more than just Celtic rock

For most critics and reviewers, New York-based Lenahan is easy to define: Celtic rock.

For Tom Lenahan, founder of the band, it's a little more complicated than that. It's Irish traditions mixed with Chicago blues. It's a little bit jazz, a little bit rock 'n' roll. It's edgy folk-punk, mixing trombones and bagpipes, fiddles and saxophones. It's music that reaches out into the crowd and grabs listeners by the ear, shaking them until they can't help but pay attention.

"The best way to keep interest going is to change things up," Lenahan, chatting on the phone while on the road to a Richmond gig, explained. "Constant variety keeps me from getting bored."

Tom Lenahan, who helped to define American Celtic rock after falling in love with Brit bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, said his own musical journey made a lot of twists and turns.

"I played in blues and jazz and rock 'n' roll bands," the Chicago native recalled. "But my parents listened to this Irish music all the time. I got used to it, I liked it, but when I was a teenager I wanted to play rock like everyone else."

Adolescent disdain for his parents' music didn't last, and Lenahan found himself hooked on the traditional sound. But his own musical experiences pushed him towards something a little more modern than the scratchy old records he'd heard in his formative years.

"My original dream was just to be a drummer in a Celtic-rock band. Unfortunately, there weren't any. So I had to start my own," he said.

"I was trying to put this sort of thing together in Chicago," he said. "But nobody was willing to do any relaxing. They thought you were weird if you wanted to mix up the styles. That's why I moved to New York. Of course, we didn't call it Celtic rock back then. The term didn't exist."

His first band was The Clan. Audiences started appreciating the touches of jazz and blues Lenahan would insert in the music, he said, so he started doing it more often.

Initially the band's singer and drummer, Lenahan found himself compelled to come out from behind the drum kit.

"I got tired of replacing bagpipers," he explained. "They would come and go ... and at least at the time, it was hard to find bagpipers who were willing to take a chance on playing in a rock band. I guess all of the other bagpipers would laugh at them."

So he learned the instrument himself, reconfigured and renamed the band, and the rest is Lenahan history.

Today, bagpipe rock is a growing industry, with bands like Seven Nations, Enter the Haggis, Brother and more making a place for themselves beside more traditional acts. The popularity of the style seems perfectly reasonable to Lenahan.

"It doesn't surprise me, really. It's a natural thing. The bagpipes are a rock'n' roll instrument. They stir the blood, and they're loud. There's no volume control. ... It's custom made for a rock setting."

Even so, he said, the cross-genre sound appeals to all ages.

"The old folks don't run out screaming," he said. "We're not over-the-top, loud punk rock. You can hear the Irish in pretty much everything we do. And the young folks will like it. We don't do ballads. Drummers don't like to play ballads. So it's all up-tempo stuff."

Lenahan's favorite reaction among audiences comes from "people who know Celtic music and are hardcore Celtic fans," he said.

"I once went to the bathroom (during a show) and there were a couple of old guys in there. They looked to be 70 years old, and they didn't know I was in there," he said. "One said, 'What do you think?' and the other said, 'It's a new generation, but they're just as damn good.' I love that. We're successfully bringing Celtic music somewhere it hadn't been before."

Lenahan lives in Richmond now, moving down from New York City about a year ago. Consequently, the band performs less often, although no less intensely.

"We get together and do tours more or less. We don't take casual club gigs as much as we used to. We get together for about a month at a time," he said.

The band's fourth CD, Brand New Bag, was released in 2002, following Hooligans in Suits (2000), Contrary Motion (1998) and Lenahan (1996). Lenahan said he still loves performing in front of a live, preferably rowdy crowd.

"This goes back to my Chicago days. You can't ignore the audience. You can try, but they won't let you," he said. Besides, he added, "I like to keep it moving. I like bands that keep your attention. I don't like the ones that sputter out between songs."

To help maintain high energy, Lenahan often performs with a pair of Irish stepdancers on stage. His usual partners, Maggie Revis and Bridget Hayden, kick up their own heels and encourage the audience to do the same.

"If people aren't dancing, I'm not doing my job," Lenahan said. "Dancing, for a musician, is the sincerest form of flattery. You know they're enjoying themselves."

by Tom Knapp
12 August 2006

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