Deep within the heart of America lives a little bit of Ireland. The emerald isle’s influence is readily apparent throughout central Illinois, from its food and drink to its customs and culture.
Perhaps most discernible are the distinct beat and fervent tone of its jigs and reels, which emanate from area pubs and parades throughout the year. Several Irish descendants, and their honorary Irish friends, keep the musical traditions of their ancestral homeland alive by sharing their talents—and a good time—with all who will listen. Meet Turas, The Roundstone Buskers and The Bogside Zukes...
Bringing the Craic
When the members of Turas chose their band’s name back in 2009, they were looking for something short, sweet and easy to pronounce. It’s a fitting moniker—the Gaelic word translates to “journey” in English—as the band has been continually evolving while bringing traditional Irish music—with a twist—to central Illinois.
“It really is like we’re on a little journey together,” says Rose Fahey Wright, who sings and plays flute, whistle and uilleann pipes. “But we don’t play any Journey songs!”
The light-hearted group also consists of Mike Bergstrom (bouzouki, vocals), AnneMarie Brinton (vocals), Jeff Calhoun (banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, vocals), Lauri Gannon (whistle, bodhran) and Jeff Putnam (guitar, vocals). Adding their sounds on occasion are Bob Moore (bass), Tom Abbot (alternate bass) and Bob Lindsey (harmonica), who also serves as sound engineer.
Having crossed paths at the regular Irish sessions at Donnelly’s Pub, Turas was originally founded by Bergstrom, Gannon, Putnam and Wright as an instrumental band—“just for fun”—offering the quartet a chance to combine their talents and play a few gigs once in a while. But after Brinton joined in 2010, providing a voice for the band, and the multi-instrumentalist Calhoun rounded out the group in 2011, Turas quickly gained momentum in the local pub scene.
With the exception of Brinton, all of its members claim at least a distant Irish heritage, but the band’s Celtic connection really comes down to a mutual love of that sometimes driving, sometimes gentle, Irish folk sound. “There’s not one style or sound… that really defines us,” Calhoun explains. “I think that’s what really drew me to Irish music,” Brinton adds, “because it is such a broad definition—basically anything that comes out of Ireland.”
Besides entertaining local pub-goers, the group has been hard at work breaking down stereotypes and changing the public perception of Irish music. “I think part of it is missionary work,” Bergstrom explains. “We’re taking Irish music to people who… maybe their definition of it is ‘Danny Boy’ or Riverdance.” But sit in on just one performance, and you’ll quickly realize it’s much more. Through its members’ diverse abilities and backgrounds, Turas has found a way to mix and master classic Irish melodies into its own unique and dynamic sound. “I think it’s evolved,” Bergstrom continues. “It’s a sum of the parts.”
Influenced by bluegrass, as well as bands like Gaelic Storm and Great Big Sea, Turas’ body of work ranges from slow ballads to foot-stomping jigs. Regardless of the tune, though, what matters most to the band is bringing the craic—another Gaelic term, for the gathering of friends and sharing of good times—to every performance. “The expression is ‘the craic was 90!’”Putnam says. “People are having a really good time!”
Appealing to young and old alike, the band has played at venues ranging from bars and cafes to festivals and churches, and even out in the woods! But their favorite stage is at Peoria’s annual Erin Feis, at which Turas has performed every year since its inception. No matter where they’re playing, though, popular songs like “Donkey Riding,” “The Old Dun Cow” and “Box of Wine”—in which Gannon actually plays a bosca ar fíon, or in English, a box of wine—are sure to get the crowd into the spirit.
“When you get a crowd of people singing along with you, that, to me, is the best part,” Brinton shares. “It’s about that ‘craic’ thing,” Calhoun repeats. “Just trying to find a way that everybody can have fun.”
Though unsure exactly where their journey will take them next, the members of Turas are eager to keep evolving and branching out, bringing that Irish tradition to even more of the Midwest… and beyond.
Turas performs regularly at Kelleher’s Irish Pub & Eatery on the first Wednesday of every month, and at Donnelly’s Shamrock Pub the second and fourth Thursdays of every month. To learn more, visit turasband.com.
Despite being the smallest Irish ensemble in the Peoria area, and “arguably the shortest,” the Roundstone Buskers really know how to fill a room—both with their sound and an audience. Consisting of Shannan Sullivan (fiddle, vocals), Tom Jones (bodhran, percussion, whistle, vocals) and Bruce Burton (guitar, bouzouki, vocals), the acoustic power trio has been pleasing crowds with its untraditional Celtic repertoire since 2007.
Named after the hometown of the great bodhran maker Malachy Kearns, the Roundstone Buskers go way back. Having all served stints in the Bogside Zukes in the ‘90s, the Buskers are longtime friends and have collaborated numerous times over the years before they finally brought their talents together to live out their shared passion of playing music.
With Jones’ and Burton’s rock and bluegrass backgrounds and Sullivan’s classical training, the Buskers’ style is anything but purist. The group puts a folky spin on everything from Louis Prima to Paul Simon to modern pop, while forming its own distinct arrangements of traditional Celtic jigs and reels. “You draw from that past,” Jones explains. “It’s exciting when you do that kind of music that’s been done for thousands of years by your forefathers, and then you bring it back into modern times and people still want to hear it.”
What’s even more enticing, they say, is the enthusiasm Irish music brings out and the challenging, but gratifying process it takes to learn to play it. “It really is a blast!” Burton says. “And it’s not easy music to play, in the least, if you do it right.”
