Moving Forward with Pat Kilbride

(From Dirty Linen #43, December/January 1992-93)

In the few years since he arrived on these shores, Pat Kilbride has risen to the top of the Irish music scene here in the U.S. He's performed on New York and eastern seaboard stages with the likes of John Whelan, Joanie Madden, Eileen Ivers, Jerry O'Sullivan, Paddy Keenan, and other greats from the states and abroad. In 1990, he released Rock and More Roses, an excellent CD of material recorded while he lived in Europe. Late '92 saw the release of his second U.S. album, entitled Undocumented Dancing. When he first arrived, he traveled to festivals, concerts and radio stations armed with only a guitar, a cittern, and a devilish, crooked grin. Now he's a permanent resident of New York City, armed with a Greencard and a three-album deal with Green Linnet records. It looks like the man's here to stay.

Pat Kilbride What's behind Kilbride's success in America? One thing that's always impressive is the sheer work he puts into his performances. With his band, at solo concerts, and even on occasions when the music takes on a life of its own and pours uncontrolled and unruly through the concert hall (as during a memorable concert he played at the Eagle Tavern with Paddy Keenan), Pat Kilbride is hard at work. With his eyes squeezed shut, he's singing his guts out on every song. With sweat beading on his brow, he's coaxing every possible sound from his guitar. Music, Kilbride feels, is a job, and to do it well requires as much elbow grease as any other skilled job.

"What I want is first of all to always make good music," he says. "Music is important, and that's why we choose this music rather than something which might be more lucrative. But secondly, I want to make a living."

With a child, Patrick, to support, making a living is not a minor concern. But it's only one of a number of pressures in the life of a musician. "It's a very cruel kind of a world," Kilbride says. "You stand up on a stage, or you make a record, and you're sticking your neck out. Everybody's got the right to sort of throw tomatoes at you. If you can survive that at all, you're doing well. If you can survive that and make it your working life--and I'm not talking about being a star, now, or selling a million records. I'm talking about doing your job, going out there, earning your living, and playing music full time. If you can do that, and improve, and survive the flak, you're doing very well."

Besides hard work and talent, there's one more ingredient contributing to Kilbride's success: experience. Like most traditional musicians, his involvement began at home, when he was very young. His mother was a piano player and a dancer, and his brothers and sisters were all musical as well. He went to school and studied music from the tender age of five.

When Kilbride was a teenager, American music influenced him a great deal. "It's from American folk music, Blues, that I got my [guitar] style. Listening to samplers way back when I was sixteen years old, in Ireland. I was one of the rare people that picked up on this. I'm not talking top forty here, I'm talking obscure stuff. My guitar style came from the blues players, the clawhammer, where you have the thumb picking up the accompaniment on the bass strings, and the other three fingers doing the melody on the top strings. People like Mississippi John Hurt and Leadbelly."

Once his guitar style had settled itself a bit, Kilbride joined up with other musicians who played regularly in a landmark Dublin bar called Slattery's. The band was called the Pavvies, and it included several musicians, like Paddy Keenan and Davy Spillane, who went on to fame in top groups like the Bothy Band and Moving Hearts. Kilbride, too, went on to better things. While he was studying in art college in Manchester, England, the Glasgow-based Battlefield Band arrived in town, one member short. Kilbride came to the rescue, embarking with Battlefield on a six week tour of France during which he got his first taste of continental European life.

"I liked the wine, the good food, the sunshine," he says. So, after brief stints in Glasgow and London, he went to Brittany just in time for the Celtic revival and all its musical hubbub. For Kilbride, this meant a lot of fun and opportunities to continue his musical career. "They were using Ireland as a model," he explains. "The Irish revival inspired the Breton revival, so there were a lot of things happening there, a lot of work." Eventually, he left Brittany to live in Belgium, where he thoroughly enjoyed himself for eight years. Again, a major priority was that there was lots of work for him in the recording studio, in radio, and in various bands.

While in Belgium, Kilbride was involved in jazz and rock rather than folk music, writing his own songs for an ensemble including bass, drums, keyboards and saxophones. When he moved to New York in the late eighties, Irish music was foremost on his mind, but he also incorporated a lot of this jazzier, rockier side. The result of this mixing of traditional Irish music and more mainstream sounds was the Kips Bay Ceilidh band.

The band originally featured four of the nation's top Irish folk musicians: Seven-time all Ireland fiddle champion Eileen Ivers, Seven-time button-box champion John Whelan, Flute phenom Joanie Madden, and Piper Jerry O'Sullivan. The rhythm section consisted of Richard Lindsey on bass, Steve Missal on drums and Henry Grendel on keyboards, with Kilbride singing and playing guitar and cittern. The eight-piece band was formed specifically to perform at the release parties for Rock and More Roses. Although the eight piece didn't last too long, Kips Bay lives on. Kilbride and John Whelan, along with Steve Missal and Richard Lindsey, decided to continue working as a band. "We like to describe ourselves as an Irish world beat band, or an Irish alternative rock band."

