Blackthorn: Second time's the charm
Celtic group plays make-up date at NCAC
By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
NORTHPORT — It's better late than never for Richard McMullan and Blackthorn.
The Michigan-based folk ensemble had been scheduled to perform at the Northport Community Arts Center last year but took a rain check when McMullan was invited to join the Irish Rovers for a month-long New Zealand tour. They'll make it up to area audiences when they finally take the NCAC stage at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Performing in the Great Lakes region since 1984, Blackthorn is known for its blend of traditional and contemporary Irish music including songs of emigration, sea shanties, jigs and reels. Besides McMullan, a Belfast native who plays guitar, mandolin, cittern and bodhran, members are Fred Klein, keyboard, whistle, flute and accordion; Gary McMullen, guitar and five-string banjo; and Dennis Green, bass guitar.
"They wanted me because I was the real McCoy," joked McMullan, the band's only Irish member and the source of most of the songs and stories in its repertoire.
McMullan co-founded the group after moving with his wife to her native Michigan to teach school and help raise their family. Now chairman of the modern language department at Birmingham Groves High School, he studied French, Spanish and English as a student while pursuing an informal education in music.
"When I was 14 or 15 I started to play drums — pop music like 'Hang on Sloopy,'" he said. "But as that's going on you also have a parallel substrata of the national music. It's very strange. It was not uncool to be singing some Irish stuff at the same time as playing 'Twist and Shout.' You're sort of steeped in it, whether you want to be or not."
In Michigan, he found a market thirsty for Celtic music. While he straddled the fence for a while, playing both pop and folk, the pull of his native tradition was stronger. He began to concentrate all his energy on Blackthorn.
Now the group plays throughout the Great Lakes area including Chicago, Lansing and Detroit, where they have been a fixture on J.P. McCarthy's annual St. Patrick's Day show on WJR Radio. They have a regular gig at O'Mara's pub in downtown Berkley.
While Blackthorn draws on the rich history of Celtic music, they also embrace the material of contemporary Irish songwriters, following the lead of popular acts like Altan and Dervish.
"Ireland now has unbelievably good musicians that are steeped in tradition but will use synthesizers and everything under the sun," said McMullan, 56, whose family back home calls him "The Yank." "People that want to back in and keep (the music) old and kind of out of tune, that's kind of narrow minded."
Besides its spontaneous banter — "We have no routines, no jokes, no one-liners," he insists — the band is known for its stories and a wide repertoire that changes with each show.
"We have no list of the songs that we know. We've never bothered to write it down," said McMullan. "We have two or three songs that we typically use to start the evening ... and a few that we end with. And truly, whatever happens in the middle is whatever goes over with the audience. It's never the same thing twice.
"I would put this band on any stage in the world and I'd be proud of them," he added.
Tickets for Saturday's show are $15 for adults and $5 for students at 386-5001 or www.northportcac.org.