By RICK MITCHELL
On the Celtic Beat
YOU can hear the lively blend of fiddle, flute and percussion from the muddy sidewalk outside the pub. Inside, musicians pack the corner stage.
On the right are the fiddlers, three or four of them. To the left are the bodhran drummers, holding their ancient Irish tom-toms like shields.
An acoustic guitarist strums the rhythm at center stage, with a couple of penny-whistle players blowing in his ears. All the musicians are playing hard to be heard over the boisterous banter of patrons lifting pints of ale and stout malts at tables or at the bar.
A fiddler calls for The Cliffs of Moher, an instrumental known to Celtic musicians around the world. This leads into a medley of traditional jigs and reels that inspires one lass to do a high-hopping ceili dance in a corner of the room. An older man watches, smiles, claps along for a minute and orders another pint.
THE pub could be in Dublin or Belfast, where Irish folk musicians have passed down traditional tunes from generation to generation. Or it could be in New York or Boston, where tight Irish-American communities have kept a bond with old-country culture.
But it's not. It's right here in Houston's Upper Kirby district. The scene is replayed with minor variations every Wednesday night at McGonigel 's Mucky Duck's long-running Irish session.
On other weeknights, the Mucky Duck regularly hosts such local Celtic folk bands as Clandestine, Ceili's Muse, Gordian Knot and Wyndnwyre.
In a concert starting at noon today, these bands will join Austin's Two O'Clock Courage and solo artists Therese Honey and Clay Mohr in a benefit concert at the Mucky Duck for the North Texas Irish Festival, held in Dallas in March.
Celts (commonly pronounced "kelts" although "selts" also is acceptable) are the original inhabitants of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, who historically have resisted English domination. A small percentage of the local Celtic-music audience consists of Irish, Scottish or Welsh expatriates living and working in Houston. Many other locals can claim Celtic bloodlines.
But the majority are simply American acoustic-music fans who've discovered that the timeless sound of Celtic fiddles, Irish penny whistles and Scottish bagpipes taps a soulful chord deep within.
"Does it speak to something primitive in us?" wonders Honey, a classically trained harpist who plays with Wyndnwyre as well as with medieval and Renaissance consorts.
"It's not sophisticated like classical music, and it's not head-banging rock 'n' roll or instant-gratification pop," she says. "Many of these tunes are written in ancient modes. They're not in major or minor keys. People aren't used to hearing those ancient modes. They say, `Wow. This is so different.' "
Movies such as Braveheart, Rob Roy and Michael Collins have helped generate interest in Celtic music by sympathetically portraying the historical culture, says Maggie Drennon of Ceili's Muse.
"The Irish cause is something anybody can fall in love with," she says. "Celtic music has caught on like wildfire. It's very romantic. It's like a disease, and I've got it. I came here from Abilene. I never thought I would be doing this 60 hours a week."
In the weeks leading up to St. Patrick's Day, the Mucky Duck customarily presents a succession of touring Celtic singers and bands. Internationally renowned artists who've performed at the club in recent years include Altan, the Furey Brothers, Sharon Shannon, Seamus Egan, Wolfstone, Tommy Sands, Martin Carthy and the Battlefield Band.
Rusty Andrews - who co-owns the Mucky Duck with his wife, the former Teresa McGonigel - says visiting performers from Ireland and Scotland often are pleasantly surprised to find that Houston boasts a creatively thriving Celtic-music community.
"It's a mainstay of what we do," Rusty Andrews says. "Most Celtic shows play to full houses, whether they're local bands or touring. Even on the night after Christmas, we had a full house for Gordian Knot." THE Andrews became involved with Celtic music when they managed the Red Lion, a now-defunct restaurant on South Main owned by McGonigel 's family. The restaurant prided itself on presenting the cuisine and ambience of the British Isles.
In 1985, the Red Lion began hosting a Wednesday-night Irish session in its upstairs bar. (The session had moved through several homes since its inception in the mid-'70s.)
"The Red Lion had no live-music history," Rusty Andrews says. "It took a little getting used to, but we learned to love it very quickly. The music just awakened something in us. It was pretty incredible."
In 1989, the Andrews opened McGonigel 's Mucky Duck, a British-style pub featuring live acoustic music of all kinds. When the Red Lion closed three years later, the Wednesday-night Irish session moved around for a few months before settling at the Mucky Duck.
"Why Wednesday? It just always has been," says bodhran drummer Rex Shaver, one of the Irish session's mainstays for nearly 20 years. "Every major town has a session like this, sometimes two or three with varying levels of difficulty. This is known as a friendly session. Everyone is welcome."
The musicians at the Mucky Duck session are paid in drink tickets. While most members of Houston's top Celtic bands have come up through the session, few of the regular participants are professional musicians.
Shaver, a lawyer by trade, points to the stage to illustrate the diversity of folks drawn to the session: "We've got one lawyer, one professor of medicine, one graphic artist, one classical-music student, one Irishman working in Houston on contract with an oil company and one itinerant fiddle player passing through on his way home from Poland."
Like many Americans, Shaver was drawn to Irish music through his interest in folk music. Most of the old-time Appalachian mountain tunes that predated early country music can be traced to the Scottish and Irish immigrants who flocked to America in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The only rule at the Wednesday session is that participants must observe proper etiquette. There are no hard-and-fast guidelines on what constitutes authentic Irish music, but some instruments -such as accordions and Scottish bagpipes - are frowned upon because they tend to dominate the other instruments.
