A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Summer 2019 / VOL. 19 ISSUE 2
Irish Fest Musicians Display Broad Range of Gaelic Styles
By: Deric Green
The Irish American Post Music Editor
For Randy Gosa, Irish music is all about getting together. He loves the community aspect of learning and playing in an informal atmosphere and with the encouragement from other musicians. “It is one of the first things that drew me to it. It’s also humbling to be part of a larger story that spans generations,” he asserted.
Randy Gosa Keeps Busy Honing His Musical Craft
He is one busy guy. Outside of specific rehearsals for tours, concerts and related
musical projects, Gosa practices daily and also teaches weekly lessons for the
Milwaukee Irish Fest School of Music. He plays and teaches multiple instruments,
including guitar, bouzouki, tenor banjo, and mandolin so he needs to make sure he's
getting regular time on each, which he admits is occasionally hard to find.
In addition, Gosa has also been learning fiddle over the past several years, which is
taking a lot of practice hours. However, he doesn't have a dedicated studio space for
practice or teaching so he instructs classes at the CelticMKE Center in Wauwatosa on
Mondays and from his home in St. Francis the rest of the week.
He also occasionally goes farther afield, mentoring students at the Center for Irish
Music in St. Paul. "I really enjoy helping people learn to play an instrument, espicailly when you reach a breakthrough on a particular tune or technique." Gosa enthused.
He wanted to be sure his students were aware of the musical nuances that are integral with learning. "In Irish traditional music, the word 'tune' typically refers to instrumental dance tunes or airs. A 'song' is something with words that is set to a tune. Both could be accompanied by piano, guitar or drum, or played or sung unaccompanied - melody alone with no chords or percussion," Gosa explained.
“I’m always learning new tunes. It’s an integral part of playing Irish music, as it’s the vehicle by which you participate and learn to express your musicianship,” he said. “There are so many tunes, and even multiple versions of the same tune from different players and regions. It’s exciting when someone shares a great new tune or version you’ve never heard and you can work on adding it to your repertoire.”
For Gosa, building his collection of Celtic renditions is a lifelong project and it’s one of the best parts of playing Irish music. “Each tune is a little story/thought/feeling that somebody had, in some cases a long time ago, and will continue to be shared as long as we learn them and keep passing them on,” he pointed out. In keeping with this drive to learn, Gosa has studied with noted performers Liz Carroll, Niall Keegan, Sandra Joyce and Andy Irvine.
One of his favorite songs -- which he performs with The Lost Forty with Brian Miller of St. Paul -- is “Lost on the Lady Elgin” about the wreck of a side-paddle steamer with mostly Irish from Milwaukee aboard for a trip to Chicago to hear Stephen Douglas speak in 1860.
“On the trip home to Milwaukee, the ship collided with a timber schooner and sank, claiming the lives of most of the passengers. In addition to being a beautifully written song with poetic and at some points very serious language, It’s an important part of the Irish immigrant story of Milwaukee,” according to Gosa.
He regularly plays with the band Myserk, which has had several participants over the years, including founding member Devin McCabe (fiddle and concertina) and Amy Richter (bodhrán). Currently, the
quartet is Asher Gray (flute, whistle, bouzouki), Brett Lipshutz (flute, whistle, bombarde), Vidar Skrede (fiddle, guitar) and Gosa (guitar and bouzouki). Skrede, a native of Haugesund, Norway, joined the others after moving to Milwaukee from Chicago about two years ago.
Gosa said that name Myserk comes from “The Clare Myserks,” the title of an Irish set dance. He told how their band title was rooted in the word “mazurka,” which is a dance tune form originating in Poland but one that has traveled to lots of other cultures much like the polka. “As a group that plays a mixture of music from Ireland, Brittany and France, we thought the word was fitting to tie the different musical traditions together,” he said.
Gosa plays at several weekly Irish traditional music sessions around Milwaukee when he’s not on the road with The Lost Forty or with Norah Rendell. He’s part of an assemblage of musicians that hosts a weekly get-together at County Clare Inn and Pub every Friday night. In addition to the Clare, Asher Gray, he and Molly Noyes lead a sessiun each second Wednesday of the month at the Draft & Vessel in Shorewood. Gosa also usually goes to Paddy’s Pub on Thursday nights for the sessiun led by fiddler T.J. Hull. One can also find Gosa playing regularly with the Cream City Ceili Band at the Irish Cultural & Heritage Center.