For Sullivan, it’s also about approaching their fans on a personal level and getting the crowd involved. “We’re very interactive with the audience,” she explains. “We treat it like we’re in our own living room, so there’s a lot of banter back and forth.” Songs like “Blood Wedding,” “A Man You Don’t Meet Everyday” and “Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore” routinely get people up clapping, yelling, singing and dancing—even barking like dogs sometimes.
Not only can the trio get the crowd going from their home stage at the Fox Pub and Cafe, they have the same effect on an audience from 200 feet up. Last year, the Buskers were showcased in the pilot episode of Heartland Sound…Staged, which was recorded at the top of the Peoria Heights water tower. The local production, which highlights area musical acts playing against breathtaking Midwestern backdrops, offers the potential to be picked up nationally—and launch the Buskers to celebrity status, something of which the band got a little taste while filming their sky-high concert last May.
“We felt like we were dang movie stars!” Jones exclaims. “We didn’t know what we were getting into… We were just amazed. We were blown away.” And when he says “blown away,” he means it both figuratively and almost literally. As the three were jamming away, a helicopter circled overhead taking aerial shots—making Sullivan’s striking red hair appear to be ablaze in the air and forcing Burton to hold onto his cap, lest it fly away.
With the TV pilot as a springboard, the Roundstone Buskers hope to soon release an album of the Heartland Sound…Staged concert and expand their scope to include more of the Midwest. But their local fans need not worry, for the Buskers plan to keep the good times rolling close to home as well, playing regular gigs at the Fox, Forest Park Nature Center, Erin Feis and other venues throughout the year. And Burton has just one rule for anyone who ventures out to catch the Buskers live: “When you come to see us, you better be ready to have a good time!”
The Roundstone Buskers play the Fox Pub and Cafe from 8 to 10:30pm on the third Saturday of every month. For a schedule and more information, visit roundstonebuskers.net.
Zukin’ It Up
At the heart of local Irish music are the Bogside Zukes, who’ve ridden a wave of success performing all across central Illinois and the U.S since the early 1980s. With members splintering off over the years to form other bands—including Turas and the Roundstone Buskers—the band has served as a sort of epicenter of local Celtic talent, with the Zukes’ singer and guitarist Matt Coker leading the way.
A spinoff of the bluegrass-infused Zucchini String Band, the group’s name pays homage to the Catholic ghetto “Bogside” in Derry, Ireland, while also serving as a tribute to its zucchini—zuke—roots. Besides Coker, who’s been a member since its founding, the group’s current incarnation consists of Chris Meers (mandolin, vocals), John Parker (fiddle, vocals) and Rich Teagarden (bass, vocals), as well as Lauri Gannon (tin whistle, bodhran, vocals) and Jeff Calhoun (banjo, guitar, vocals) of Turas.
While the Zukes come from all over Illinois and Missouri, and as far away as Texas, the “blarney” behind the band is the myth Coker enjoys propagating of raising his musically-inclined orphan siblings on the west coast of Ireland before immigrating to the great city of Peoria, Illinois, to play Celtic music. And really, that tall-tale spinning is what the Bogside Zukes are all about: bringing a story to life through music. “We try to be very entertaining,” says Teagarden, who joined the Zukes in 2008. “We’re not what you’d call an ‘artsy’ band… We approach the music as fun—kick up your heels, throw back a pint, get out here and have some fun!”
“What I love is the energy,” Coker adds, “and you feed off that energy that comes back to you. It’s such an amazing exchange, when you’re up there playing and you can tell the crowd’s getting into it.”
Calling their songs “music for all ages and situations,” the Bogside Zukes can be found at Kelleher’s, Donnelly’s Pub, Tavern on Prospect and on the riverfront performing tunes like “Limerick Rake” and “Waxies’ Dargle”—the crowd’s favorite call-and-response, in which Coker asks, “What’ll you have?” to the audience’s roaring reply of “I’ll have a pint!” Taking influence from bluegrass and a variety of musical styles, the Zukes can’t exactly pinpoint their untraditional sound, but say it’s a mix of everything from folk to world to pub music. Playing traditional jigs and reels, as well as blues and even Beatles covers, the band is in demand year-round. And while they’ve played some amazing gigs and produced multiple albums in their nearly 30-year history, for the Zukes, the best part of performing is simply the excitement and fun Irish music brings out. “This music does grab you,” Coker explains. “It’s this energetic, spiritual-driven connection.”
Teagarden agrees. “This current [group] is really a tight ensemble now… We know each other and how each other plays. We almost think with one mind.” It’s that subconscious sync-up that brings the audience to its feet to sing, dance and clap along, and still gives Coker the chills, even after all the years he’s been playing. “I don’t know what it is, but sometimes I get that shiver up my spine when everything’s connecting,” he describes. “There’s just something about it. It just grabbed me, and it grabbed each one of us.”
Now back in action after a brief hiatus while Coker finished up nursing school, the Bogside Zukes are looking forward to producing a new album in the near-future. And just as serendipity seemingly brought them together, the Zukes are ready for whatever else fate sends their way. “Your paths cross for a reason, I think… Every now and then your path will cross with someone, and you either stick and make a difference in each other’s lives, or just bounce off and move on to the next,” Coker says. “This group of individuals… We all have such a wonderful time together. It’s an amazing thing.”
The Bogside Zukes can usually be found at Donnelly’s Shamrock Pub on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. Learn more at bogsidezukes.com, and don’t forget to check out their albums, on sale at Harp & Thistle Imports in Peoria Heights and at cdbaby.com. a&s