It is pretty well known that Team GDW enjoy travelling to Southern Ontario on a regular basis for adventures in all things ‘music.’ Given the relatively easy drive across Central PA, through Western NY and into Ontario, the city of Hamilton is often one of our first stops. Indeed, we have developed a strong bond with the Steel City and its vibrant music scene over the last few years – so imagine how surprised we were to encounter a Hamilton based band here in PA just last year.
It would be at the annual Celtic Classic Highland Games and Festival, held in historic Bethlehem, PA, that we were introduced to the Steel City Rovers (SCR); a five-piece Celtic-Roots band that calls Hamilton home. Opening the musical festivities on a hot and humid Saturday morning, SCR performed a flawless set of their own original music, mixing both instrumental pieces with lyrically crafted numbers. Remaining true to the style and sound of Celtic music, SCR demonstrated an uncanny ability to fuse their own original compositions with the traditional context of this genre. Whether delighting the senses with “Summer Dance at Montmagny,” or tugging the proverbial heart-strings with “Guinness For Two,” SCR performed a wonderful set of music that perfectly complemented their exceptional musical talents.
With the announcement of an upcoming SCR tour, Team GDW spent some time with co-founder Ryan McKenna to discuss the origins of the band, life on the road, and the anticipation of new material.
I am assuming that you and Joel formed the original SCR, and have added along the way with the talented musicians currently in the band. Tell us how you and Joel started out, and how you got to where you are today. Certainly feel free to introduce your band members and what they bring to your music.
Joel McKenna and I are brothers who have played together since forever. We went full-time into music in 2002 and even self-released a few albums. One night in the mid 2000’s Mark Fletcher happened to pop by a show of ours in Stratford, Ontario. We got chatting in a break, one thing led to another and he pulled his set of Great Highland Bagpipes out of his car and joined us onstage. We stayed in loose touch over the years and a little over five years ago now, Mark approached Joel and I with the idea of creating a new act that would draw on all of our strengths. Songwriting, showmanship and sophisticated musical knowledge of the Celtic heritage. This was the beginning of the Rovers. We’ve had various fiddlers and drummers over the years. When you work with great players, they can be very busy with a number of great projects so we still need to call on a rotating cast of characters to keep the band running. Currently we work most often with Dave Neigh on fiddle, a Cape Breton-trained player who spends time performing in Europe and East Asia and Dave Gould on percussion, a self-made musical inventor and educator who is an experienced singer-songwriter in his own right.
As a Gaelic band with roots in a traditional Canadian blue-collar city, did you set out with this particular musical genre in mind, or has the appreciation for this music developed along the way?
I think that most often the best music that one can make is music that one comes by naturally. Coveting the style of another great performer from somewhere else is perfectly natural, but sometimes those efforts can feel to me like they are disingenuous; as if the performing is picking up and putting down the music rather than inhabiting it.
For myself and Joel, our father used to travel locally and perform music that was acoustic guitar-driven. We spent countless hours in situations close to what many would refer to as a Ceilidh. Mom was always singing in the kitchen. We had instruments in the home. Music wasn’t an event, it was a way of living. The other fellows in the band have similar stories of coming to music at a young age and having it stick with them and guide them all their lives. We have all explored other styles and genres over time, but it is Celtic music that has spoken to us all most strongly and called us back to itself time and again. It fits with our natural inclinations and predispositions. We can all obsess over a melody. We all can bask in the gravitas of an emotional moment but then flip around in the very next moment to have an irreverent laugh. We all enjoy the kinds of odd rhythms and phrasings that shine here. We enjoy the setting of this music as one of sharing and mirth and togetherness in the ways that are peculiar to this style. We all love having a sense of having one foot in heritage and one foot in the creation of new beauty. So really, the best answer is that we explored the world of music and settled here because we just couldn’t help ourselves.
You dub your music ‘Celtibilly.’ What defines Celtibilly?
An act is always looking for a way to describe themselves with words when the way music itself emotes is wordless. This can often prove to be quite a struggle, especially when doing something that isn’t easily identifiable based on what other performers do or have done. For us, we realized that the music that we were creating had a Celtic rooting but that we were often leaning slightly toward bluegrass, blues and traditional American music. So we started with the Celt and came across the Billy and besides, the term Celtibilly is awfully fun to say.
Many musicians of this genre tend to put a new spin on a traditional sound or song. SCR are an exception, focusing instead on original compositions that have the feel of the old world, but are distinctly ‘new.’ How do you approach the balancing act between originality and remaining true to the roots of this music?
When you steep yourself in a tradition, the colour and flavor and smell and feel of it permeates you. It doesn’t wash off. For me, when creating something new, I believe that simply opening my heart and speaking and playing honestly will carry with it the timbre of the tradition that I’ve spent so much time in.
Studying the tradition also helps in making editing choices that are in line with the kinds of thought patterns and processes that honour the spirit of that tradition. I always want music to feel alive, like a tree that can nourish you with its fruit, not a photo album of better times to reflect on with wistful longing. Bringing new pieces to life make it feel to me like the tradition is part of a long and unfolding heritage worthy of pride rather than an art form that belongs to a previous generation.
You certainly left a positive impression on the audience during your debut at the PA Celtic Classic. How much fun is it to play at festivals such as this where the theme ties in perfectly with your musical heritage?
