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Transplanted Rock folk give every Irish Descendants show a hometown vibe

Who: The Irish Descendants

Where: Maxx Fish

When: Tuesday, March 16

Sure, being a member of one of Canada’s top Celtic music bands sounds like it might be a lark. According to Con O’Brien, frontman for Newfoundland’s The Irish Descendants, it can be just that.

But there’s one downfall – missing out on the best party in Canada every year.

St. John’s is where the Descendants hang their hats. And according to O’Brien, St. Patrick’s Day in Newfoundland, a place that maintains strong cultural ties to the island across the Atlantic, is nothing short of a two-week event.

He remembers pre-band years, being a headstrong young man lining up at the first pub at 9 a.m. with a mental checklist of all the different locales he had to make sure to hit before the sun rose on March 18.

Then there were the early years of the Irish Descendants, from 1990 to 1992, years during which O’Brien says the band was in such high demand in their home town they played 33 sets in four days.

But now, with the recent release of their ninth album, We Are the Irish Descendants , and numerous national and East Coast music awards under their belts, O’Brien and his bandmates are in high demand throughout all of North America.

An ambitious touring schedule brings them to Whistler on March 16, a day before they hit the Commodore in Vancouver for St. Patrick’s Day 2004. That’s about as far from St. John’s as you can get.

The last St. Patrick’s Day O’Brien says he remembers spending in St. John’s was way back in 1992.

"I do miss the camaraderie," he admits. "We miss out on a lot of the fun. It’s a balancing act; it’s a necessary evil for us to be travelling."

But a gang of Newfie minstrels can find little patches of home all across this country. Up in the oil patches of Northern Alberta, in the suburbs of Southern Ontario, all throughout B.C. and so on, there are communities of Newfoundlanders displaced by an ever-weakening fishing industry. For the Irish Descendents and other touring Newfoundland-based acts like their friends Great Big Sea, this phenomenon makes almost every show a hometown show.

Nothing beats the energy of a hometown show – the arms-around-the-shoulders camaraderie, singing along to songs everyone knows – the shows that make strangers into friends.

But O’Brien says the situation can also be kind of sad.

"You get so many people coming up to you saying, ‘you don’t know how homesick you just made me,’" he says. "It’s a little bit of home and at the same time it makes you think about home an awful lot. It’s an interesting phenomenon."

It’s no wonder they inspire homesickness, playing the music that has been passed down through generations, holding fast to traditional Celtic style. O’Brien estimates their repertoire to be a 50/50 split of old folk tunes and original material – arranged traditionally of course.

As the only remaining original member of the Irish Descendants O’Brien remembers days the band produced and sold their first CD out of their cars. But after all that time there hasn’t been and still is no need to court radical change when the traditional way is working just fine. Don’t count on ever seeing DJ turntables on stage amidst the mandolins and tin whistles, concertinas and accordions and fiddles. That would be akin to sacrilege.

"These songs we grew up with," says O’Brien, a 12 th generation Newfoundlander. "I’m playing songs that my father taught me."

The music’s timeless and ageless appeal has allowed the band the flexibility to think outside the bar.

"We say its ‘Hasbro-age’ is nine to 90," says O’Brien. "We can go into a senior citizens home this evening and play in a Kindergarten class the next morning.

"It makes it a lot easier when we tour the country to be able to go to a bar show and then sit with a symphony.… We started as a bar band and probably we’ll finish as a bar band. That’s where we learned our craft and we’re very comfortable there. But we’re equally comfortable in a soft seat theatre."

Theatre or raucous pub, fans can be adamant about hearing their favourites, but with over 140 songs to choose from there are a lot of favourites.

Even out of a repertoire as deep as the ocean O’Brien can name a couple tunes that are universal crowd pleasers: the folk ballad Catch the Wind and the old standard The Rocky Road to Dublin. "Gets ’em rising to their feet every time," he says.

When asked to pick a song that best describes his home province, he mulls over the difficulty of such a task. There have been the bad times and the good times and there’s the sense of humour inherent to the folks from the Rock. But he settles on Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s, a tune written in the 1930s by a transplanted Irishman living in New York City, pining for the Emerald Isle. It’s a sentiment he says Newfoundlanders across the country know all too well.

"As long as Newfoundland exists we’ll have Newfoundland expatriates," says O’Brien. "The common denominator amongst all of them is, ‘I really enjoy being in Winnipeg,’ or ‘I really enjoy being in Barrhead, Alta., but God, I can’t wait to get home.’

"That’s something that just doesn’t change."

Transplanted Rock dwellers craving the sounds of home as well as fans of authentic Celtic music will want to catch the Irish Descendants at Maxx Fish this Tuesday night.

That’s March 16. It’s a St. Patrick’s Day eve, of sorts. But come on now, if Newfies can make St. Paddy’s Day last two weeks Whistlerites can sure as heck make it last two days.

For more information call 604-932-1904.

Sidebar:

St. Patrick’s Day happenings around town

As the frontman for one of the most well known and successful Celtic bands in Canada, Con O’Brien says the worst thing about St. Patrick’s Day is that he always has to work.

Here are some of the other musicians in town who will be working so the rest of us can raise our pints to great tunes.

Who: The Bowen Trio

Where: Dubh Linn Gate Pub

As the only Irish themed Pub in town the Dubh Linn Gate will be St. Patrick’s Day headquarters. It’s guaranteed regular performers Cam Salay, Rob Thompson and Moritz Behm will be doing it up right with their standard high-energy guitar and fiddle tunes.

Who: Guitar Doug

Where: Merlin’s

The local legend will be strumming his signature guitar cover tunes for the après ski revellers at Merlin’s in the afternoon. It’s sure to be an epic set what with all the Irish folks among us celebrating the fact that they ski for free that day. That’s those of us with legitimate Irish passports for proof, so put down your family trees because insisting that somewhere way back in your lineage is a great great uncle Sheamus isn’t going to cut it.

Who: Doug & Kyla

Where: Black’s Pub

After his apres set up in the Benchlands, Guitar Doug makes his way down the hill to Black’s Pub where he’ll be joined by lovely folk punk violinist Kyla Uyede for a night of good time Celtic-flavoured favourites. Kyla may have learned how to play at classical music academies, but she fiddles on Devil Went Down to Georgia like a hillbilly demon.

Who: The Mercenary Jazz Ensemble

Where: Tapley’s

The collective of Whistler and Vancouver musicians make a special appearance at the casual pub for Wednesday’s pint-raising St. Paddy’s Day partiers.

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