Food & Drink

Meet the musicians: Baltimore's eclectic takes on Irish music

Area music fans know it doesn't have to be March to catch a spirited performance of Irish music at a Baltimore bar. It happens on weekdays and weekends at Irish pubs like Ryan's Daughter, James Joyce and Liam Flynn's Ale House.

Whether it's traditional Irish music (acoustic instruments like fiddle, tin whistle and Uillean pipes playing jigs) or more modern takes (hard-rock influences like distorted guitar and driving drums), there's no shortage of it here.


To celebrate St. Patrick's Day and the city's vibrant Irish music community, we chose five acts you can see play live leading up to the holiday. (Admission is free unless otherwise noted.)

The ShamRogues


Jim Phelan finds a lot of the live performances at Baltimore bars bland.

"You can go to a hundred bars any night of the week and listen to a band that will just stand on the stage, and in my opinion, you might as well listen to a jukebox or a DJ," Phelan, 43, said. "We always like to say one of the instruments of the band — apart from banjos and fiddles — is the audience."

Since forming the eight-piece Irish rock act in 2009, Phelan has placed an emphasis on crowd engagement. The ShamRogues, who released the album "Drunken Memories" in 2014, includes Phelan (banjo), Adam Wyatt (lead vocals, bodhran), Sarah Stepanik (fiddle), Christopher Marsheck (guitar), Gary Peresta (bass), Evan Phillips (drums) and Katie Fox (dancer). For select performances this month, the band will include a second dancer, Katie Whitman.

Phelan formed the group in 1991 in his native Ireland. In 2006, he relocated to Baltimore for work as a horse trainer, and a few years later, restarted the ShamRogues with American players. He was inspired to reform the group after realizing how receptive an audience Baltimore was to Irish music.

And over the years, the ShamRogues have introduced more modern-rock instruments into the group, like bass and drums. But there is a line Phelan won't cross that other bandleaders will.

"One thing I'll never have is an electric guitar. I always have just acoustic instruments," the Towson resident said. "We have modernized it a little bit to keep with the times, but I still hold back from going too far."

As he waits for more opportunities to arise for his band (his lofty goal: book all 50 states), Phelan admits bringing his band from Ireland to Baltimore is a special accomplishment.

"I learned this music originally from my parents 40 years ago. What I really love is that I am able to carry on the tradition — even though I'm in it over here in America and I have a bunch of Americans with me in the band — we're still carrying on that tradition," he said. "That's really special to me."


Upcoming performances: 5:30 p.m. Friday at Fager's Island (201 60th St., Ocean City); 3 p.m. Saturday at Power Plant Live (34 Market Place, downtown); 10 p.m. Saturday at James Joyce (616 S. President St., Inner Harbor); 9 p.m. Thursday at Rams Head Center Stage (Maryland Live Casino, 7002 Arundel Mills Circle, Hanover). For more ShamRogues performances, go to

O'Malley's March

It didn't hit Jared Denhard until November 1999, when the lead singer of his band was elected the 47th mayor of Baltimore.

"That was kind of the big [moment], like, 'Whoa, this guy wasn't [expletive] us!'" Denhard, 55, said with a laugh. "That was the big shocker for us. We would literally just stare at each other [in disbelief] in rehearsal."

Throughout Martin O'Malley's political career — from Baltimore City Council member to mayor to governor and, most recently, to failed presidential hopeful — his Irish rock band O'Malley's March has remained. The current lineup includes O'Malley, who founded the group in 1988, on lead vocals and guitar; Jim Eagan on fiddle; Sean McComiskey on accordion, Denhard on Celtic harp, trombone and bagpipes; Pete Miller on bass; Jamie Wilson on drums and Mac Walter on lead guitar. (Bassist Bob Baum and piper Paul Levin died in 2002.)

While O'Malley's March toured steadily throughout the '90s and released multiple albums, the frontman's political ambitions eventually supplanted his dreams of Celtic-rock stardom.


"In recent years, we've definitely cut back on our performance schedule," Denhard, a Columbia resident, said. "We haven't been a hardcore, dragging-around-the-P.A., setting-up-at-the-bar band for a while — not that there's anything wrong with that."

Like many of its contemporaries, O'Malley's March plays traditional Irish songs while injecting rock elements as well. O'Malley, who declined comment for this story, writes almost all of the original songs.

"He writes songs that are political in nature, and he also writes songs that are highly autobiographical and personal," Denhard said, citing "Wait For Me" — a song about a man tracing his ancestry to Ireland — as an example.

O'Malley's March has a couple of performances scheduled this month, and Denhard said they hope to incorporate new material into the sets. Still, Denhard talks about the band's future with an easygoing uncertainty.

"We don't know how long we'll have this window to play music. I know that Martin wants to take advantage of it and enjoy it," Denhard said. "We're all very thrilled to be playing music with him again, for however long it lasts."

Upcoming performances: Seated performance 7 p.m. Sunday at Creative Alliance (3134 Eastern Ave., Highlandtown), tickets are $22 for members, $25 general public (+$3 at door); standing-room only performance 9:30 p.m. Sunday at Creative Alliance (same prices); 8:30 a.m. Thursday at James Joyce; 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club (7719 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda), $20.


Laura Byrne

Laura Byrne's day job intersects with her other career as a musician more often than you might expect.

"A lot of the people I've met through Irish music, I've helped them purchase their houses and sell their houses," Byrne said recently.

While Byrne is an area Realtor, the Hamilton resident is also a staple in Baltimore's traditional Irish music scene. She hosts jam sessions at bars like Slainte, Ryan's Daughter and Liam Flynn's Ale House, and has also performed at festivals in North America and Ireland.