It is an absolute thrill. One reason is that there is an automatic willingness to accept what a performer has to offer. We have a shared musical and cultural vocabulary and are there to celebrate it and spend more time immersed in this thing that we all love. It feels like coming home. The other reason I love these events is that the bar for excellence is set quite high. The audiences are seasoned and are used to expecting a world-class delivery of this music that is definitive of the heritage. It is a challenge to rise to and one that inspires new heights of creativity and bravery in me as a writer and as a performer. I know the rest of the band feels much the same way.
As we head into the Spring, SCR have quite a few concert dates on the calendar down here in the USA. Are there any dates in particular that you are looking forward to – places you may have already been, had fond memories of, or are curious about?
We are headed many fine places and of course, we can’t wait to play them all. Part of making the experience of life on the road worthwhile is taking joy in getting to know the areas that we are playing in. We hear Savannah, Georgia is gorgeous and though we’re Canadian, we often feel like Michiganders for how well we’ve been received in that wonderful wooded State. Of all the exciting events we’re at this month we certainly have to mention the St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival in Florida. Like the Celtic Classic, it is one of the premiere Celtic Festivals on the continent and will be chock-full of fantastic acts. It’s one of those wonderful times where we get to enjoy being both performers and fans.
Standout memories from the past few years for us include playing in the shadow of the Rocky mountains in Colorado Springs, opening for Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea fame at the Trenton Scottish-Irish Festival and stopping in between big, shiny gigs to perform at house concerts en-route that have been so incredibly warm and welcoming. We have had some misadventures that have included breaking down on the Interstate in the middle of Wisconsin, performing for the first time at altitude where voices and reed instruments do not function like they do at sea level and having the power go out in the middle of performing to hundreds of people but still finding a way to entertain them all while unplugged.
We picked up a copy of your EP at Celtic Classic, and love the music. With much more in your repertoire than these 7 tracks, are there plans to follow up with a full album release? Any new songs that you are looking to road-test on the upcoming dates?
We certainly have a great deal of material that has yet to be recorded and released. One of the things that I have come to believe is that every song takes time to settle into where it truly belongs by being performed in public many times. Performing for an audience allows us to feel out how the song sounds to fresh ears and what feels right in terms of how it will live and breathe beyond its initial conception.
We are excited to be heading back into the studio in just a few weeks and this coming time on the road in March will be a great chance to put the finishing touches on our latest material. I’ll mention a couple of these new songs that we’re most enthusiastic about. One is called Drop of the Pure and it is our love song to Irish Pride. It features some rip-roaring instrumentals from fiddle and smallpipes and features lyrics such as “Emeralds are kindled that long were scattered.” and “Erin Go Bragh! All my Life, I’m an Irishman.” Then we have a truly gorgeous waltz called Old Caledonia that features a lovely, lilting mandola line. It is a romantic tale of taking a sweetheart for a stroll in one’s childhood hometown.
One more surprise we have up our sleeves is that there will be someone special guesting on the record. We can’t yet reveal who it is but they may be known to some of your readers and we are really quite proud.
As the band has grown, how has this impacted the creativity of the song-writing process?
Our process hasn’t changed very much other than that we are developing an intuitive sense of where we are headed as a unit and we discover what feels right when arranging songs more quickly because of how well we know each other personally and musically. If there are lyrics then so far I have written them and I also almost always write the corresponding melodies. Sometimes I bring a song to the band in a rudimentary form and the band expands it to be beautiful and other times Mark has a melodic hook that becomes an inspiration for an entire song and we work from there to bring it to life.
One thing that we do as well is present pieces that are entirely instrumental. In these cases we lean on the knowledge of Mark or one of our fiddlers to bring forward items that we can arrange that may be original but are often lesser-used tunes from the Celtic tradition and sometimes these compositions are hundreds of years old. As the band grows, the music becomes more exciting to us because of how we can present all of these elements more and more powerfully.
Hamilton is home to many successful professional Canadian musicians. Can you explain this dynamic between artist and city, and the importance of this for SCR and your home town?
I think that the general spirit, feel, ethos and local zeitgeist of a city has a way of influencing people in profound ways. Knowing that Hamilton is historically very blue collar, I can only speculate that such a character brings with it a sense of grit, determination and a sense of depending on your community. I also know that like so many other places, our inner city suffered when industry lessened and work became harder to find.
But what has happened in recent years is that many businesses have moved into formerly derelict spaces and there has been a thrust of artistic effort in the city. Entrepreneurship has blossomed and people are taking to the streets and interacting with one another socially in groups much more often. So, in recent years there has been a greater sense of excitement and possibility. All of this history and current reality seems to me to have created a sense for musicians that they have to work tirelessly on what they love if it is going to stand a chance of thriving. It seems to me that it is that hard work and willingness to embrace community and possibility that results in many of the city’s artists rising above a local stature to greater notoriety. I certainly hope so at least!
Aside from touring, what is next for SCR – what is the next milestone that the band hopes to accomplish in 2018?
Beyond the clear goals of touring and recording, this year we hope to make the most of the work we’ve been putting in to this project by getting our music into the ears of as many people as possible through outlets such as internet and college radio. We hope to network with people in areas that are new to us and to deepen alliances with some of the fine musicians, acts and promoters that we have already met. Really, it comes down to the marathon of sticking to the steady grind of the behind-the-scenes business and continuing to develop the music creatively. We take joy in the process and though we have big dreams, performing is its own reward. We have a sense of purpose that helps put everything in perspective. That way, the highs don’t inflate the ego and the lows don’t crush the soul. It all becomes part of the ongoing story of our life’s work.
Photo credit: Thomas Weller