Irish band Blackthorn plays benefit concert at the Ark
Although Ann Arbor’s Fred Klein — who plays keyboard, flute, tin whistle and accordion in the Irish band Blackthorn, and also teaches third grade at Haisley Elementary — will finally have a short drive ahead of him when Blackthorn plays The Ark on Sunday, Feb. 21, his bandmates’ expectations for his early arrival are low.
“We have a joke in the band that whoever lives closest to the gig is always the last to show up,” said Klein.
Because Blackthorn usually plays metro Detroit venues, this axiom most often applies to lead singer and Belfast native Richard McMullan, from Huntington Woods, or Ferndale-based bassist Dennis Green.
Generally, the person with the longest haul is guitarist/banjo player Gary McMullen, who hails from Lansing. Yet he’s the primary reason this popular local Irish band is doing a rare performance in Ann Arbor.
The Ark show is a benefit for the American Cancer Society’s lobbying organization, Cancer Action Network; and because McMullen works by day for ACS, and Ark managing director Marianne James previously worked for ACS, the idea of doing a fundraiser show emerged.
“Several people volunteered me,” McMullen said, with a laugh. “They came to us and said ‘Hey, would you guys do this?’ Because my boss is the CEO, and she knows what I do, and she’s seen our shows before. So we were invited, and of course, I couldn’t say no.“
When you say the words “Irish band,” people tend to imagine either an evening of clichÃ©d standards (“Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” anyone?) or a stream of raucous drinking songs. But neither accurately describes a show performed by Blackthorn, which has, over the past 25 years, developed a large and fiercely loyal fan base in metro Detroit.
“(The music we play) are all songs, really, that come out of Ireland,” said McMullen. “A lot of quote-unquote ‘Irish’ songs familiar to Americans are really songs written in America by Irish Americans. And our repertoire is focused really solely on the traditional music from Ireland, as well as contemporary songwriters from Ireland who are writing and performing today in Ireland.”
This mix of old and new Irish tunes, paired with the group’s powerful vocal harmonies and good-natured onstage teasing (of each other and folks in the crowd) make an evening with Blackthorn an always-entertaining, terrifically fun night out.
Listen to a selection of Blackthorn song clips:
“Our sound is definitely unique to Blackthorn,” said Klein (who also previously played in the local band The Watusies). “I can’t think of any other band that we sound like. Hopefully, that’s a good thing. We’ve found our own voice, and that’s what we play to, so we arrange songs and tunes to suit our voice.”
With St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon (March 17), Blackthorn’s schedule is full-to-bursting these days. But because the show at The Ark was for a good cause, the group purposely scheduled it for this time of year.
“We started talking about this (show) last year,” said McMullen. “And in order to load the gun to make it as successful as possible, I wanted to try and get it close to the St. Patrick’s Day hype.”
Lead singer Richard McMullan was a founding member of the band, but it wasn’t long before Klein came on board, and both men were integral in pushing Blackthorn, in those early days, in the direction of playing Irish music exclusively.
“I think these songs are just great stories,” said Klein of the genre’s appeal. “They paint some great pictures, the stories they tell are very universal, but very distinctly Irish at the same time. Just things about life, about loss, about leaving home, about all those things that really capture the human spirit. More so than songs about your car or a pop song.”
Jenn McKee is the entertainment digital journalist for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.