Crossroads Ceili will welcome the new year with Irish music, dance
Over the last couple of years, Bua—who will be among the special guests at the annual Crossroads Ceili shows at The Ark on Friday and Saturday—have re-committed themselves to discovering and performing deep-roots traditional-Irish songs and tunes that can be traced back hundreds of years.
The group’s latest album, “Down the Green Fields,” from 2011, was a more trad-sounding effort than their previous recordings, and all four members are still committed to mining that rich vein.
So, they will fit right in with the tone and vibe of the Ceili, which is organized each year by fiddler Mick Gavin, who’s been a leading figure in the Detroit-area Irish-music scene for decades, and who is also the father of Sean Gavin, one of the members of Bua.
Indeed, the Ceili event—a celebration of Irish music and dance now in its 16th year—has always been something of a family affair. Mick Gavin, Sean Gavin (flute, Irish whistle and uillean pipes), and Sean’s brother Michael (fiddle / banjo / guitar / vocals) have been performing at the event every year for many years. So has Colleen Gavin, Michael’s wife, who plays flute and whistle. The younger Gavins (who are now in their mid-20s to mid-30s) began performing at the Ceili in their early teens.
Also returning to the Ceili after many previous appearances will be local Irish-music players Kelsey Lutz (fiddle), Siobhan McKinney (harp) and The Dolowy Family (fiddles / banjo / Irish dance). Nic Gareiss, the step-dancer from Mt. Pleasant, a special guest in the past, returns. Also on the bill this year are local special guests Katie Elsie, a singer who once toured with Riverdance; Ray Maguire (flute / whistle / guitar / vocals); and Brian Cunningham, a dancer who specializes in the traditional sean-nos style and is a Belfast native, but who now lives in Chicago.All four members of Bua, as well as Gareiss and Cunningham, will conduct music and dance workshops at The Ark on Friday at 3 p.m. The fee for a two-hour session is $25 per person. The workshops will focus on repertoire and technique and are suitable for beginners as well as intermediate and advanced players and dancers. Workshop participants are encouraged to bring a recording device. For more information about the workshops, or to register, phone 313 537-3489. Advance registration is required.
Sean Gavin also lives in Chicago, having moved there five years ago after growing up in Redford. His Bua mates are scattered across the country: Brian O’Hairt (vocals / concertina ) lives in Portland, Ore., Devin Shepard (fiddle) is in New York and Brian Miller (guitar / bouzouki) resides in St. Paul, Minn.
“But we get together every few months and do about a month’s worth of shows,” says Sean Gavin. “We’re all involved in other projects, like performing solo, playing with other groups, joining touring shows, plus teaching ..”
Indeed, Gavin has spent the last several weeks performing in the Irish Christmas in America touring production, alongside members of acclaimed Irish-music groups like Teada and Old Blind Dogs.
One project the group is involved in was spearheaded by Miller, who has devoted himself to unearthing “these great old songs from Irish-American lumber camps in the Midwest, including Michigan,” says Gavin. “It’s been a real pleasure to discover those, and we’ve been learning them, and performing them in our live shows.”
“Wax cylinder recordings of these songs were made back in the 1920s, and they were sitting in the Library of Congress for decades, unlabeled, in a box, and no one knew they were there until Brian (Miller) went there looking for them,” says Gavin.
Discovering old songs and bringing them to new audiences is part of Bua’s aforementioned mission. “We’re all fans of music that is free of commercial influences, and we’ve all been in traditional Irish music for a long time, but got even more into it in the last two years, listening to these old wax recordings and 78s from Ireland.” Among those are recordings made in the 1920s by Irish fiddle masters of County Sligo, like Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran and James Morrison.
Those masters were big influences on the most important trad-Irish groups of the last 30-some years, like Planxty, De Dannan, the Bothy Band, Patrick Street, Altan, etc. Those fiddlers were also a big influence on Mick Gavin, an Irish native. That's one of the keys to Sean Gavin’s musical sensibility, and therefore Bua’s sound, “because I learned most of my music from my dad,” he says.
In the past, Bua had “more of a modern Irish-music sound, like a lot of Irish bands these days, with that driving, straight rhythm, which can be great, and which we enjoy, and which is fun to play,” says Gavin. “But what we’ve been trying to do for the last couple of years is less about that, and more about the musical conversation we have with each other as players, rather than playing more strict, regimented arrangements. What we go for now is more contemplative, and less flashy.
“The great thing about traditional Irish music, for me, is that the more I discover, the more I know I don’t know, which is exciting, because the more I learn the more I want to learn.”
Gavin knows that he and his brother Michael had a unique experience, growing up surrounded by so much music and Irish culture—an experience he is grateful for.
“It was such an integral part of my life. I remember, as a kid, going with my dad to the Gaelic League and the White Heather and the Bonnie Brook, and there was a whole social aspect was connected to the music. Most of the friends I made growing up were the children of my dad’s musician friends, and I’ve known a lot of these people since I was a baby.
“But it wasn’t until I became an adult that I really realized how special that was, and what a gift that was, to travel all around and meet all the people I would never have known if it wasn’t for my dad and my mom.”
Sean’s mother, Anna Gavin, has also been a key figure on the Detroit-area Irish-music scene for decades, helping to organize shows and bring nationally known artists to the area to perform—including De Dannan, Patrick Street and Mary Black.
Sean Gavin is excited that trad-dancer Brian Cunningham is going to be part of this year’s Ceili.
“He’s a great performer, and he’s very charismatic. He learned the traditional sean-nos style when he was just 5 or 6 years old, from his family, like I learned from my family,” says Gavin. The sean-nos style is very different than the Irish step-dancing that most American audiences are familiar with via Riverdance.
“It’s not competitive, and it’s and it’s more improvised—there aren’t pre-planned steps, but it’s also very athletic,” he notes. “And it’s very much a part of the music—it serves a really important function, because the dancing is a big part of the percussion that drives the music.”
Kevin Ransom is a freelance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com who has frequently written about the Crossroads Ceili for the Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com over the last 12 years. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.