In that quintessentially American process that transmutes sacred holidays into secular celebrations, St. Patrick’s Day has evolved from a festival honoring Ireland’s patron saint into an event that knits together the vast Irish diaspora. Indeed, the holiday has become so embracing that many of the Americans who gather for revelry around March 17 have little or no Irish heritage themselves. Besides the love of a good party, the draw is often traditional Irish music, with its spinning terpsichorean rhythms, hauntingly beautiful melodies and evocative lyrics in English and Gaelic that conjure images of the Emerald Isle, passionate love, sorrowful partings and good times in the midst of hardship.
In the Bay Area, the approach of St. Patrick’s Day is a certain harbinger of a Black Brothers reunion. Part of Ireland’s most illustrious musical family, the Bay Area’s Michael and Shay and the Dublin-based Martin Black perform at Monterey Live on Monday. While their sisters Mary and Francis Black are huge Celtic music stars, the brothers have all forged careers performing both with the family and individually.
While the Irish presence in Northern California dates back to the Gold Rush, the Black clan’s ties to the region stem from a much more recent phenomenon. A change in US immigration policy in the mid-’80s opened the door to thousands of Irish, many of whom gravitated to the Bay Area. Among the new wave was Shay Black, who works at a child abuse prevention agency in Oakland, Parental Stress Service, and Michael Black, who came to the Bay Area in 1984 to study sociology at UC Berkeley, eventually earning a Ph.D. They brought with them their deep musical bonds, forged in family sing-alongs four decades ago in Dublin.
“There were always informal get-togethers—hoolies, as we call them in Ireland—after the pub,” says Michael. “My dad would bring back all his friends, and my mother would make sandwiches and we’d have sing-songs that would go on ‘til the wee hours of the morning.”
While the siblings grew up in the Liberties neighborhood close to the heart of old Dublin, they were all shaped by the summers they spent on Rathlin Island, a remote spot between Northern Ireland and Scotland where their father spent his youth. He brought the entire clan out to the island every summer to work on the family farm, immersing them in a rural lifestyle where Gaelic was the first language as recently as the 1950s.
“So we had the luxury, unlike a lot of other Dublin kids, of going up to this active farm where all his brothers and sisters would still go,” Michael says. “We had the best of both worlds, the remoteness, that rural traditional setting with no electricity and no cars, and then coming back to Dublin.”
With Michael on banjo, Martin on fiddle, Brian Cito on piano, cellist Myra Chaney and some Irish dancers drawn from Shay’s regular Sunday night song sessions at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, the Black Brothers perform reels, jigs and traditional ballads, as well as tunes by contemporary Irish, Scottish, English and Canadian songwriters.
Their shows are also peppered with shanties that Shay collected during the two decades he lived in Liverpool, performing with the legendary shantyman Stan Hugill. “We encourage a lot of audience participation,” says Shay, who also performs with the quartet Nauticus. “Shanties and sea songs lend themselves to that. We sing a line and then there’s a chorus, which is easy to repeat.”
“And we include at least one song in the Irish language,” Michael says. “It’s sort of a potpourri of stuff, and the common thread is that the songs have vivid stories, and we put humor, or what in Ireland we call crack, in every performance.”
THE BLACK BROTHERS play Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St. in Monterey, Monday at 7:30pm. $12/in advance; $14/at the door. 877-548-3237 or montereylive.net.