"It was the politics that actually got a lot of young people involved," says Tom Dahill, a Minnesotan who was in his 20s when he met McHugh in 1972, and plays with him to this day. By 1978, when O'Brien toured through the Cities and met his future wife, the circuit was well established. He's made the Cities his home ever since.
One of the younger musicians to join the scene was Ann Heymann, an American of Scandinavian descent who today is one of the world's foremost authorities on the Irish harp. "I heard the music and I just adored it," she says from her home in Winthrop, Minnesota. "It was like music I'd been trying to describe. I'd been saying, 'Why can't the rhythm be expressed in the melody?'" She and her husband Charlie Heymann, who together call themselves Clairseach ("klar-shuk"), are among the world-class talents you'll find hidden away in the Titanic, where they play this Friday and Saturday. "A lot of people don't even know there's a back room," she laughs. "They see people filing past and they think maybe they're on the way to the loo."
It might sound a bit odd, but for this Irish American rock critic, traditional Irish music is a lot like techno. Both are simple-sounding, (mostly) instrumental dance musics that, while immediately appealing, need refined ears and patience to truly be appreciated. In his South Minneapolis dining room, O'Brien plays me a tape he's making for beginning box players; he's slowed down the accordion melody so learners can avoid the headaches he went through to nail down tunes as a child. O'Brien, who put out a 12-tape collection of 500 tunes in 1996, makes no bones about traditional Irish music's jazz-like erudition. "It is a pretty sophisticated music," he says. "And I think it's only really understood among musicians. It can be played as dance music, but it's also a very profound listening music. And the better the interpretation by the players, the more the soul of a tune will be revealed."
While the popular pub music of the Tim Malloys et al. isn't O'Brien's thing, he does admit that many newer rebel songs may pass into the traditional-music pantheon. "There's an awful lot of songs we wouldn't have if the British didn't kick us around," he says. "And many of those freedom songs will become a part of Irish traditional music. I think that when you have oppression, there's a lot that backfires on the oppressors, usually within the culture, usually in the spirit of the people."
Back at Kieran's on a Wednesday night, I join the affable and hulking local multi-instrumentalist Tom Dahill over a plate of sausages and vinegar French fries and think maybe there's hope for my Irishness yet. Like Brian Smith, Dahill was swept up in rock 'n' roll at a young age, playing in a local band called the Chaotics. "At 14 I had a 100-foot guitar cord so I could jump out in the crowd," he recalls, laughing. "By the time I was 18, I figured I was too old for rock 'n' roll."
In the '60s, he started learning about Irish music and became a prominent local booster of Irish culture. He says that the growing popularity of Irish dancing, with three dance schools and at least one ceili a month, is part of a more general growth in the traditional-music scene. The Irish Music and Dance Association's monthly newsletter is a valuable guide to this cultural boon (call 721-7452 for membership information). Today, Dahill says, there are more than a hundred musicians in the Cities making their livings from Irish music.
Dahill, who is among the few musicians playing in both the "traditional" and "fun" fields, has just wrapped up his multiplayer session when a twentysomething woman asks if he knows a tune her grandmother used to sing to her, "The Wind that Shook the Barley." Without missing a beat, he sings her the entire song, a ballad from 1798--the year of the failed French-aided uprising--about a farmer whose wife was killed. The woman looks moved near tears, but smiles and thanks him when it's over.
When she's gone, Dahill says, "That's why I love this music: the power of those songs. You run into people like that who's been searching for a tune their whole lives. I know a thousand, but I'm still searching for them."
The Tim Malloys open for the Saw Doctors at First Avenue on Monday (call 338-8388 for information), and play every Tuesday at Half Time Rec (488-8245). Clairseach play the Titanic Lounge in Kieran's Irish Pub both Friday and Saturday (339-4499). And Tom Dahill plays Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at the Dubliner Pub (646-5551).