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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

St. Patrick Rocks

McTavish’s gift of music

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Twentyyears,” Paul Cotter offers with a disarming grin. He’s speaking of St. Patrick’s Day 2008, the 20th anniversary of McTavish, Milwaukee’s first Irish rock band. “It’s hard enough to keep a band together for a year or two.”

I’m seated across the table from Cotter (vocals, guitar) and McTavish co-founder Mark Shurilla (vocals, guitar). We’re not in an Irish pub, but a Mexican restaurant, which may say something about the porous boundaries of the postmodern world or perhaps the sometimes-tense relationship between McTavish and some of Hibernia’s local gatekeepers. “We’ve never kissed the ring of the Irish establishment,” Shurilla says gleefully. “We do what we want to do because we like it.”

When McTavish convinced a reluctant Riverwest bar owner to book them on St. Patrick’s Day 1988, the holiday meant little more than gallons of green beer in Milwaukee. Worldwide the “Celtic Renaissance” was stirring, but its full impact had yet to be felt here. In those days there weren’t tightly formatted, whistle-clean “Irish pubs” at major intersections. Irish music meant traditional sessions at Nash’s.

It was The Pogues, a fiercely Irish band that rose out of London’s still potent punk-rock scene in the ’80s, that showed the way for McTavish and hundreds of like-minded Irish bands to spring up from seeds scattered to the winds of the world.

“It all came together in everyone’s mind after The Pogues,” Shurilla says. “Then people remembered Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy and the tradition of Irish artists—the great writers, the great talkers.”

McTavish’s second album, Can’t Fight the Feeling, will be released this month. Unlike their previous CD, which included songs by The Kinks and The Animals along with traditional numbers, Can’t Fight consists of all original songs by Shurilla and Cotter. Several of them are rough-edged reiterations of Irish drinking melodies with rousing choruses rising over a rock rhythm. Some call attention to the connections between Irish music and traditional American country. One tune even has a polka beat.

Original mandolinist Dan Mullen remains in the band after 20 years. Rounding out the lineup are bassist Bob Jorin and drummer Terry Garguilo, along with a shifting cast of rounders on other instruments. “Irish music is wild drinking music—it’s about having a good time and freedom,” Shurilla says.

“It’s the best kind of bar band music.” But the appeal of McTavish and kindred bands is considerably wider than raucous crowds at the corner bar. “It breaks down age barriers,” Cotter adds. “We can play to children and old people. We’ve played at 70th birthday parties and old-age homes.

The music can cross all those boundaries. “In Ireland, music is respected. It’s not passive entertainment,” Cotter concludes. “If you talk during a session in a real Irish pub, it’s considered rude. ‘Give us a song,’ the Irish say. Music is considered a gift. I enjoy giving that gift.”

McTavish plays March 13 at the Miramar Theatre; March 15 at Racine’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade and 3 p.m. at Ivanhoe’s in Racine; March 16 at McBob’s Pub; and March 17, 1-4 p.m. at the Nomad and 9 p.m. at McAuliffe’s Pub in Racine.
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