Invoking the Spirit of Irish Music – Meet The Gas Men
Fifteen minutes before curtain time the stage is brimming with a crowd that stomps its feet and bobs its heads, while nursing cold stouts. All the while their eyes stay glued to two scraggly bearded men that pluck their instruments with dizzying speed. A floral dressed 20-something emerges from the back of the stage and reveals a shy grin as she closes her eyes and joins the men in playing a 200-year-old Irish reel by heart. Set in a dimly-lit Dublin pub, the intimate atmosphere of smash-hit Broadway musical Once is heavily influenced by the rich culture surrounding traditional Irish pub sessions.
Local band The Gas Men have been playing traditional Irish music for nearly 20 years in pubs around the world—from Cuba to Alaska. Over the years the band has gained an astute understanding of the ins and outs of pub sessions.
“Well, the thing I’d say about the Irish pub session is that it’s very informal. Basically a bunch of guys sit down and play whatever comes into their head,” says guitarist and mandolinist Vincey Keehan. Keehan stresses the fact that pub sessions are built around an overall sense of spontaneity: “Nobody’s going to decide in advance who will play what or what songs will get played or even what order anything gets played in. It’s very random and I think that’s the beauty of it. I think that’s what makes it interesting for the musicians, as well as the people that come into the pub.”
Though set-lists are not created beforehand, musicians strive to maintain an equal balance between the music and lively conversation. Banjo player and guitarist Kenny Somerville notes that “a nice quiet hum of conversation” is ideal. In most cases, an overly loud group of pub-dwellers whose voices overpower the instruments can be just as detrimental to a session as a hushed crowd that spends the entire night focusing solely on the musicians and unknowingly places a higher level of pressure on them.
Somerville first started playing Irish music in his 20s after moving to Galway City (an area in Ireland renowned for its invigorating music scene) because he was so inspired by the local sessions. Somerville recalls visiting an especially noisy bar and watching intently as one of the performers began to sing a cappella alone. Every conversation was suddenly suspended and the room became utterly still.
“I know it sounds like a contradiction, but you could almost see and hear, the wave of silence approaching and it’d wash over you and suddenly there wouldn’t be a sound in the bar,” says Somerville. “I’d never seen anything like that before.”
Despite having been exposed to traditional Irish music at a young age by his parents, mandolinist and fiddle player John Caulfield was initially disinterested. Caulfield did not gain a full appreciation for Irish music until he was a young teenager and heard it being played at a friend’s house party. “I got bit by the music bug right then and I had a mandolin within a week or two,” says Caulfield. Eager to participate in pub sessions, Caulfield and his friends began sneaking into the local pubs of Dundalk and convinced owners to let them play music in the back.
All seven members of The Gas Men grew up in Ireland, but were lured away for varying reasons. Keehan grew up in the isolated town of Gort where a “stroll” into town could easily take over an hour and sometimes longer when the roads were covered in mud or snow. Traveling to the U.S. essentially provided Keehan with an opportunity to satisfy his artistic thirst in ways that his hometown could not. “A lot of times when you’re slugging down on the farm milking cows and feeding pigs, as they say, you don’t come across too much of that,” says Keehan. “I always felt like a fish out of water in South Galway. I wanted to leave and I was only really waiting for an excuse.”
That “excuse” arrived in the form of a young, short-sighted romance. After meeting an American girl who had stayed next door for the summer, the two began regularly writing letters to each other over the course of a year. Eventually, she invited Keehan to visit her in Long Island where she lived. Once he arrived, however, the relationship fizzled out. “She couldn’t wait to get rid of me!” laughs Keehan. Unwilling to slink back to Ireland in defeat, Keehan looked for work and soon found himself in San Francisco where he would ultimately go on to meet his future wife in a Richmond district pub on St. Patrick’s day.
As a young man Somerville was also struck with an anxious desire to travel. The idea to visit the U.S. fittingly emerged when Somerville was hitch hiking across France and met a group of American musicians in Paris who boasted of their country’s vast expanses and recommended that he try hitching there. Somerville’s curiosity was piqued. Once he arrived home from France he took a job at a dye factory in a dodgy section of Belfast and started saving up money for a plane ticket to New York City.
Once he had enough money Somerville hitch-hiked coast to coast and eventually back to New York City, nonchalantly insisting that “It actually didn’t take that long and I got some fantastic lifts.” Travelling with a guitar in hand, Sommerville often got rides and sleeping accommodations from fellow musicians who were eager to play music with a new character. At one point, he caught a ride from Phoenix to Los Angeles with a group of musically inclined truckers. Sommerville played tunes with a harmonica player for the majority of the trip while one of the other truckers broadcasted their performance on the CB radio.
Although San Francisco’s thriving Irish community enabled a swift transition to the U.S., band members recognize that the sessions here are not always successful in reproducing the laid-back atmosphere that Ireland’s pubs are famously known for. “Here in America it’s much more serious,” says Keehan. “There are a lot of guys who can sit down and play all night without even saying anything to the person playing next to them, which for me, I can’t work with that type of situation.”
In spite of playing music in a more subdued environment, The Gas Men pride themselves on keeping the spirit of Irish music alive by having more fun than anybody else. Of course, this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the meaning behind the band’s name: In Ireland a “gas man” is someone who is the life of the party and is always enjoying themselves.
Even in reflecting upon their most nightmarish gigs, the bandmates are still able to laugh. During one performance in rural Alaska a bunch of crowd members suddenly jumped onstage and started brawling only a few feet away from the band. “We had to lay down the tin whistles and hold them back!” chuckles Keehan.
Though the Gas Men play upwards of 60 gigs per year, each band member also has a separate day job in order to financially support themselves.
“I’d say 95% of all musicians playing Irish music don’t make any money at all,” says Keehan. “They’re doing it strictly for the love of playing.”
“You could probably draw a little flow chart that says ‘If you have never played for The Chieftains and you play Irish music then you’re not going to be making too much money,” chimes in Somerville.
All the same, the unlikeliness of attaining fame or wealth through Irish music doesn’t seem to weigh too heavily on the minds of musicians.
“I think why people get so obsessed with Irish music and what brings them back to it is that good feeling,” says Keehan. “Maybe it’s the same feeling that people get when they’re doing drugs. It’s just that feeling of euphoria.”
San Francisco theatergoers with Once tickets are highly encouraged to arrive early in order to fully experience the Irish music session that will precede the night’s performance on stage. Even those that feel clueless towards Irish music should not be at all surprised if they find themselves humming an Irish jig hours after leaving the Curran.
“Irish music is being played all over the world, even in places like Russian, Argentina, and Japan,” says Keehan. “Even though it’s been around for hundreds of years, it’s still a completely living and breathing thing.”
By Gracie Hays