“BRING THE HEAT…”
This line, from a story told by Beoga’s bodhran player and spokesperson Eamon Murray about the bands first ever attendance of a baseball game, became the catchphrase of the night when the band played CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, January 16th 2014. At the time he heard this line, he had no idea how it related to the pitching on an already sweltering August day. Thursday night, the capacity crowd discovered how it relates to the unique style of Irish folk band Beoga of County Antrim.
Another Irish band? Yes, another one but not really. Looking at them as they gather onstage, before they even play a note, you can tell something is going to be a little different. Starting with the full sized electronic piano of Liam Bradley, and not just one, but TWO squeezeboxes (that’s an accordion for you sophisticated folks) played by Damian McKee and Sean Og Graham (who also plays guitar), I could tell I wasn’t going to hear “typical” Irish folk music. Rounded out by Murray on bodhran and other percussion, and the delightfully winsome Niamh Dunne on fiddle (that’s a violin for you sophisticated folks) and lead vocals, Beoga offers a sound that is all its own.
Sure, they play the usual mixture of traditional, contemporary and original Irish tunes that is common among Irish folk bands. You usually don’t find a piano in such bands. Only one accordion is the norm as well. The instrumentation already makes for a bit of a different sound, but it doesn’t end there. It’s what the band does with the music itself that brought the heat that night.
It’s hard to describe what happens when you witness things such as Graham and McKee engaging in a bit of a squeezebox duel much like two guitar players in a rock band, playing off each other’s riffs, especially when these Irish guys are in fact playing guitar-sounding riffs. In addition, hearing Bradley throw in some ragtime piano lines in the middle of a traditional Irish jig, or Dunne channeling Stephane Grappelli (Django Reinhardt’s violinist) during an uptempo love song, makes for a surprising twist on music that some traditionalists might feel needs to remain “pure”. (They even managed to sneak in some AC/DC sounding rhythms during a couple of songs.)
Mixing so many genres such as ragtime, New Orleans Dixieland, hard rock and others into a hallowed and admired tradition such as Irish folk can be risky. It can either be a trite sounding disaster or an exercise in musical pretentiousness. I’ve heard it happen, and the results are not pretty.
Beoga makes it work though: people were laughing and clapping in delight at the surprising turns Beoga’s songs would take. I was one of them, as I listened to the band weave not just one, but several genres at once into the traditional Irish sound in ways both subtle and unexpected. It made for one of the most entertaining evenings of Irish music I have heard at CSPS Hall (which is saying a lot, since it’s a premier venue for Irish music in the Midwest.) You really need to give them a listen to understand what I’m talking about. If you know Irish folk music, they are different from just about anything you have ever heard.
So, the band lived up to the idea of “Bring the heat” with nearly two hours of fun and unique music played by expert musicians who you can tell have been together for over a decade (they celebrated their 10th anniversary 2012). But the real heat came when the band left Eamon Murray alone on the stage with his bodhran. The bodhran, the traditional Irish hand drum, is one of those instruments that is so simple even a child can pick one up and make music with it almost instantly. Yet it is also so sophisticated that few match its potential in the way Murray did during his five minute solo performance. It was a stunning effort that brought the audience to their feet. No wonder Murray is a four time All-Ireland bodhran champion. His was the sort of virtuoso performance that makes me want to pick up the instrument and learn it myself.
The band is on a short tour of the US right now, appearing in only four cities. Cedar Rapids was fortunate to be one of them, with Minneapolis/St. Paul, Des Moines and Fairfield IA being the other stops. I look forward to the next time they come to America because I’m confident John Herbert of Legionarts will make sure they return to Cedar Rapids.