“I love playing in all kinds of different scenarios, not just performance environments. A sessiun, for example, can offer an intimate, tangible connection to the music that’s very different than watching a band on stage,” Gosa explained. “Playing music for social dancing (ceili and set dancing) really solidifies the connection between the tunes and the dance. Performing in a concert environment with a duo or band can provide an opportunity to craft a more formal musical narrative,” he added.
Gosa first got involved playing Irish music as a teenager around 1999. Several of his friends were learning fiddle and suggested that he check out the sessiun at Carpenters Pub, run by Sligo native Aelred Gannon in Delafield. Gosa was playing rock music at that point and was just starting to become interested in folk and traditional music.
“After that experience, I was totally hooked. In addition to becoming a regular there, I started working up arrangements of tunes and songs to perform with my friends Rebecca Brooke and Derek Dunn,” he recalled.
Gosa has a small amount of Irish heritage on his mom’s side. Actually, one of the oldest known relatives his family has been able to trace is his mother’s seventh great-grandfather who was born in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, in the mid-1600s. “Other than that, I have some English and Danish heritage and like many folks in the Milwaukee area, I have a large amount of German heritage in my family. Gosa is actually German, originally spelled ‘Gose,’ he related.
He’s been on the international learning circuit, as well as locally, with classes at the University of Limerick in 2004 as part of a study abroad program run by the UW-Milwaukee Center for Celtic Studies. At the time, Gosa was an undergrad at UWM working on getting his Celtic Studies Certificate.
“The reputation of the Irish traditional music program at UL was well known, so when I got the opportunity to study there as part of the CCS Certificate program, I jumped on it,” he said.
The UL program was led by Niall Keegan and Sandra Joyce and covered multiple aspects of Irish music including history, important recordings, regional styles, ballad and sean nós singing, as well as the evolution of Irish music through the years. Students also had workshops in set dancing and sean nós dance. Gosa is still in touch with several of classmates from that program, including Amy Richter with whom he still performs with regularly.
Actually, Gosa has been to Ireland several times. “In fact, I was just there in May and June It’s great to meet other musicians and find sessiuns while there. Visiting Ireland is vital to the connection with the music, especially as someone who didn’t grow up with family members playing Irish music at home,” he said.
Gosa said he loved going to natural areas and historic sites, with one the highlights on his most recent trip was seeing Slieve League in Co. Donegal, a stretch of cliffs along the west coast of Donegal almost three times higher than the better-known Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare.
Gosa said of the most helpful things he’s learned from these experiences is to be in tune with his musical strengths and weaknesses. “It’s important to know what you’re good at and what you need to spend more time working on to broaden your musicality,” he emphasized.
“My first opportunity to perform at Irish Fest was around 2001 as part of a trio with my good friends Rebecca Brooke and Derek Dunn, two of the friends that encouraged me to start going to the Carpenters’ session back in ’99,” he went on. “The festival is like a holiday for the greater Irish community here in southeastern Wisconsin, and Wisconsin as a whole. It feels like a massive extended family celebration. The audiences are always enthusiastic and have a wide range of interests. For the most part, I think the festival does a great job of offering something for everyone.”
Gosa isn’t the only one of his clan into music, there are several musicians in his extended family but none of them play Irish music. His dad and all of his brothers are musicians and his father taught him to play guitar, his first instrument. “Interestingly enough, I recently learned that my dad’s grandfather used to play fiddle for barn dances at Pabst Farms where he worked, which was very exciting to hear,” he chuckled.
He’s optimistic about the directions Irish music has been heading over the last decade. “There are some very progressive approaches, with blistering tempos, heavily arranged sets and even digital effects. There are bands focused on mixing Irish music with bluegrass and American roots music, which has been very popular in America,” he said.
“And there are lots of folks intent on keeping their music very traditional. I think there will always be a certain level of exploration and experimentation, but if the music gets too saturated, people will come back to the essence of the tunes and songs and look for more traditional approaches,” he predicted.
