St. Patrick's Day gives us all a good reason to revel in the spirit of Ireland -- not just the kind that comes in a cup, but also the essence of the country, as embodied in its music.
One place where you'll find both is Jack of the Wood (95 Patton Ave.). Live Celtic strains are a year-round feature here -- the pub's logo is "Where the Smoky Mountains Meet the British Isles." Local traditional-Irish band Bundle and Go will do the honors on this St. Patrick's Day (it's worth noting that one of the group's five members, Vincent Fogarty, actually hails from those verdant shores).
Fogarty, 28, says he started out playing other types of music before being seduced by his country's traditional fare. The pull of heritage is what won him over -- coupled with the challenge of mastering the genre's technical intricacies, energy and emotion.
"It has several hundred years of maturity," Fogarty relates. "It's been played through hardship and happiness. The music has a heart and an experience behind it ... there's music that can catch you in your foot, and you can get a good rhythm to it, but then there's music you listen to with your soul, where you feel something -- you're inspired or you're emotional because of it. It has a passion that's beyond the surface."
Fogarty plays the bouzouki, a mandolinlike stringed instrument that originated in Greece. The ensemble also includes fiddle, concertina, vocals and the uilleann pipe, a type of Irish bagpipe.
The name Bundle and Go refers to itinerant musicians who carry their belongings in a bundle as they go from place to place; Fogarty joined the group after meeting them at a jam session at Jack of the Wood. The pub recently remodeled to make better use of its space, and the expanded venue is also slated to receive a new sound system.
Leanna Fugate, who books performers at the pub, praises the music for its energy:
"It's very danceable, very catchy, very easy to listen to," she elaborates. "It's full of harmonies that we don't hear a lot in pop music and Western music in general. It's often very surprising, too, and I think that's really pleasing to the ear."
And then she gets to the meat of the matter: "It's foot-stomping music."
While the popularity of bluegrass and old-time mountain music here is readily apparent, the appeal of Celtic music -- which can be enjoyed in its pure form or increasingly heard as an enticing subtext in national rock and pop acts -- has also come into its own. Of course, that's hardly a coincidence: Ellyn Wells, a Diana Wortham Theatre marketing representative, attributes the connection to the strong Scotch-Irish heritage in these hills.
Diana Wortham's Mainstage Series includes a trio of Celtic concerts this year, featuring three of the genre's best-loved international acts (Lunasa, Altan and Dervish).
"When the theater started the Mainstage Series last year, the goal was to offer something for everybody, and when we offer something, we try to offer two or three [programs] in that category," Wells explains. "Since this is such a huge type of music in this area, it only made sense to have it as one of the [major] offerings." In addition, the series presents the Sean Curran Company this Friday and Saturday, a dance troupe that includes traditional Irish music in its program.
Jim Magill, who has staged concerts for Warren Wilson College for many years, put the series together. Magill is also director of the Swannanoa Gathering, a weeklong series of traditional-music workshops at Warren Wilson. And though he's presented a variety of acoustic-music shows, he now focuses exclusively on one genre: "The Celtic stuff is my area of expertise, and I don't think I've ever lost money on a show that featured Celtic artists," he reveals, adding, "It draws real well in this region."
Ashevilleans aren't the only ones dancing a jig, these days: Magill attributes the Celtic craze to what he calls "the Riverdance/Titanic effect": "The success of those two productions has introduced new listeners to this kind of music," he notes, pointing out that the Celtic radio program "Thistle and Shamrock" is now heard nationwide.
The sounds are even turning up in TV commercials, it seems: "The media have done a great deal to popularize it," allows Magill. "Also, the Irish are one of the larger ethnic groups that make up America. I think there's six million or so folks in the United States that trace ancestry to Ireland. So it resonates with those folks, of course."
He then shifts his thoughts to the mother country.
"[The native Irish] have been a conquered people for 800 years," Magill declares, "[but] the areas in which their culture has been allowed to flourish ... have been in the arts. Ireland has more Nobel prize-winning writers than any other country -- their music, their dance, all of these things have been recognized by the Irish government as a marketable export. [They've] done an excellent job in packaging it and promoting the constant renewal of the traditional sources of this kind of stuff.
"My own personal feeling is that Irish music has a sort of wild and untamed beauty to it that is very attractive to people," he continues. "It's a great escape from the pretty-highly-technological lifestyle that we're all leading, here in the 21st century -- a way to tap into something that has proven itself to be of worth for centuries. [Celtic music] has got the same uninhibited quality to it that instills the best rock 'n' roll ... it's kind of an ancient, timeless version of that wild energy."
St. Patrick's Day shenanigans
Got the urge to truly steep yourself in this most festive of holidays? Then don't miss Bundle and Go at Jack of the Wood on Friday, March 17. Call 252-5445 for time/cover. And keep these other events in mind, as well:
Asheville Pizza and Brewing Co. (675 Merrimon Ave.)
The WNC Nature Center presents Sham-Rock and Roll Dance, a benefit featuring the '50s and '60s dance sounds of Johnny & The Jokers, starting at 9 p.m. ($8 admission). 254-1281.
Be Here Now (5 Biltmore Ave.)
Traditional Celtic group Scattered Mud takes the stage at 5 p.m. for a rousing show featuring celebrated local singers. Call 258-2071 for more info.
Hannah Flanagan's (27 Biltmore Ave., Asheville)
Music by popular rock band Drifting Through. 252-1922.
Hannah Flanagan's (300 N. Main St., Hendersonville)
Celtic-music duo plays during the day, with bagpipe players in the evening. Green beer and Irish cuisine. (828) 696-1665.
Stella Blue (31 Patton Ave.)