This week, Irish culture is on grand display as we eye St. Patrick’s Day 2019. Music is a big and fascinating part of the culture and several Houston bands help preserve and advance music styles with Irish roots. We've asked a few of the city’s best and best-loved Celtic-flavored bands to help piece together a playlist of integral Paddy’s Day songs. Once we’re done, you’ll have a solid list of tunes and at least a few ideas of where to celebrate this weekend.
Kristin Coyle and The Black Swans are a newer Houston group which launched, appropriately, on St. Patrick’s Day 2017. The fiddle is at the forefront of the lively music thanks to the band’s namesake. She’s joined by guitarists Jon Hom and Christian Weigand and drummer Chris Piper. While the group may be upstart, its individual members have extensive performing backgrounds and other music projects. Like yesterday’s featured band, Blaggards, Kristin & company take different genres – rock, folk and blues,… yes, you read that correctly, blues – and infuse them with traditional Irish music. A better description might come from the band itself, which self-identifies as “feisty fiddling accompanied by a weaving electric guitar, luscious rhythms and a healthy dose of drum swagger.” How good does that sound?
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The band has earned a following from dates at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, where it will hold court with sets Saturday and Sunday during Mucky Duck’s two-day St. Patrick’s Day Celebration. The event is billed as a weekend of Irish craic (translation: fun), with Irish food, drink, dancing and, of course, music. The Kirby-area venue has been billed as one of the top 10 places to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the United States by USA Today. You’re probably not going to see a bluesy Irish band like Kristin Coyle and The Black Swans at many other Paddy’s Day celebrations. Only in Houston could you get this mix of blues bar-meets-Temple Bar.
Before they hit the stage, Coyle agreed to give us a few tunes to include in your playlist. They're all traditional songs which have been covered by various acts, so she offered some exemplary renditions below, along with some wry history lessons on the tunes.
This one, Coyle says, “is based on a true story about romance, danger and — a hallmark of many Irish songs — death. John MacNaughton was at the top of his game, but lost everything to gambling. He went to his friend Andrew Knox for help and fell in love with Andrew's daughter. Andrew threw him out of the house when he asked for her hand. In true gentleman's style, he decided he would meet them on the road, kill Andrew and take Mary Ann away and live happily ever after.
“Things did not go as planned,” Coyle noted ominously. “He ended up shooting her instead. The townspeople quickly caught him and gave him a speedy trial that night. And then he was sentenced to hang. However, when he jumped, the rope snapped. He was let go in consideration of divine intervention, but decided to overrule God's decision and jumped again, as he did not want to be remembered as the half-hanged man. And he is now immortalized in this song. A love story.”
John Ryan's Polka
Coyle recommends this one for anyone who "ever wanted to hang out with Jack and Rose in the steerage class of the Titanic." The song was featured in the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, so it may sound familiar even if you aren't a student of Celtic music.
"Nothing better than foot-stomping, girl-twirling, heart-pounding music as you drink beer and live like it's your last day before Rose leaves you. In the water," Coyle says. "That door was big enough for two, I don't care what anyone says.
'It's cold,....' 'I know, dear.'"
"As the story goes, the composer, Amy Cann, had a former boyfriend, who asked her to cancel a lucrative gig as a fiddler because he wanted to surprise her with a trip," Coyle explains. "Because she loved him, she trusted him and went ahead and canceled. The day comes around and no boyfriend. She calls him. Through all the background noise, she hears him say, 'Hi honey! What are you up to? I'm here on my skiing trip with the boys!'
"Amy, collecting herself, quite remarkably, tells him goodbye and decides to take out her frustrations with some fiddling. Thus, 'Catharsis' was written and her former boyfriend was immortalized. Never upset a fiddler with writing skills."
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Coyle added this postscript: "She ended up marrying him, so I guess he made it up to her."
Skye Boat Song
"This Scottish song was originally written about Bonnie Prince Charlie, the rebel prince who sought to recapture Scotland with the Jacobites for his father and House Stuart. In the TV hit show, Outlander, the lyrics come from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island. The poem is an ode to his lost youth. You could say his youth died. So, predictably, as with our current theme, somebody dies. A swan song."