Say whatever you will about unofficial St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s got nothing on the real thing in this town. Over the next two days, Champaign-Urbana will treat you to an astounding variety of Irish music. If you’re like me, you have a very difficult time making decisions. Why don’t you just say screw it and try to do it all?*
Here’s how to make it work:
7:30 p.m. Danu – Krannert Tyron Festival Theatre
Your two-day Irish binge could not possibly get off to a better start—a band that is widely-considered to be one of the finest traditional Irish folk bands in the world. For anyone who has even a passing interest in this type of music, this event is a must see.
Danu mixes updates of traditional songs with their original compositions, providing an surpisingly uplifting take on the typically sad tales of Irish lore. Accordinoist Benny Doon says his band stands apart from their contemporaries because they incorporate many regional influences. It certainly doesn’t hurt that they have the impressive Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, whose voice makes me feel like I’m riding through the Gap of Dunloe again.
The band is currently supporting their new album Seanches, their first in over four years. Doon says that Danu doesn’t rush their albums because they are most concerned about the final product. “Many bands are almost under pressure to release every 18 months and sometimes the music can get affected.”
Doon says the band really enjoys touring the U.S. and finds the audiences to be incredibly receptive. “We love performing in the U.S. and I believe you are our favorite audience. There is a terrific grá (love) for what we do in America, and the reception is second to none.”
As of press time, tickets are still available for this one. ($26 general, $19 student)
9:30 p.m. The Tossers – the Highdive
Right after Danu finishes up, you can hop on your bike (don’t forget your lights and reflective clothing) and ride over to the Highdive. Hopefully, you’ll make it in time to see a little of local punk band the Night Brigade. But you should have plenty of time to check out Chicago Irish punk band the Tossers.
The Tossers have been playing their brand of Celtic punk much longer than some of their more well-known contemporaries The Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. Many would argue they have been doing it a lot better as well. When I asked fiddler Rebecca Manthe about what separated them from other bands that play a similar style, she half-jokingly, half-seriously responds, “we’re better, we’re better, you bet.” When I followed up to ask what an audience should expect from the Tossers, Manthe was again refreshingly honest, “A great time. Whether they’re drunk or we’re drunk people seem to enjoy it.”
The Tossers are currently working on their next album and hope to tour Ireland later this year. Manthe says the audiences over there were a lot of fun the last time they went. “They loved us, and we loved them. A great band and friends of ours called the Mighty Stef are from Dublin and if the planets align we’ll finally work out a run with them on their turf.”
Midinight – Boltini Lounge
After the raging fun of the Tossers, it’s probably best to cap your night off at a more relaxed venue. Your ears are going to need a break. So head over to Boltini Lounge and try out a flight of Bushmills Whiskey. But don’t overindulge; tomorrow’s a big day.
March 17 — St. Patrick’s Day
After a good night’s sleep, Wednesday morning starts off with some black pudding, eggs, sausages, fried tomatoes, soda bread and hot cup of Barry’s Tea. If you wear green and orange to work, make sure you to point out the orange is for Illinois finally breaking through and making it to the NIT. (66th place, here we come!) I suppose the orange could also be a symbol for a unified Ireland—but today is probably not the day to bring that up.
5 p.m. – Beer – The Blind Pig Brewery or Crane Alley
After work, head over to the Blind Pig Brewery or Crane Alley with some friends and try out some selections from their huge beer lists. Obviously, you’ll have a (or several) Guinness at some point, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try out a few other great beers as well. Besides, both bars have huge stout lists—that must count for something, right?
7 p.m. – Big Bluestem – Iron Post
Now you either hop on a bus or take a short walk over to The Iron Post where you can enjoy a dinner of corned beef and cabbage with some red Irish beer. And what better way to wash it all down than with the sounds of regional string band Big Bluestem.
Big Bluestem is known for a mix of all kinds of traditional string-based musical genres and their debut CD Under the Prairie Moon has earned them fans as far away as Spain, Argentina and Australia. However, Wednesday Big Bluestem will be mostly focusing on Irish traditional music. “Our playlist for St. Pat’s features over 30 Irish tunes and songs, but we’re also going to intersperse a dozen other-style crowd-pleasers,” says fiddler Kathleen Everingham.
If that’s not enough, Big Bluestem has created a special recording of about 1/3rd of these songs, which will be for sale at the show. They told me that the first person to prove that they picked up a copy of Under the Prairie Moon at Exile on Main Street will receive a copy of the Irish record for free.
9:00 p.m. Exorna – Bentley’s Pub
After you have eaten plenty of Irish food and enjoyed some beer with Big Bluestem, you can bus it over to Bentley’s and catch some more great music from Springfield’s traditional Irish band Exorna. Exorna features Northern Irish bodhran player Victor McMullan. As far as authentic Irish music goes, the bodhran can be pretty fun to watch and McMullan has assembled a great supporting band to help him out. You have now arrived to a time where Guinness is a must, and it should help as you sing along to songs like “Seven Drunken Nights,” “Whiskey You’re the Devil” and “The Pub with no Beer.”
11 p.m. John Hoeffleur DJing – Mike n’ Molly’s
At this point you’re either riding along on a euphoric high from the amazing amount of Irish music you’ve just witnessed and/or just plain exhausted. Either way, Mike n’ Molly’s will be the perfect final destination. I’ve been told from a good source that John Hoeffleur will be willing to play your favorite Pogues’ song, as long as you ask nicely. And the glass of Redbreast whiskey you have in your hand will be the perfect way to cap off St. Patrick’s Day 2010.
(And if you end up getting to Mike n’ Molly’s much earlier, they will also be featuring DJ Jordan Ross spinning traditional Irish music and all you can eat corned beef, cabbage and bread pudding for $6. Plus, they will be raffling two two-night Las Vegas stays. Because nothing says Ireland like the desert, sun and pools filled with nearly-naked famous people.)
We asked several of the musicians whether they thought St. Patrick’s Day was an overblown holiday or a chance to have a good time and celebrate Ireland?
Benny Doon, Danu – Definitely a good chance to have a good time and celebrate Ireland.
Kathleen Everingham, Big Bluestem – It’s a good time for Big Bluestem members to celebrate their Irish heritage and the Irish contributions to American traditional music.
Drew Phillips, Big Bluestem – Absolutely overblown, but worth the glittery shamrocks to dig musical and brewing contributions that have been kicking the world’s ass for centuries.
Rebecca Manthe, The Tossers – It’s a little bit of both, but that’s ok.
*Disclaimer – My 18 month-old daughter makes it impossible for me to actually attend more than one of the above-mentioned events. If anyone has the opportunity to do half this stuff, do it. Your freedom may be more fleeting than you expect.