Their roots are showing

“Part of the reason for the tour is to prove that Celtic rock is a huge genre,” says Keith Roberts, front man for the Young Dubliners.

And why must something already huge be proven to be so? It’s all in how you choose to define the sound, according to Roberts.

“It’s any blending of rock with a Celtic fusion,” he insists.

It was Roberts, an Irish native transported to Los Angeles, whose idea eventually manifested itself as the Uprooted Tour: three contemporary Celtic-rock bands spreading their sound across the country.

“I said, ‘Lets do a nationwide tour, put this on the map and get the industry to notice,'” Roberts explains. The tour features his band alongside Great Big Sea and headliner Seven Nations. “Now,” says Roberts, “we’re getting write-ups in Pollstar and the tour’s been extended. Everybody wants this tour because it’s so much fun.”

The Young Dubliners, called “the Dubs” by their ever-increasing fan base, got their start in ’94 at Fair City, an LA bar owned by Roberts. The bar was sold when the band started touring, but they took the party on the road with them, playing more than 200 shows a year. Traveling that much has resulted in some turnover: “Some guys couldn’t handle the tour schedule,” Roberts admits. But he points out that Chaz Waltz, fiddle player and keyboardist, took a five-year break and returned to the band. Bass player Bren Holms, who grew up with Roberts in Dublin, has been with the band since its inception, while guitarist Bob Boulding and drummer David Ingraham are relative newcomers. The group, which began as a seven-piece band, now has five members.

“When you listen to the band live you’ll wonder what all those other guys did,” Roberts comments. “It’s still a wall of sound.”

And what exactly is that sound? The Young Dubliners’ newest release, Absolutely (OmTown, 2002), doles out a torrent of power-pop, both energetic and melodic. Roberts’ rich, full voice carries the intent of his well-crafted lyrics through the tight, upbeat arrangements. “This album is about unison playing between the guitar and fiddle,” Roberts explains. “We’ve fooled a lot of people into thinking it’s the pipes.” That’s right: This alt-Celt band is certified pipe-free. “We’ve moved from the fiddle and whistle to the fiddle and guitar,” Roberts continues. “That’s the breakthrough.”

Seven Nations shares the Young Dubliners’ pursuit of the “new” Celtic sound — they hear things a little differently, however. While Seven Nations features two bagpipers and a fiddle player, they focus on contemporary rhythms and guitar sounds. “We’re always trying to keep ahead,” singer/songwriter, piper, guitarist and keyboardist Kirk McLeod says about the band’s latest CD, And Now It’s Come to This (Razor & Tie, 2002). “There’s fiddle and pipes in every song, but you can’t always tell. In ‘You’d Be Mine’ the pipes are run through a wah-wah pedal. We’ve run the fiddle through a mooger-fooger [a synthesizer foot pedal]. No one else has done that.”

The band gives more than a nod to their Celtic roots, though. Ontario-based fiddler Dan Stacey is a championship step dancer and breaks into wild percussive jigs on stage. Brigid’s Feast magazine reported that “McLeod and Long use their bagpipes the way Jimmy Page uses his guitar.” When Seven Nations formed in ’94, the five-piece group made a name for themselves bringing ’80s music into the ’90s. They were recognized for their version of the Church’s “Under the Milky Way” before they got into more-contemporary rock, mixing traditional sounds with McLeod’s songwriting. For a while they spoon-fed their audiences with a half-and-half blend. “We didn’t want to totally weird them out,” McLeod laughs.

In the last couple albums, though, they’ve gone their own way, developing a style that layers fiddle and pipes with spirited post-punk, from the funk-flavored “Sweet Liberty” to the guitar-fueled energy of “Up to Me.” McLeod’s clear vocals, slithering in and out of falsetto, carry the intense and sometimes political lyrics.

Newfoundland-based Great Big Sea comes the closest to a traditional Celtic band. Their folk-rock style blends Irish flutes and whistles, bones, bodhran, mandolin, guitars and percussion. Despite — or perhaps because of — the cold, sparsely populated environs of Newfoundland, Great Big Sea gained fame when several of their songs were featured in the soundtrack to The Shipping News, the atmospheric film set there that starred Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore. Their upbeat pop sound, combined with singer/guitarist Alan Doyle’s warm voice, easily translates a blend of antique and modern to mainstream audiences.

Great Big Sea evolved out of “kitchen parties,” a Newfoundland tradition where families would gather for accordion and fiddle hoedowns to entertain themselves during the long winters. Doyle based his lineup on that sing-along institution, reinventing time-honored pieces of music. “To decide to play music that was rooted in traditional Newfoundland song and dance wasn’t much of a stretch,” Doyle told the San Francisco Examiner, adding, “I grew up with bands like that. But I had no idea our lineup was so strange until I started touring internationally.”

Sea of No Cares (Rounder/Zoe, 2002) is the fourth release for the band, which numbers Bob Hallett on fiddle, mandolin, whistles, bouzouki, Irish flutes and accordion; Darrell Power on bass, bones and percussion; and Sean McCann on guitar, bodhran and tin whistle. Great Big Sea shifts deftly between original songs and traditional arrangements like the hilarious “Scolding Wife,” where Doyle’s brogue rises above the accordion and whistles, begging the listener to wonder exactly how close Newfoundland is to Ireland. The Newfoundland sound, Doyle once explained, is a concoction of chance. “The button-accordion stuff [came] from Northern Spain, Portugal and the French Jersey Islands, and the only thing Newfoundland culture shares with the Irish culture is that they’re both song-based. Story songs, like the ones developed in small communities.”

If anything can be said to bind these three bands, it’s that multicultural quality — and, moreover, a determination not to recede before dismissive purists.

“We’ve all been around so long,” says The Young Dubliners’ Keith Roberts about the decade-spanning careers of each band. “We didn’t pioneer Celtic rock, but we sure as hell kept it going and didn’t give in to the critics who said, ‘They’re not Celtic enough.'”

Seven Nations’ McLeod, a piper since childhood, agrees. “We can’t escape it because we’re all from a Celtic background,” he insists. “I’m very proud of my Celtic heritage, and the fact that through our music, many people have discovered the whole Celtic genre.”

Geared up for the summer-long Uprooted Tour, Roberts admits to his relentless nature. “I’m not in need of breaks, per se,” he muses. “I need a few days off now and then to give my voice a rest, but I live on my bus.” He envisions the Uprooted tour expanding into a Celtic-rock festival someday, with local talent opening at each stop. For the time being he’s happy to join Great Big Sea and Seven Nations in spreading the word about this swelling Celtic tidal wave. But he’s taking it one show at a time.

“It’s all about doing a killer gig,” Roberts promises.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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