Kips Bay is about to record their first full-length album, a project Kilbride is very enthusiastic about. "A lot of the songs will be original songs, fifty-fifty with traditional material. I mean, the accordion lines are as traditional as you want, but the backing will be from world beat to rock. Steve is using a lot of percussion these days, log drums, and all sorts of shakers and bells. And, then, of course Richard, being a wonderful jazz bass player, comes up with some very inventive basslines. It's all very pretty, really."

As for Kilbride's solo career, that's also developed since he's arrived. "When my first American album came out, I didn't know much about this country, I didn't know much about the circuit, and I didn't know anybody around here. So I just got out around the USA with my guitar on my back, and I started playing clubs. And I've built up a national circuit for myself now. And that's growing and growing and growing, the phone is ringing ten times more than it used to."

When he first arrived, Kilbride concentrated on traditional music. "It's like going back to Dublin!" he exclaimed at the time, "I'm at home here, I seem to be surrounded by Irish people. It seemed like the logical thing to get back to my roots." Now, he also admits to having had writer's block which prevented him from performing new material. "I suppose maybe the change of scenery," he begins, then changes tack. "I'd given up drinking alcohol, too, so I had to sort of come to terms with that, and deal with the world through different eyes." He persevered, stayed off the booze, and worked like hell on his traditional repertoire. It all paid off; not only is he a better performer of traditional music, his songwriting has recently come back to him.
Pat Kilbride


Several of the songs Kilbride has written in recent times deal with the issue of Irish immigration to the U.S. That is, of course, what "Undocumented Dancing" means, the dancing of the illegal Irish in the U.S. "Obviously, documentation, becoming legal, getting greencards is a big issue with the Irish in this country. I'm sure everyone will be aware that there was a huge program last year called the Morrison AA1 program, otherwise known as the Morrison visas. It was something that I was involved in, something that was close to me. I applied for a Morrison visa, and I got the greencard. Anybody who wants to get documented should avail of this program." While, as he points out, the issue will remain an important one to the Irish community, particularly because of the temporary nature of the Morrison AA1 program, Kilbride doesn't see himself writing too many more songs about immigration. "I think that issue is well covered now, and we're on to the next phase."

Singing and songwriting certainly form an integral part of Kilbride's musical life, but he's also a great man for tunes. He's particularly fond of adapting Irish tunes for the guitar. "I use an open tuning, DADGAD, so that will suggest certain tunes, and certain tunes will suggest themselves to it. There's a lot of fingerpicking involved, I'm a fingerpicker. I like to imitate exactly how maybe a piper would play the tunes, or a fiddle player woud play the tunes, which is not necessarily guitar-esque, so that's the challenge. To marry the tune to the instrument in an economical way that doesn't sound contrived. That's the secret."

Besides his guitar, Kilbride has another instrument up his sleeve. It has ten strings, a thickish, stoutish neck, and produces a metallic baritone sound. Just what is it? Bouzouki? Cittern? Octave Mandolin? "These hybrids were creeping into Irish music in the sixties," Kilbride begins. "I guess guys were out traveling around Europe, buying these things, bringing them back home, and adapting them to their own needs. The bouzouki is a round-backed, six-stringed Greek instrument. Probably a bit of a novelty, but it's since become a standard instrument [in Irish music]. In fact, the bouzoukis that Irish people are playing are not, strictly speaking, bouzoukis.

"There is an instrument called a cittern, which is a medieval European instrument. There's an instrument maker called Stefan Sobell, in the north of England, and he [revived] the term cittern. He was making these ten-stringed instruments loosely based on the medieval cittern."

So how can you tell a modern Irish bouzouki from Sobell's revived cittern? To give some idea of the confusion involved in naming these new hybrid instruments, Kilbride explains that he calls his instrument a cittern, to distinguish it from the bouzouki, which has a longer, thinner neck and fewer strings. The man who custom-built the instrument to Kilbride's specifications was asked to build a cittern. However, he labeled the finished product a "ten-stringed bouzouki." "So basically," Kilbride concludes, "one shouldn't get uptight about terminology... it's a box with a long neck and metal strings over it. That's what they all has to call them something."

Kilbride does play tunes on his cittern, but he really prefers it as accompaniment to his singing. "I like it to play tunes on it, but it doesn't seem to have the balls of an instrument like the pipes or fiddle. However, it's wonderful for backing songs. It's very versatile, it's easy to play and sing at the same time. A lot of symKilbridehetic strings, so you can build up a very big, warm sound with just one instrument. I do use it a lot in gigs, especially for my Irish songs."

How does Kilbride integrate being a band leader, singer, songwriter, fingerpicking guitarist, and plectrum-wielding cittern strummer? "I guess you just do what you tend to be good at, and then, ten years down the line, you find that you've fallen into a style." Ten years down the line, Kilbride plans still to be here, recording, touring, working, making a living, and improving. "You're always searching for better music, you're always stretching yourself to improve...Music is a funny thing, because the artist is never happy with themselves. The artist has to move forward. Or else he's moving backward."
Steve Winick