Gallowglass: Traditional Irish music

by Scot Casey

Some weeks it seems that wherever there is great music happening, Jan Peters is there. He is either helping out at one of Julian MacDonough’s jazz shows at the Majestic, performing with Peadar Macmahon at Irish Night Mondays at The Star Club, hosting a Tuesday Night Open Mic there or happily playing along with Robert Blake or Hot Damn Scandal at Boundary Bay or the Green Frog. Jan lives and breathes music and his passion is evident in how involved and supportive he is of the Bellingham music community. His most recent band Gallowglass was formed out of a passion for Irish traditional music.

Along with Peters, the other musicians in Gallowglass are some of the most talented in Bellingham, most also members of other popular bands in town: Devilly Brothers, Giant’s Causeway, Snug Harbor, Robert Blake and the Put It All Down in A Letters. It is testimony to their devotion to Irish traditional music that they gathered together to form Gallowglass.

Several years ago, Jan met Britt Keeton, a talented fiddle player, at the Subdued Stringband Jamboree and they performed a few Irish songs together.

Jan said about a year later, he was walking around Fairhaven, where they met again. “I heard a beautiful sound. It was a gorgeous tune being played on a fiddle,” he said. “I followed the sound and there was Brit Keeton busking on her own. I was so happy to see her and was really impressed with her playing.”

They each began to consider the possibilities of forming a band.

Not long after, Jan became aware of how strong the Irish music community is here in Bellingham, much to the credit of Cayley Schmid, of Polecat. Cayley organizes the Bellingham Ceili Club, a monthly meeting of local musicians to play traditional Irish tunes. It was through the Ceili Club and Giant’s Causeway that Jan met Zach Bauman, who plays the guitar and mandolin. Bellingham being the tightly knit community that it is, Zach and Britt were also part of the outstanding local acoustic traditional band, The Devilly Brothers.

“It wasn’t long before we realized we shared something in terms of a sound we all loved and wanted more in our lives,” Jan said.

The three of them began meeting about once a week to play songs. They were soon joined by David Pender Lofgren on drums and the Irish Bodhran, a traditional Irish hand drum. David also performs with Snug Harbor, Robert Blake and the Put It All Down in A Letters and the Giant’s Causeway. When David isn’t available, Steven Tate, another talented local percussionist, joins in.

A strong commitment to the music is evident in how well rehearsed they are and how steadily they perform around town and county. They are booked two to three times a month out at Semiahomoo in Packer’s Oyster Bar, and they also perform regularly around town at Star Club, Honey Moon, and Green Frog.

At a recent show at The Conway Muse, Gallowglass began with the beautiful sorrowful “Cuckoo’s Nest” moving gracefully into the “Flowers of Edinburgh” through the “Blackberry Blossom” and “Follow Me Up” to “Carlow” and others to finish the set with the “Hare’s Lament.” Britt’s fiddle often begins a new tune, the melancholy strings singing in solo until the other musicians steadily  join in. Zach and Jan compliment each other as if they have been playing together all their lives. And the dual percussion from David and Steven is outstanding. There is a palpable sense of the joy that each of the musicians radiates in performing this music as an act of love.

This is aptly summed up in something Jan tells me later: “sometimes I play a tune, one tune, for hours, over and over. Little by little, there is a language – if you know how to listen for it – wherein how to vary and express the piece reveals itself to you. I’ll not likely ever be someone profoundly accomplished or knowledgable with this music. But I know how it makes me feel, what it brings out in me. I know if I can take what material I can play into my marrows, it will be part of who I am as a musician and as a human being, always.”

And that, essentially, is Gallowglass as a band: taking the music, the beautiful beast of Irish traditional music, down into the marrow of their souls and performing it as an exquisite moment risen from the depths of time and brought forth as a bright new wonder for the fortunate audience to experience.

MORE DETAILS: For more information and updates about Gallowglass, follow their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/gallowglassbham.

Published in the December 2014 issue of What’s Up! Magazine