Tally-Ho for Tallymoore
Milwaukee’s Tallymoore goes for contemporary Gaelic folk, dishing out a range of Irish and Scottish ballads, reels and classic pub ditties. Breathing new life into the classics, the group also incorporates acoustic and vocal material from broader traditional country, bluegrass, and Americana sources.
According to their back grounding, fans first saw them in in 2012, as they performed at such major Irish music festivals as Milwaukee, Kansas City, Syracuse, Michigan, La Crosse, Dubuque, Oshkosh, Kalamazoo and Indianapolis. Let’s not forget their stand-up-and-applaud showing at the Mad Gael Festival in Madison. They also perform regularly at outdoor concerts, in theaters and for several Irish-related events and private engagements from Oconomowoc to Galena. Tallymoore released its second full-length album Drive in March of 2016.
The core quartet includes Sean Ward (vocals, mandolin), Patrick Wade (violin), Dave Kennedy (guitar) and Pete Ford (vocals). They frequently perform with guest bassist, Karl Suechting.
'tis This 'n That Hit the Irish Fest Stage with Upbeat Sounds
Tom Mortenson, percussionist for 'tis, started to play with the band about 13 years ago
because the group needed a percussionist. His impressive skills came into play with his work on the bodhran, djembe, doumbek, bongos, pandiero and a cajon. Mortensen's girlfriend steps into help whenever necessary to set up the drums.
While most of 'tis shows are in the Milwaukee area, the band did a mini-tour up in the Wausau area. "It was fun. We would consider playing in venues around the state of Wisconsin as long as we were being paid and covering expenses," Mortensen said, indicating he'd like audiences to share the group's love of music "The variety of jigs and reels can be played in a variety of ways and "made your own," he said. "We adapt songs and tunes and make them our own."
"I've been listening to Irish music since I was a kid. Although my family isn't Irish, my parents had a lot of friends who were and we had the music playing in our house. I say we are all 'ISH.' I happen to be Danish, he laughed.
His first memories of Milwaukee Irish Fest date from the ‘90s when his parents and friends took him to some fantastic musicians. “It inspired me to learn how to play the bodhran. Hopefully, we can continue to perform and get more gigs in the Milwaukee region. We’d like to play a gig every six weeks or so, if possible. Playing Milwaukee Irish Fest is always an honor and we are grateful to be asked to come back year after year,” he said.
According to Mortensen, Wisconsin audiences are great, with their enthusiasm, appreciation and fun involvement. “They get really engaged,” he pointed out. “I have not been to Ireland yet but I am leaving for Nova Scotia at the end of August to visit Cape Breton Island and to hear some great music. I’m bringing my bodhran and can hopefully join in a sessiun or two.
John Manthe stepped up to tell how the band got its name. “We were sitting at a small restaurant having coffee and working an arrangement with the owners to play one evening a month. Of course, the question came up as to what we call ourselves. The answer just came about it would be ‘tis; for no real reason, but it stuck.
What drew them together back in 2002r was serendipitous. “Two of us had met at different sessions and each knew other people. That led to a standing Saturday morning session at a coffee shop that has since closed. One morning while playing, someone asked if we would play for their family St. Patrick’s party. We thought why not. That started the band rolling,” he said. “I take care of the finances and booking Irish Fest. All of us are actively arranging bookings the rest of the year.” The group includes Tim Benkowski, Manthe, Mortensen and Tim Kolberg.
For ‘tis, Gaelic music offers a lot to enjoy. According to Manthe, “you cannot help but get into the beat of the music. It is fun to play and listen.” For him people love music and it shows. “When an audience truly gets into our performance, it makes us perform at a much higher level,” he added. While they don’t write their own tunes, ‘tis has arranged several sets that mix Gaelic music with American. “We are not always playing in a traditional manner, Manthe continued. His first memories of MKE Irish Fest was the abundance of music. “It was quite impressive the first time I went. While ‘tis doesn’t tour, Manthe has been to Ireland 11 times and joined in many sessions. He’s performed at Matt Malloy’s pub and a pub in Donegal Town called the Reel Inn. “That is my favorite place to play. The owner, John, is a button box player and runs a true Irish pub,” he pointed out. “I wish we could afford a roadie, but I pack up the sound equipment and haul it to our gigs. Everyone pitches in to set up and tear down.
