While no one would confuse St. Louis for Boston, New York or Chicago in terms of a large Irish presence, the culturally diverse town on the Mississippi River does play a very important role when it comes to fostering Irish traditional music, particularly this April thanks to two important events taking place.
The first is the St. Louis Tionól that took place last weekend, and the second would be the CCE North American convention taking place in St. Louis over the weekend of April 16-19 hosted by the resident CCE branch, St. Louis Irish Arts. Both are invaluable not just the talent they attract but the firm roots they put down teaching Irish music to help it thrive year round.
The St. Louis Tionól is now in its 12th year, though it started life under the more ambitious and cumbersome title of the Mississippi River Celtic Music Festival which we know is a mouthful and, perhaps, more importantly these days, a long Google search tag.
Organized originally by Tipperary piper Michael Cooney and local piping enthusiast, Mike Mullins who has remained its primary organizer, the Tionól (pronounced CHUN-all) is one of those regional gems devoted to the propagation of the uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) spotted around the country.
Mullins programs it for concerts, workshops and sessions seeking out not only the finest pipers, but also the finest tutors in other instruments so that it has a low-key festival atmosphere while gaining a reputation for attracting some very big names in the traditional music arena, especially from Ireland.
Serving as a massive drawer for pipers were two of the leaders in the piping community who also hold distinguished places in the Irish music scene in Peter Browne, RTE Radio’s foremost traditional music producer these days, and Gay McKeon, the director of Na Piobairi Uilleann (the Piper’s Club) in Dublin.
Also visiting from Ireland were Catherine McEvoy, Mary McNamara, Ged Foley and Jimmy Crowley (actually living in Florida part-time). Albert Alfonso, Kathleen and Pauline Conneely, Michael Cooney, Bryan Kelso Crow, Brian Ó hAirt, Skip Healy, John Skelton and Mark Stone rounded out the teaching and performing staff that serviced over 150 students for the daytime classes sandwiched between Friday and Saturday night concerts.
I arrived just in time for the Saturday evening show of the weekend at the Union Avenue Opera House (actually a house of worship) which served as a most reverent place for the pure drop for a crowd of over 350 people.
Usually the Saturday concert is held at the Sheldon Concert Hall downtown but it wasn’t available this year. The 100 year old Christian Fellowship Church provided a lovely setting with very good acoustics and sightlines from two levels. Concerts at events like this often establish the quality of the recruited staff though usually the sets are very short, allowing people time to meet in a more convivial atmosphere afterwards.
And in St. Louis, I must say the Mullins and his Tionól committee have chosen some marvelous pubs to share the craic for the event. The Schlafly Tap Room of the St. Louis Brewery and the historic John D. McGurk’s Pub provided plenty of scope for all the different sessions that materialized from Friday to Sunday.
The Tap Room provided a multi-level facility and private rooms and a large performance space that served the Friday night concert well, as well as the Saturday evening after-session that went to closing time around 2 a.m.
On the Sunday at McGurks, the tradition is to relax further with a farewell brunch and sessions in every nook and cranny, including a lovely outdoor garden area at the popular Russell Boulevard, home for traditional Irish music in St. Louis.
For over 30 years it has been known to welcome the best musicians in the U.S. or passing through sometimes for weeks at a time. At one time, accordionist Joe Burke made his home there in St. Louis and used McGurks as a hiring hall for a number of all the tasty musicians he befriended or respected serving as a magnet for many the musician who ventured to the Midwest.
My first visit there was in 1990, and it had a charming appeal then as just a pub with two rooms inside two roughhouse buildings. Gradually incorporating four more row houses, the expansion creates plenty of space divided up in to separate rooms with the added advantage of a larger backyard garden area, all of which could be its own festival ground. But the original front rooms still have the appeal and intimacy enhanced by the “wall of fame” covered with photographs of many of the legendary musicians who appeared there over the years.
It was a kick to revisit it with Cork’s own Jimmy Crowley who played there many years ago with his Stokers’ Lodge Band, and many others as he waxed nostalgic about the role it played in Irish music circles back then.
It’s a legacy that is still building thanks to stewards like Mike Mullins and those who keep the Tionóls going for musicians to share their craft and the love of the music, and those who come along to support them.
Next year the St. Louis Tionol takes place April 16-18. Visit www.tionol.org.