Happy St. Patrick’s Day (a day early) to everyone. For many of us it’s a chance to trot out tales of ancestors and bloodlines. It’s also an excuse for a bit more drunkenness than other days of the year, and lots of green everything. For local band Four Leaf Peat, it’s just who they are and what they do.
The band formed in 2004 and I met with original members Chad Beauchaine and Rick Hall who form the current version of the band along with long-time member Gil Draper and original member Jason Herrera, to talk about the journey. They recalled their first show: an intimidating performance on the stage of the Bijou Theatre. It’s a heady place to start. The night was devoted to Celtic music and the money raised was to help save the theatre. They were the only traditional Irish band in the area and twelve years later that hasn’t changed.
The band evolved out of sessions at Patrick Sullivan’s. The players grew comfortable with each other and forming a group seemed a natural next step. Rick’s son played guitar for the first couple of shows, then left for college. From that random assembly, one of east Tennessee’s most enduring bands of any genre came to life.
The two said the band still has fun and, remarkably for any group of people, everyone carries their share of the weight. They’ve each added new instruments to their repertoire and listen heavily to traditional music attempting to find new songs and artists. And there are the non-musical tasks that make it work: Chad does booking, Rick does the financial work, Jason does the graphic design work and Gil “listens obsessively” to improve their sound, whether live or studio recordings. Rehearsals are Tuesday nights and only rarely do members miss it.
Chad said, “One of the most consistent compliments we get is that we are really tight. It’s because of consistent work.” Still, Rick quickly added, “We always said when this is no longer fun we would quit.” Honing skills and getting, “tight,” started early with a house-band gig for eight months playing at the Irish Times where they played for three hours every Friday night. The audience wasn’t always interested in listening, but that helped them work harder.
Another early gig they recalled was playing Brackin’s Blues Club in Maryville one Tuesday night each month. They always drew enough people to make it worthwhile and to make them want to keep working. They pointed out that when people come back for a second show, a connection is formed. In the least, the band and the audience have similar interests, often sharing a love for the music.
The evolution and stages of the band seem to be connected to various gigs they performed. Another they recalled was playing Dollywood’s “Festival of Nations” two years in a row in 2007 and 2008. They played 30 to 40 minutes sets for seven weeks of shows each of the years. One of the major benefits from the experience was meeting Irish musicians from New York City, Ireland and other places. They played their shows, then congregated in hotel rooms for late-night sessions.
Their community grew. Just like any language, they said, immersion in the language of Irish music makes all the difference. Chad, for example, spends about 30% to 40% of his time in Brooklyn/NYC and has connected with a community of players there. Virtually all of their experience with Irish musicians – and they’ve played with some of the best – is that they are a humble bunch, willing to allow the player of lesser skill a spot in the circle.
And they know the music with significant depth. They agreed that their circle expects players to know the tradition well. The depth of their knowledge slipped onto display as they discussed specifically who introduced the bouzouki to Irish music. They settled on a name and agreed it was in the 1960s. The instrument has now become a mainstay in the genre.
Rick began playing at age seven when his mother brought home a Hammond organ. He later focused on drums, becoming the drum major in his high school band. He came to Knoxville in 1974 to attend UT and fell into the orbit of the Jubilee Community Arts community, including John McCutcheon among others. Classically trained, Chad began playing violin at age ten, while Gil started playing guitar at the same age, though he soon switched to mandolin, first playing old time and blue grass music before getting the Irish bug. Jason, a professional blacksmith and self-taught flutist, also specializes in Irish percussion.
The two told me they feel people in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina “get” Irish music. It’s not too distantly related to Old Time and Appalachian music, so audiences relate and respond well. Still, they feel there aren’t enough players and they want to promote the music, feeling it’s important to expose children to the sounds from an early age.
And they’ve tried to spread it around. They’ve performed with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in the Clayton Holiday Concert. They’ve had music used on 90 Miles with Chef Garrett and on the first ad for Sugarland’s Distilling Company. Their music was used on the Heartland series. They’ve recorded three full albums and an EP, with the most recent being a live album recorded at the Laurel Theater. They have an eye toward making a live CD in the Bijou. All their work is available on Itunes and CD Baby.
Amid all the landmark shows and accolades, it’s the small experiences that stand out. Chad recounted watching at Dollywood as a young girl, around age six, kept her family from leaving and after sitting for an entire set, left, but returned at her insistence for another set. Chad told the parents the girl needs musical lessons saying, “I was that child once.”
This year will mark the seventh or eighth – they weren’t sure – year they’ve played a St. Patrick’s Day show at the Square Room. (You can click the link to purchase the $15 tickets.) Yes, there is beer, but there is more: It’s the only place you’ll hear authentic, traditional Irish music this St. Patrick’s Day. They promise the requisite sing-alongs, but also will have, “forty-five minutes of new music.” You can also catch them today on Live at Five at Four on WBIR or tomorrow on the Blue Plate Special at noon.