"What's the difference between a bodhran and a trampoline?" Shaver asks, in an Irish variation on the ever-popular bluegrass banjo jokes. "With a trampoline you have to take your shoes off." WHILE the weekly Irish session remains the heart and soul of Houston's Celtic folk-music community, a new generation of full-time bands is reaching a bigger and broader audience.
Most local Celtic bands appear primarily at special events such as St. Patrick's Day and St. Andrew's Day celebrations. The Flying Fish Sailors, the Scottish Rogues and Wyndnwyre have become regulars in recent years at the Texas Renaissance Festival in Magnolia, and the Flying Fish Sailors also are annual favorites at Dickens on the Strand in Galveston.
But the most successful local bands -Clandestine, Ceili's Muse and Gordian Knot - have built loyal followings that will turn out on a cold and rainy weeknight to tip a few brews and sing along with the bawdy old story-songs.
"In the last five years, there's been a real upsurge of interest," says Gary Coover, former host of KPFT's widely mourned Shepherd's Hay radio program and a longtime supporter of Houston's folk-music scene.
"Bands like Ceili's Muse and Clandestine appeal to a younger crowd. They're putting a lot of energy into it and really giving it a boost."
Local Celtic bands frequently share audiences, as well as billings at festivals and events. But each has a distinct sound and approach, from Clandestine's powerful blend of fiddle and pipes to the romantic storytelling of Ceili's Muse and Gordian Knot's contemporary "Celtic folk 'n' roll."
Wyndnwyre favors a delicate instrumental balance of hammered dulcimer, flute and harp. The Scottish Rogues, self-proclaimed "bad boys of the bagpipe world," play nothing but pipe-and-drum instrumentals.
What you won't hear from these bands are such popular Irish war horses as Danny Boy. "We do our own thing," says Gordian Knot's Cidnie MacNamee. "When people want to hear Danny Boy or songs like that, we tell them we just don't do that."
The musicians also take care to look the part. Drennon of Ceili's Muse performs in long skirts and tight, low-cut bodices. Fiddler Gregory McQueen and piper E.J. Jones of Clandestine take the stage in capes and kilts.
Jones, a championship piper, learned to play in the award-winning pipe-and-drum band at St. Thomas High School. He later studied the highland pipes at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which is where he met a young art student and aspiring singer named Jennifer Hamel. Jones brought Hamel back to Houston with him. Clandestine was formed with the addition of McQueen, an accomplished country and folk fiddler from California who had not played for 10 years until the weekly Irish sessions rekindled his muse. The newest band member is bodhran drummer Emily Dugas.
While Clandestine's sound is notable for its blood-stirring bagpipe-and-fiddle medleys, much of the group's potential rests with Hamel. Her sweet yet sturdy vocals at times recall the late Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention, and her original songs provide a contemporary contrast to the traditional instrumentals. "We don't have to fit a slot," Hamel says. "We want to draw people into this music as well as appeal to people who are already into it."
It's not uncommon to find longhairs and punk rockers sharing elbow space with conservative, middle-age Scots at Clandestine's shows.
"In Ireland, you'll find old guys who've been playing in the same pub their entire lifetimes, and right next to them is some young guy with long hair who is still very much into the tradition," says Jones, who sports a long ponytail of his own.
"That's what is so riveting about Celtic music. You have a tradition going back hundreds of years, and at the same time you have new musicians keeping it vibrant and alive." MOST local Celtic bands freely mix Irish and Scottish traditions. Clandestine combines Scottish war pipes with Irish fiddle medleys. Drennon of Ceili's Muse calls Irish singer Delores Kane her greatest vocal inspiration, yet her favorite songwriter is a Scotsman named Jim McCrindle, and she's fond of setting the 200-year-old poems of Scottish poet Robert Burns to music.
Teresa McGonigel Andrews, whose grandparents came to America from Ireland, says the long-simmering conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland has never impacted their musical bookings.
"We don't trade in the troubles," she says. "I am a Catholic. My husband is a Protestant. We just don't deal with it. People who come here know that's unacceptable. I would like to think that music and the troubles don't mix."
McGonigel 's Mucky Duck is the only local nightclub that regularly presents live traditional Celtic music. Kenneally's Irish Pub used to present live music year-round but now limits itself to importing a solo singer from Chicago in the weeks around St. Patrick's Day.
Rockefeller's books the biggest international touring bands, such as the Chieftains and Altan, and hosts the annual Blarney Fest in September.
Other clubs that occasionally present Celtic folk music include Ovations, the Ale House, the Richmond Arms, the Time Out Ale House, Griff's Shenanigans Cafe and Bar, Instant Karma and MacElroy's Pub.
Bands whose members have day jobs, such as Clandestine, are limited to regional jaunts to Dallas or Austin. Ceili's Muse, on the other hand, has toured the East Coast and the Midwest and has even performed in Ireland.
"People know my face on the streets of Dublin," says Drennon, who co-founded the group six years ago with Mary Maddux and has guided it through several personnel changes. She also started a record label, Loose Goose Productions, which has released albums by Ceili's Muse and Gordian Knot.
Ceili's Muse - once notable for its unusual two- and three-part female harmonies featuring Drennon, Maddux and Melanie O'Sullivan - now boasts a more contemporary sound, with Drennon on lead vocals and fiddle, Mike Byers on rhythm guitar, Chuck Ivy on bass and Anders Johansson on lead guitar.
The band is planning another national tour this year. But Houston will remain its base. "We are dedicated to the idea that you shouldn't have to go to Boston or New York to hear good Celtic music," Drennon says. "You shouldn't have to leave Houston."