Byrne had no background in Irish music before arriving in Baltimore in 1989 as a Peabody Conservatory of Music freshman from Vermont. Eager to play with musicians in a new city, Byrne answered a call for an Irish flute player stand-in.

She has since toured extensively, released an album (2005's "Tune For the Road") and has joined local Irish acts along the way (the Hedge Band, Old Bay Ceili Band).


"I was very attracted, at first, to the rhythm of the music," Byrne, 45, said. "I got kind of addicted to it. It's just uplifting and cheerful."

While some artists have incorporated contemporary sounds like electric bass into their Irish music, Byrne mostly operates within the tradition's dance-music parameters of reels, jigs and polkas.

Byrne tries to maintain the genre's trademark looseness that many fans find so appealing. Her Peabody background, though, does come in handy.

"Being able to play soulfully, expressively and having the technique to be able to do that with the flute — I would say I have a unique talent," Byrne said of her training. "It certainly helps me play with a more refined tone."

Five years ago, Byrne cemented her love of the music when she founded the Baltimore Irish Trad Fest, a three-day event of traditional Irish music performances and workshops at various city venues. This year, it takes place April 22-24.

"I bring a lot of [artists] here to showcase how great this music is," she said. "I try to get more people addicted to it who live in Baltimore."


Upcoming performances: 11 a.m. Saturday, St. Patrick's Day Parade, Dundalk (begins at Logan Village Shopping Center on Dundalk Avenue, weather permitting); 2 p.m. Sunday at James Joyce; noon, Thursday at Frederick Community College's Cougar Grille (Building H, 7932 Opossumtown Pike, Frederick).

Gaelic Mishap

In some Irish music circles, distorted electric guitar has no place in traditional songs. The members of Baltimore six-piece Gaelic Mishap disagree.

"If you're familiar with the Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly — that's the type of style we really enjoy," said guitarist Barry O'Brien. "Traditional Irish music is fun, and I think it's especially fun if it's rocked."

Consisting of Casey Kranz (lead vocals, fiddle, banjo), Steve Miller (bodhran, a type of frame drum; harmonica), Scott Schindledecker (drums), Barry, his 29-year-old son, Andrew O'Brien (bass, tin whistle) and his 31-year-old daughter, Colleen O'Brien (vocals), Gaelic Mishap formed in 2010 as a group looking to add a driving edge to traditional Irish songs.

It did not take long for Gaelic Mishap to find audiences in Baltimore, Barry said.


"There's a real hardcore group of people that absolutely love Irish music," he said. "They're very enthusiastic about it. When we're performing and those folks are a part of the audience, it's just so much fun."

Gaelic Mishap typically performs once per month, and twice in March for St. Patrick's Day season. They receive more offers, especially around this time, but Barry said the band chooses to be "a little picky" about their commitments.

"It's like being Santa Claus at Christmas time," he said of the demand for performances. "We don't play 10 times on St. Patrick's Day. We just have one heck of a four-hour set that we really enjoy."

For the 61-year-old Perry Hall resident, there's a sense of nostalgia connected to the sound.

"It is my heritage," he said. "I even remember my father singing some of the songs we do while we were in the car driving as a child."

In recent years, Gaelic Mishap has performed at all-day events like Washington's Shamrockfest, while mixing in local gigs at Mick O'Shea's and Timonium's An Poitin Stil. He hopes those who seek out Irish music in March will remember they play every month.


"It's not just for St. Patrick's Day," Barry said. "We do this year-round, and it's still just as fun."

Upcoming performances: 3 p.m. Sunday at Mick O'Shea's Irish Pub (328 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon); 8 p.m. Thursday at An Poitin Stil (2323 York Road, Timonium).

Na Fianna

As a teenager working at the Dumbarton Middle School for the Towson Recreation Council, Brian Auer put basketballs away, locked gymnasium doors and had a lot of free time on his hands. As he stared at his homework one weeknight in 2003, Auer heard music coming from the hallway.

"It sounded like bagpipes. I was like, 'What is that? Nobody told me about that,'" Auer, now 30, said. "They taught me how to play for free."

Auer soon learned he was playing with Na Fianna, one the city's best-known Irish pipe bands. Five years ago, after playing with the group each week for years, Auer became the band's leader. Founded in 1982 by Larry Feeley, who no longer plays with the group, Na Fianna reached its peak of nearly 20 members after the "Riverdance" explosion in the '90s, according to Auer.


These days, Auer can rely on approximately 10 members for each major performance, like a festival or parade. His hope is to continue growing the group with young members.

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"People always picture pipe bands as a bunch of old guys, but it's mostly young guys in their 20s and early 30s [in Na Fianna]," Auer said. "For a sustainable model, that's what I need to appeal to."

The key, Auer said, is to incorporate modern music touches into their mainly traditional repertoire. They try to find contemporary Irish songs on YouTube and apply it to bagpipes, and even work in recognizable songs like "Whiskey in the Jar," a traditional Irish tune that Metallica won a Grammy for in 2000.

To Auer, bagpipes are often thought of as a Scottish instrument. With Na Fianna, he aims to remind listeners that Ireland also has a rich history with the pipes.

"Our mission is to promote the history and cultural relevance of the bagpipes in Irish culture," Auer said. "People think of the dancing and drinking, but there's a lot more to it, especially with the pipe music."

Upcoming performances: 6 p.m. Friday, St. Patty's Party at the Knights of Columbus Catonsville (1010 Frederick Road, Catonsville); 1 p.m. Sunday, Baltimore St. Patrick's Day Parade (Begins at Washington Monument, 699 Washington Place, Mount Vernon); 10 a.m. Thursday, St. Patrick's Day Mass at St. Michael and St. Patrick Catholic Church (319 S. Broadway, Fells Point).