The Beggarmen perform live at Uptown Bill’s in Iowa City.
On a Saturday night last October, the Mill in Iowa City was standing room only for a performance celebrating the release of a local band’s latest CD. Many of the 100-plus gathering of friends, family, and followers of the Beggarmen wouldn’t call themselves fans of Irish music per se, but they know and love this band and came with the full intention of having fun.
They reveled for hours in the songs and tunes that made A Soft Day, and the two previous CDs, so popular with both critics and folk music lovers. The crowd toasted the band, kept time to the jigs, and maybe shed a tear or two as the powerful mix of music, a bit of alcohol, and the human heart created a magical Brigadoon-like moment, one that has appeared on special occasions for at least a thousand years. What guitarist Keith Reins calls “the adrenaline of the crowd” was apparent in the controlled energy that piper Brad Pouleson, fiddler Tara Dutcher, and her husband drummer Joe Dutcher shared with Keith.
Since there’s not much of an Irish subculture in Johnson County, there was a time maybe five years ago when the Beggarmen played at the Mill for what seemed to be the one fan of Irish music in these parts. When the lone audience member had to take off, they looked at each other and said, “I guess we’re done, then.”
Cultivating an Audience
These superior folk musicians have melded their musicianship for an accessible sound that’s more about reaching an audience than maintaining a legacy. As Keith explains, “We’re performers, not folklorists. We keep the music alive by changing it. When somebody says a performer can’t put his individual stamp on a tune, that’s when you’ve driven a stake through the heart of it.”
More recently, watching the Beggarmen light up the crowd at Uptown Bill’s Coffee Shop on another Saturday night, this is clearly not a problem. When the musicians take a breath between playing a lively tune (that’s music without words) or an Irish song (often steeped in blood and betrayal), they take turns introducing their favorite numbers, giving a few sentences of music education and friendly banter before diving back in. As sometimes happens in a live set, the Beggarmen experience technical difficulties a few measures in and need to stop and take it from the top. Not missing a beat, Keith quips, “It’s just that we like this introduction so much we thought we’d play it for you twice.” Their audience of four dozen chuckles in appreciation.
Half an hour later, Tara offers a mini-lesson on the different rhythms of Irish tunes, including 4/4-time reels and hornpipes, and 6/8 time jigs. The audience nods appreciatively. As Brad puts it, “Around here you have to jazz it up and put other things into the music to get people to listen to three hours of it.” By that, he is talking about how Irish music is traditionally played for dancers—usually in unison, with occasional variation or harmony on repeated verses.
While the style sometimes seems so laid back you might imagine that it’s a session, where musicians who may not know each other come together to compare and informally compete, the Beggarmen actually prepare much more than most Irish folk groups. Not only do they rehearse weekly, but they routinely arrange their pieces to create something unique. In “Ramblin’ Rover,” for example, the song includes a few bars of a traditional jig, as well as a jig Keith wrote for this arrangement.
Learning from the Masters
The players continue to expand their influences by hearing the best musicians. “There’s hardly a big name in Irish music that one of us hasn’t heard,” says Brad. And it’s customary to meet fellow musicians afterwards, who often buy the performer a pint or two while trading stories and techniques. Tara explained, “They are very generous in how they communicate.
Apparently, because folk musicians don’t make the huge money that pop artists do, they have day jobs ranging from carpenter to clinical psychologist and “are very grounded regular people. Even the full-time musicians usually teach music,” says Tara, who herself runs Cavan Fiddle Studio out of her home.
Playing Loose with Tradition
Watching the Beggarmen in rehearsal reveals both more technical expertise and whimsy than expected. When somebody mentions the idea that any Emily Dickenson poem can be sung to the theme from Gilligan’s Island, Keith launches into Dickenson’s “Death” to the jaunty song “The Mickey Mouse Club March,” which also suits the meter perfectly. When they return to business, rehearsing their first English folksong “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme,” Tara explains the metaphors, with thyme representing virginity, red roses for passion, willow for tears, and rue for regret. Prepped with that background it’s easier to follow her buttery voice to the time when cautionary tales of betrayed love maintained a strict social order.
Tara mentions how lucky the group feels that her husband Joe picked up the goat-hide drum called a bodhrún and discovered he had a natural flair for it. Joe doesn’t have the same early musical training as his band mates, although he sang in high school choir, so he mostly listens when discussion turns to musical theory. However, he has gained confidence and Tara has “persuaded him to open his mouth,” not just as backup, but soloing on songs like “Madam, I’m a Darlin.”
Hear Them Live
While the gigs keep coming for the Beggarmen, recently some classical opportunities have come their way. Following a performance at the Iowa City Farmers Market last summer, the Beggarmen were invited to perform Dan Welcher’s “The Minstrels of the Kells” with the University of Iowa Symphonic Band in April and May. May will see the premiere of “A Rogue’s Dance,” written by the Iowa Playwrights Workshop’s Janet Schlapkohl and composed by the Beggarmen’s Brad Pouleson. With these and future gigs in the works, there’s no question the Beggarmen will be busy working to keep Irish music alive in the Midwest.
Learn more at beggarmen.com. Admission is free for “Minstrels of the Kells” at the Iowa Memorial Union on April 26, 2011.
LaDawn Edwards teaches English composition and public relations courses at Kirkwood Community College and Mt. Mercy University. Her recent PR projects include promoting National Recycling Day via local radio for Interstate Battery’s Green Turkey Challenge and helping Citizens for Legalization of Urban Chickens (CLUC) successfully lobby to allow up to six backyard hens in Cedar Rapids.