Traditional Irish band finds niche locally – Eau Claire Leader

Community, oftentimes, is what completes traditional or roots music.

Whether it’s clapping or stomping along to bluegrass or raising a drink to a pub sing-along, it’s the people who make the music feel authentic.

That idea is what helped The Shillelagh Lads find their niche as one of Eau Claire’s only traditional Irish bands.

And with St. Patrick’s Day coming up, The Lads are preparing for a major celebration that includes shows at 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday at Houligans Steak Seafood Pub, 415 S. Barstow St.

The shows also include performances with the UW-Eau Claire Irish Dance group.

“The music, because of the history of the (Irish) people, carries a depth and a richness of sorrow and of joy and of just life,” said  frontman Michael Rambo, who goes by Michael O’Claire while performing with the Lads. “It has a roots feel to it that everybody wants to  identify with.

“You walk in, and you don’t have to be Irish to get it.”

And that theme even applies to The Shillelagh Lads themselves.

While none of the members are full-blooded Irish, the band’s curiosity and desire to explore traditional forms of music led them into deep personal studies on the culture and music.

The goal, Rambo said, is to create as authentic an experience as possible.

“We wanted to have sort of an immigrant garb to create the atmosphere of something old-worldly,” he said. “And then we had the accents that we started to use. So it was theatrics; it’s more than just a band.

“What it really, really comes down to is simply engaging the heart, soul and mind of people. So, it borders more on sensationalism than traditionalism, but we are working the traditionalism into it.”

The Shillelagh Lads do perform a few original songs, but mostly stick to traditional tunes — some dating back as far as 300 years, Rambo said.

However, much of the band’s inspiration comes from some of the staple Irish folk bands in the 1960s, including The Chieftains, The Dubliners, The Clancy Brothers and The Wolfe Tones.

Shane Leonard, who plays an Irish drum called the bodhran in the group, has made roots music his focus for some time. In addition to The Lads, he leads the groups Kalispell and The Stoop Singers.

Leonard said many traditional forms of music have a lot in common.

“There’s definitely a lot of crossover between them, because the traditional music of the South (U.S.) and that whole fiddle tradition came from the British Isles,” he said. “But yeah, I’m totally obsessed with traditional music. I really geek out about it. So I was really excited when Mike asked me if I wanted to participate.”

The Shillelagh Lads got their start almost two years ago to the date, with an impromptu performance of “Happy Birthday” on the Houligans’ piano by Rambo. Afterward, he asked the owner if he and a friend could bring some instruments in on St. Patrick’s Day. The result of that gig was so successful that The Lads soon found themselves the Houligans’ house band with a monthly performance.

Rambo said the band initially experimented with venues around the area to capture that essential element of community, and it couldn’t do better than Houligans.

Rambo said slightly tight quarters help ensure everyone is near each other and focused on the music rather than breaking into their own awkward social groups.

Although they typically perform in groups of two to four, The Lads have grown to include nine members, including Rambo’s two brothers, David and Daniel.

Michael Rambo said the group hopes to expand its brand and eventually have a group large enough that it can perform at multiple venues in the area and keep its vibe consistent.

And consistency, along with accessibility, are the reasons Rambo said the group has continued to grow.

“It’s not fancy; it’s accessible,” he said. “It tells a story, and it’s great background for dancing.”

Hanson can be reached at 715-833-9206, 800-236-7077 or [email protected]

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