Irish I May, Irish I Might

Phil Coulter doesn't just wear green on St. Patrick'd Day.

A friend of mine has this habit. She's normally a very well-composed, even reserved person who hails from a finer area of Boston, likes to talk about art and uses words like fabulous without any pretext of irony. Yet she's got more than a little distant Irish blood running through her refined veins, and every time she drinks, which is often, she professes her patriotism for the land of her ancestors and dances an accidentally hilarious jig for anyone who will humor her with an audience. It's a sight to behold, alright -- a whiskey-soaked debutante thrashing about a barroom floor (or a kitchen, or a sidewalk), offering an impression that bears more resemblance to a convulsing horse than to Riverdance. This time of year, my friend does this dance a lot.

Pat McCullough of Celtic Events and Entertainment Presents is familiar with the phenomenon. Every March, his phone is jammed with calls from Denver folks experiencing a renewed and desperate interest in the Green Isle. "They call and ask me, 'How do you make an Irish brown bread?' 'How do you dance a jig?' 'Where's the parade?'" McCullough says, laughing. "You try to be nice and accommodate them. By now, I could teach a jig to anyone, I've done it so many times. If people look at us a resource, then we'll be one. But really, what I do is put on music."

Unlike many of the folks who call him in anticipation of St. Patrick's Day, McCullough's interest in Irish/Celtic culture is not a seasonal one. Since beginning Celtic Events in 1993 (he booked his first show at the Paramount after accepting the task of bringing Irish singer/ composer Phil Coulter to town even though he had no experience as a promoter), McCullough has built up the independent company to a level where it can hold its own against more established promotional players like Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents and House of Blues. McCullough books more than twenty shows annually into the same halls and theaters as those promoters, and the draws haven't been bad, either, especially since Lord of the Dance and Riverdance leapt -- shiny tights, headbands and all -- into the awareness of mainstream America. And though it might seem like toiling in a very limited genre would complicate matters, McCullough contends that there's a diversity of Irish-inspired music that actually simplifies his job.

"We're not an Irish club or a Celtic club," he says. "We bring in a lot of different music from different areas. With our name, we're not trying to describe a certain kind of music; rather, it's music that shares a basic tradition of love for music, and passion, and excellence. A lot of these bands treat the music as a living, growing music instead of as a museum piece. I don't mean that to be disrespectful to people who are purists and really into the tradition of the music, because I think that's needed, too. But when you look back historically, a lot of the changes in Irish music were when people brought in instrumentation from other parts of the world."

A glance at some of McCullough's most recent productions certainly supports this premise. Irish folk artist Luka Bloom, the acoustic five-piece Lúnasa and the piano-tinkling Coulter are all among a class of Celtic-inspired artists who use traditionalism as a tool, not a template, for their sound. That's nothing new to those who make Irish music or have regional exposure to it, but American audiences might perceive it as spurred by the virtual Irish explosion of a couple of years ago or the current climate of interest in world music as a whole.

"You absolutely have to give a great deal of credit to those touring Irish dance troupes," says McCullough, whose familial tie to Ireland traces back to his great-grandparents, who made the move to the States two generations ago. "That whole scene had so much coverage, it was unheard of, really. And it turned a lot of people on to Celtic music and dance. But it's not something that just happened -- it's not a fad at all. This music has been around for a long, long time, and it will stay."

If McCullough continues to promote the music locally, it will probably stay around here for a long time, too. He's an indie promoter in a fairly saturated market, so McCullough's approach to hyping events and the Celtic scene is a relentless one. He publishes his own monthly newspaper, The Celtic Connection (which runs stories and concert calendars as well as ads for all things Irish, including Celtic plumbing and heating services and wedding rings), and he does his best to plaster every public space he can with notices of upcoming events. Just doing his bit to maintain interest, even when the promise of green beer and corned beef isn't looming -- and, of course, to stay afloat.

"There are no guarantees as a promoter," he says. "Sometimes you'll fill maybe 70 percent of a hall and it looks like a full house. Meanwhile, there's tears on your calculator. Some people say, 'Oh, you must be doing really well,' but I'm still driving the beat-up Honda that I had in 1993. We do promote very aggressively, and we're on the cutting edge of what's happening in that genre, but generally, it's being propelled by a lot of people who have more passion in their pockets than money."

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