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St. Patrick's Day is just another day for seasoned Irish quartet

By JENN McKEE , Special to The Daily Oakland Press 03/14/2004

March 14, 2004

In Ireland, shillelaghs - or "cudgels" - are made from the wood of blackthorn trees.

But 20 years ago, the process was reversed, and an Irish band called Blackthorn was created in a downtown Detroit pub called The Old Shillelagh.

"The owner there fired his house band without having a replacement," says Richard McMullan, Blackthorn's lead singer, guitarist and mandolin player, who's a Belfast native and the band's only remaining original member. "I was playing as a single here and there, and somehow he got hold of my name."

McMullan partnered up with two other musicians, but they were primarily interested in playing folk music.

"We threw a show together and played it, but it was pretty grim," he recalls. "And even though we were packing the place after a while, and the owner wanted us to stay, we knew it wasn't going to work."

Nonetheless, Fred Klein joined the group and played keyboards, tin whistle, flute and accordion. Though not of Irish descent, Klein loved Celtic music and tried to nudge the band in that direction.

"Richard and I were always pushing to play more Irish songs, so the others became unhappy and quit after a while," Klein says. "But we eventually picked up better guys who were more dedicated to gigging and rehearsing anyway."

Those "better guys" were bassists Dennis Green and Gary McMullen on banjo and guitar, and with these last members in place, Blackthorn became the house band for Cowley's Pub in Farmington.

There, over the course of more than a decade, the band developed an intensely loyal, albeit eclectic, following.

"College kids bring their parents to see us, or the other way around," Klein says, "and some people raise their kids on our music. When they're old enough, they start coming to see us, too."

And while the group takes its music seriously - achieving a traditional, authentic Irish sound laced with gorgeous four-part harmonies - the four also have a lot of fun, poking fun at each other and the audience during shows.

They almost never have a set list of songs, preferring instead to take requests and let each night's performance unfold spontaneously.

"We always see a lot of people in the audience singing the songs," McMullan says, "and the only way they could know them is if they've seen us before."

Jenn Beams, 26, a high school teacher from Royal Oak, is a recent Blackthorn convert. After hearing about the group last August, she and her husband came to a show, and have returned many times since.

"We listen to their CDs in the car all the time," she says. "(Their appeal) has to do with the mood they put you in when you see them. They're so fun."

Blackthorn's broad repertoire balances laments with up-tempo reels. The group has released five CDs, but is always on the lookout for new material.

"It's the hardest thing we do," McMullen explains. "Sometimes we'll labor over a song, practice it and practice it, and it just won't work. But other times, we'll do a song once or twice and it will just feel like it's made for us."

A wholly different challenge, though, arose for the group last year. Cowley's Pub closed down for several months for extensive renovation, and shortly after it reopened as a restaurant and bar, the group decided to part ways with the venue, albeit on amiable terms.

"We still intend to play there, but we want to play our music in some other venues," McMullen says.

"Our performance is so dependent on people listening and getting involved - singing along and clapping," Klein adds. "We do well only when the crowd is interacting with us."

Recently, Blackthorn adopted O'Mara's in Berkley as its new base of operations.

"They're great people there, but they've also never had a group like us before," McMullan says. "The difficulty for them is changing from a restaurant to a pub between 9 and 12, but they're working hard to accommodate us and our regulars."

In its new home, Blackthorn seems to have hit its stride.

"This configuration is the best any of us has ever experienced in terms of talent, professionalism, dependability and compatibility," McMullan says. "Speaking as an Irish native, I'd take this band anywhere in the world and put them on any stage."

If you go

Blackthorn plays the first and third Friday and Saturday each month at O'Mara's, 2555 W. 12 Mile Road, Berkley. Call (248) 399-6750.

�The Oakland Press 2004
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