CHICAGO -- The late Frank Sinatra crooned that Chicago was his kind of town, and lately there has been an awful lot to celebrate here. Not only did the Chicago Cubs overcome their 108-year-old drought winning the World Series, but the Irish rugby team made history of its own overcoming the All-Blacks from New Zealand on the heels of the joyous Cubs celebration.
Coming into town last weekend days after these dual events offered a good time to sample the trad music community while the bonhomie seizing the town was still very evident.
Organizational meetings for Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann for its North American convention brought me to Chicago as I am on the Provincial Council for North America. The Murphy Roche branch of the Midwest Region has undertaken the huge commitment to hosting the annual affair which is more a weekend of traditional Irish music and dance attended by folks all over the U.S. and Canada.
The four-day event April 20-23, 2017 will take place at the Northbrook Hilton, a suburban property northwest of Chicago, and registration info is available via murphyroche.com.
Not having been in Chicago in over a decade, it was a good time to take in some of the many traditional music sessions in the area hosted by some terrific pubs and anchor musicians, most of whom are native to the area or have moved here to enjoy the long traditional music heritage of the town.
Chief Francis O’Neill, the venerable Cork immigrant, came to Chicago back in the 19th century, and his seminal work was gathering and preserving traditional Irish music among his fellow emigres. It played a huge role in propagating it both in Ireland and around the world when he published his collections. His spirit and inspiration is still very much alive today based on the lively weekend that I spent here.
After the CCE meetings on Saturday, I traveled to the Irish American Heritage Center on Chicago’s North Side which was teeming with activity all around. Of particular note was a concert by Frankie Gavin, the fiddler maestro from Galway who was on an extended Midwest tour with his friends Tommy and Louise McCarthy, roaming far away from their usual Salt Hill home and Burren Pub in Massachusetts premises. It was a great concert which also drew some of the town’s musicians as part of the audience.
Ambitiously on Sunday, I concocted a session trail of my own starting in the northern suburb of Evanston where box player extraordinaire John Williams (founding member of Solas) and his wife Amy Shoemaker run a session at the Celtic Knot on Sundays, just one that the full-time musician steers in the area. It was great to make their acquaintance even if briefly, but I would see and hear Williams later as it turned out.
I came back into the city limits stopping briefly at the bustling Corrib Pub where the Galway crowd likes to congregate listening to the superb flute player Larry Nugent and friends hold forth on North Elston Avenue. The next stop was close and further into town on North Elston to a great Irish pub named in honor Francis O’Neill called Chief O’Neill’s.
Along with great food were tasty tunes provided by Sean Gavin on flute and pipes (both originally from Detroit) who were later joined by fiddler Devin Shepherd (a bandmate of Gavin in Bua) and harpist Marta Cook. Williams also hosts a Wednesday night session in this pub owned by two very good traditional musicians in Brendan and Siobhan McKinney.
From Facebook, I was familiar with the Galway Arms Pub that hosts four sessions during the week with Cork singer Paddy Homan, the lead anchor on Sunday nights. The lively session in the packed back room bar was reinforced when Williams and Gavin also turned up, and their gorgeous duets made me think I was back in Clare at the Ennis Trad Festival, as the two Banner descendants played flute together before Williams switched to the concertina.
The last stop was on the South Side to the latest Sunday night session at Lannigan's Pub hosted by Kevin Henry, an 87-year-old legend from Co. Sligo. The audience and other senior musicians were scarce this night for some reason, but Henry can bedazzle all on his own with tunes, recitations and songs with some gleeful encouragement from his wife of 56 years Pauline.
It was lovely to see and hear him after a decade when he visited us in the Catskills, and that devilment that stirs his soul is still alive and well.
And who should be in the audience but the Irish tenor Anthony Kearns who gave a concert at the Irish American Heritage Center earlier in the day. He added to the fun with three songs himself.
Thankfully it won’t be another 10 years before I make my way here again. Visit www.jimmykeane.com to see what sessions are in town.