The luck of the Irish

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Gael Day is an old Irish term referring to the day the rent is due. It’s also the name of the newest album to be released by the Kansas City-based Celtic rock band, The Elders.

The album cover depicts a young musician chatting with a wolf. The band’s lead singer, Ian Byrnes, a member of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood, said the album name and artwork are signs of the times.

“All this stuff that’s been going on with banks and all these institutions that we’re supposed to trust and have confidence in, but everyone is so unsure of — that’s kind of what [the album] is all about,” he said.

This latest creative effort follows four earlier studio albums and two live albums. The CD’s title may reflect economic woes, but the positive outlook and upbeat feel of its music are apparent from the opening track “Better Days Ahead,” a favorite of guitarist and mandolin player Steve Phillips

“Lyrically, it’s a very positive song, which I kind of like, especially now in these economic times,” he said. “It kind of carries on with the ‘Yes we can’ theme.”

The album’s release comes just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. The weekend before that favorite Irish Catholic feast day, The Elders will return from a tour of Ireland to kick off album sales at their annual Hoolie celebration (see sidebar).

Ten years and counting

In 1998, six seasoned local musicians got together with the idea of creating a unique sound that Byrne defines as “kind of a country alternative rock with an Irish influence.”

Whatever they called it, however, audiences loved it. The group began building a fan base by playing small local venues. That quickly expanded to festivals, pubs and theaters across the United States and Europe.

The band’s only native Irishman, Byrne, is backed by Phillips, bassist Norm Dahlor, violinist and fellow Curé of Ars parishioner Brent Hoad, drummer Tommy Sutherland, and keyboardist Joe Miquelon. It was their collective wealth of stage and studio experience that earned them the name “The Elders.”

That experience is much in evidence in this new CD, which was two years in the making.

Byrne is torn between two favorite tracks on the new CD — both are very personal to him. The first, “Decoration Day,” is based on his decision to apply for U.S. citizenship. A County Wicklow, Ireland, native, Byrne moved to Kansas City in 1987, but didn’t apply for citizenship until recently.

His other favorite, “The Luck of the Irish,” is one The Elders have performed live a few times, and it’s been met by an enthusiastic response. The idea for the song came about last Fourth of July when Byrne and Dahlor were at a party.

“Norm just looked at me,” Byrne recalled, “and he said, ‘Ian, where the heck did the “luck of the Irish” come from?’”

That sparked Byrne’s interest. He began researching the phrase and was surprised to find its roots in his own Catholic faith and St. Patrick’s use of the shamrock to represent the Holy Trinity when he evangelized Ireland.

“He spread Christianity all through Ireland,” explained Byrne, “And then the soldiers in World War I used to wear shamrocks on their lapels for luck so they wouldn’t get shot. That’s where the ‘luck of the Irish’ came from, and that’s what that song is about.”

Spread the blessings

It’s appropriate that many of The Elders’ songs are inspired by their faith — and that they live that faith by putting their musical talents to work for others.

Since the time of the band’s inception, The Elders have played literally hundreds of concerts to raise money for local charities.

Perhaps foremost among those have been Catholic schools and organizations, including: Church of the Nativity and Curé of Ars schools in Leawood; St. Agnes and Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park; Holy Spirit School in Overland Park; St. Ann School in Prairie Village; and a variety of Catholic Charities programs.

“God gave us this gift of music, and it’s nice to get together and play and generate a lot of revenue for an organization,” said Byrne. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t have it.”

Phillips agreed.

“I’ve always been an advocate for giving back to the community. I just think it’s an important thing,” he said. “I’ve always felt that way, and the band feels that way as well. The fact of the matter is there are a lot of people out there who are doing good work and they just need help.

So we don’t mind at all helping out.”

This group’s giving spirit seems to be rewarded with a success that doesn’t show any signs of waning. This past January, The Elders won the 2008 Irish Music Award for Top Celtic Rock Band in the nation, presented by the Irish Music Association.

Coming home

Currently, The Elders are touring Ireland and have 100 of their biggest fans traveling with them. But they’re anxious to return to their fan base in the Heartland to share the excitement of their new release — an accomplishment Phillips said will have band members and fans beaming proud.

“Not that we’re not proud of the others,” he said. “But there were always just little things we would see later on and say, ‘If we’d just had a little more time, we could have done this a little bit differently.’

“With this one, we took more than two years to finish it. I feel like we’ve pretty much got everything done the way we wanted to do it — from a technical perspective and also from an artistic perspective. I feel like we matched or exceeded the level we set for ourselves on the other CDs.”

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