than with repertory. Clandestine attacks Irish music like a rock band. What's more, aside from its Irish and Scottish repertory, Clandestine plays Breton music, which is Celtic music from Bretagne in northwest France. It has evolved differently than Irish music and is strongly related to Breton dancing. It's more about line dancing than step dancing, which means the music exudes a party flavor. The rhythm is groovier, and the instrumentation is different.

Jones plays a bombarde, which sounds like a bagpipe at 78 rpm.

Another difference is that Clandestine plays a lot of original compositions. Hamel is the band's chief songwriter. In fact, she was recently working on some solo material with Gerry O'Beirne, producer of Clandestine's last record, To Anybody at All. According to Hamel, her album is mostly originals and a couple of obscure covers. "It's not Irish music, but songwriter stuff," she says. "I write some material that really isn't suited for an Irish band. I've been collecting material for six years. Most first records have a tendency to be self-absorbed. I'm trying to avoid that on this album."

Hamel's solo project doesn't mean Clandestine is splitting up. Quite the opposite, says Jones.

"Jennifer is an inspiration to me," he says. "Her solo album shows me that I can do an album in the future. It doesn't take much money. The structure that allows independent music to succeed is getting stronger and stronger."

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Aaron Howard