So, what's next for ‘’tis.” “I hope that the band name becomes more well known. ‘tis is the correct way to spell it, but that does not always work with spell check,” he smiled.
Singer Tom Leahy has been around Milwaukee’s Irish music scene for years. But back in the long-ago ‘60s, he said that there really wasn't much Irish celebration in his family other than his mother pinning a shamrock on the kids’ shirts as we went off to school. “I think that Irish pride in my life didn't begin till I was an adult. Irish Fest was a big part of it. Our family is from Co. Cork and moved to the States in the 1850s,” he said. But Leahy clearly loves the melodic sounds and even the "Paddy McShamrock songs" like “Dear Old Donegal,” “Toor a Loor” and “The Moonshiner.”
“Thirty years back, my brother Brian and I, both music lovers, got together to do Irish songs....mostly during St Paddy’s month when there wasn't much competition but lots of demand. We quickly added our children to form a family band called Leahys Luck. That, of course, carried over to Milwaukee's Irish Fest....and we've been playing there for almost three decades,” he exclaimed with wonder about the passage of time.
When Leahy retired 11 years ago from his “day job" after 35 years with FedEx, he began to branch out from playing only Irish songs. With his son Evan, he began performing as a duo, and the two now have a healthy repertoire of folk-rock songs and, of course, a hearty stable of Irish tunes.
During last St Paddy’s month, he and Evan played out 34 times. “Many retirement communities look for Irish music and we sometimes have ‘Double-Headers’ and even an occasional ‘Triple-Header,’ two or three gigs in one day. Each show is always different, not so much in songs but in connection with the audience. I think that's what gives me the most satisfaction. I love playing music (and golf) with Evan. It gets better every year, both from our music quality standpoint, and from the relationship we enjoy.”
The father-son duo practice as needed and more or less in front of the computer. The Leahys perform about twice a week so they maintain their chops but they add newer/different songs there are lots of rehearsal, mostly on their own.
“One of the greatest things about the computer is YouTube. There are so many versions of almost any song; it gives you ideas for how you want to interpret it. And then you can rehearse to the song as often as necessary. I didn't practice much when I worked full time at FedEx... but now I do,” he offered.
“We aren't learning many newer Irish songs; we already have a large selection. However, we constantly add newer folk-rock songs from many artists, Leahy said, adding that Evan acts as the "artistic director.”
“We have many Grateful Dead songs, as well as Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and lots more. We joke that Evan is the ‘Dead Head’ of our duo and I'm the ‘Petty-Head.’ My current favorite is an ‘80's song from the Norwegian band A-Ha called ‘Take On Me,’” Leahy continued.
The two perform out at many places, with the most regular venues being O'Donoghue's Irish Pub in Elm Grove and Timmer's Resort in West Bend. “Our schedule is on our calendar on our simple website, evanandtom.com. (we like to kid that we paid BIG Money to get that web name! Ha!) Listed are a few of our late summer and early fall appearances.
“I really like the interaction and connection you feel with the audience. I would much rather play frequently, as we do, than play for bigger venues one-two times a month,” Leahy said.
“That is one of the benefits of being part of a duo. Our cost is relatively cheap so we fit the budgets of many pubs rather than part of a bigger band with many mouths to feed. I also like the fact that I keep getting better. We try to be as authentic as possible - no processed music, no drum tracks, bass tracks or horn tracks. But I will say, we do have two pedals: one that gives the sound of the kick drum and another that harmonizes with me for tree-part harmony...and four when Evan joins in,” Leahy explained.
“Most people don't realize our ‘great harmonies’ are getting a little lift from splitting out my voice through the pedal. Ah, technology! Evan is great at harmony(better than me) so his harmony contribution makes it sound very unique,” he laughed.
For more information about these Irish Fest bands:
Randy Gosa -- randygosa.com
Tallymoore -- tallymoore.com
Evan & Tom Leahy - evanandtom.com
Tom Leahy Explains Why He Loves All This Irishness
Irish American Post music editor Deric Green takes a listen to several hot Gaelic bands that fans will find fascinating at the 2019 Milwaukee Irish Fest. Following are a few of his top picks from the Milwaukee area. Several of his interviews took place prior to the festival.