Five years ago, I was sitting outside the Britannia Arms in Cupertino with my attorney and bassist Bob Lanz. The Brit is only a few blocks from my house, and when I used to drink and smoke, I spent a lot of time there. Bob and I had played several shows at the Brit since I’d come back up from LA, so everyone there knew me through my music, too.
Morgan, the Irish bartender, came up to Bob and I outside.
“Eh boys,” he said in his thick Irish drawl. “De band dat plays 'er on Saint Paddy’s day just canceled on me. If I gave ye guys tree hundred dollars, and all ye can drink, do ye think ye could learn a bunch of Irish tunes in under two weeks?”
“How long would the set be?” I asked him.
“Tree hours, and ye guys could take breaks.”
I looked at Bob, who shrugged.
“Sure,” I said to Morgan. “We’ll do that for you. I know some guys that would be down to play, too.”
“Oh boys, yer savin my ass. Tank you.” Morgan said.
“I need your help figuring out some Irish songs, though, Morgan.” I said. “You know a lot more than I do. I can’t think of a single one.”
“Oh, I know em all. Dirty Old Town, Whisky in the Jar—”
“Cockles and Mussels,” Bob chimed in.
“Dat’s a good one.” Morgan concurred.
I had my notebook near me. I put out my cigarette and started listing the song titles. I hadn’t heard of any of these songs. Soon I had committed to learning eleven Irish songs for St. Patrick’s Day, the biggest day of the year at the Brit, all in under two weeks. “But hey,” I thought as Bob and I took down another pitcher. “I am, after all, a professional.”
I set to work streaming the songs, researching more on youtube, just googling “Irish drinking songs.” A bunch came up, and I soon had a nice set list: Spanish Lady, Finnegan’s Wake, Seven Drunken Nights, Cockles and Mussels, Black Velvet Band, Dirty Old Town, Galway Girl. The songs sounded good, with a lot of lyrics. I couldn’t possibly memorize all of them, but I figured I’d print them out for the show. I wanted to throw some Paul Simon and Johnny Cash into the set as well. I knew those songs would go over nicely, too.
I was working as a prep cook at a wine bar in downtown Los Gatos; I had the whole place to myself in the afternoons, so I’d listen to the songs over and over and make mental notes. Bob and I rehearsed in the park near my house, and at the Brit, where we would drink and eat on the house while we went through the songs. Morgan was super grateful. St. Patrick’s Day was closing in on us. I set to work on putting together my Irish band.
I knew a few players from the Bay Area open mic circuit: Autumn Rose Thompson played a mean banjo; George Paolini played mandolin and harmonica; a friend of ours at the Brit, Chance, played the violin. I met up with each of them individually and rehearsed the set with them. No one really knew each other when we showed up at the Brit on St. Patrick’s Day. I had called us “Casey Wickstrom & the Irish Rogues."
I had to run the soundboard, which was a real pain on top of it all. I don’t like running sound for big shows—I’d much rather have someone else do it, and take the pressure off of me. That way I can just focus on the music. But, I didn’t have a choice in the matter. Robbie, the sound guy, was out of town. On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone in the band showed up at the Brit. I got them all introduced to one another, and then we hit the stage. I EQ’d the band, and we blew the place away. The night flew by in a rush of drinking, shouting, singing, playing, energetic musical frenzy. After the show, Morgan came up.
“Brilyant, boys! Ye all were fuckin’ brilyant! Can you do this ev’ry year fer me? I want ye all back here again.”
“Fuck yeah, dude.” I told him. We had just scored an annual party show at my favorite neighborhood pub.
Fast forward to the next year: Chance was up at law school in Davis, so we were out a fiddle player, but Autumn and George joined Bob and I for another successful show. The year after that, George was working on his new album, so he couldn’t play with us. I reached out again to the wonderful Autumn Rose Thompson, the Rogue's banjo player, to see if she could rustle up some new players to jam with us. Autumn is a banjo gypsy queen who has played with everyone in the Bay Area. She invited her two friends Tom Sullivan and Robin Fish to play mandolin and fiddle, respectively. I took on harmonica duty on top of guitar and vocals. Bob, as always, held it down on the bass. This line up would become the regular players in the Irish Rogues, and this year, Sunday, March 17, we’ll be back at the Brit. .
A few of the songs that we play have a special place in my heart. One of them is our rendition of “Dirty Old Town/Wish You Were Here.” I remember Bob and I sitting out in the sun, in the grassy park near my house, playing through the tune. Suddenly, I had an idea.
“Check this out,” I said to Bob, as I weaved in Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” with the melody and chorus of the original English miner’s song.
“Whoa, that’s awesome.” Bob said.
I showed the songs to the other band members, and they loved it. It’s our favorite song. One of the things that I love about this band, and the Irish set, which gets better every year, is how we’re able to take these classic songs and slightly modernize them for our audience. There’s some classic old Irish sounds in our playing, but we take some liberties with the songs, incorporating some country and even some rock into them. I like the way that the set flows from song to song, with jams and singalongs and Irish ballads.
This will be my fifth year performing at the Brit for St. Patrick’s Day. It just gets better and better. Hope to see you there.
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