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photo by Robert Tobey

Full-Time Fiddler
Ellery Klein ’96 on board with dance band from Titanic

It’s minutes before the Los Angeles-based Irish band Gaelic Storm will hit the stage in Springfield, Massachusetts with its trademark pub-band show. The energy level is far beyond the norm for a concert in a suburban high school auditorium. While some in the crowd got the evening started with a tailgate party in the parking lot, others staked out the front doors to grab the front-row seats. The shrieks and shouts build until the band takes the stage with a traditional sea shanty called “Rolling Down to Old Maui.”

Gaelic Storm’s rowdy approach to Celtic music hits swiftly. Lead singer Pat Murphy offers up an interesting tale that features a catchy chorus with some good three-part harmony. Underneath the lyrics is a driving rhythm section of acoustic guitar, bodhran (Celtic drum), and percussion. Their sound is relentless and infectious. Feet tap; hands clap; and soon there’s dancing in the aisles.

Behind and around this cacophony of sound, are the enticing strains of a fiddle. Sometimes haunting, sometimes alluring, sometimes whimsical, fiddler Ellery Klein ’96 fills the spaces with sweet notes, sort of the cherry atop the hot-fudge sundae, as the band rollicks along. The notes come fast and clear as a high-speed solo from Klein closes the song.

“This is my favorite [band] that we’ve had,” says guitarist Steve Twigger in an interview after the show. A key ingredient of this incarnation of the band is Klein, who joined Gaelic Storm in 2003. “We’ve been through a lot of fiddle players. And she’s absolutely brilliant in the studio, too.”

For Klein, this is her favorite band as well. “They’re just out to have a good time,” says Klein, “which isn’t always true of bands, especially in traditional music, a lot of people are so super stuffy. They’ve [Gaelic Storm] really captured that, ‘let’s just have a good time’ spirit, which for me is great fun. You just get up and jump around. Do silly things.” That may be the simplified version, but Gaelic Storm’s winning formula mixes danceable high-energy songs, a boisterous, self-deprecating sense of humor, and an intangible knack for making the audience feel like it’s Saturday night down at the pub and everyone knows everyone.

It’s a formula that has worked since 1996 when Twigger, Murphy, bodhran player Steve Wehmeyer, and percussionist Shep Lonsdale started the band as an excuse to get together, sing songs, and drink beer on Sunday nights at a Los Angeles Irish pub. Soon they had a following and a Hollywood storyline. A casting director for the movie Titanic came looking for a group to be the band for the steerage party scene. Gaelic Storm’s style —jubilant and a little bit sloppy — was just what he wanted.

When the movie hit blockbuster status, Gaelic Storm began a wonderful ride that hasn’t stopped. They’ve toured widely and continuously ever since. Their first four albums hit the top 10 on Billboard’s World Music charts. The additions of Klein, piper Tom Brown, and young percussionist Ryan Lacey (who took over for Lonsdale) has expanded the musical depth of the group. “For me, it’s the easiest I’ve felt walking on the stage every night since we started the band,” says Twigger. “It seems like another great starting place. It always feels like we just started. It’s very exciting with this new CD under our belt.” The new album, How Are We Getting Home?, was released in August.

1996 was also an important year in Klein’s own musical evolution. She graduated from UVM with a geology degree, and spent the next three years playing Celtic music around New England (working days at Lake Champlain Chocolates in Burlington) — first with popular Celtic rock band Whiskey Before Breakfast and then later with jighead. “That band was even more out there than Whiskey,” remembers Klein, “groove rock with Irish music and bluegrass.”

Deciding to look at Celtic music from another angle, in 2000, Klein enrolled in the one-year Masters of Traditional Irish Music Performance program at the University of Limerick, Ireland. The immersion in Irish music helped Klein find and define her own musical voice. She realized that for 12 years she had been striving to play like an Irish fiddle player. “But then I found the longer I was there and just doing Irish music and Irish music, the more I felt my American sensibilities,” Klein recalls. “So all of a sudden I felt like I was from somewhere — a mix of Irish fiddle and then just my own personality in the playing. I felt like I found that voice.”

It’s a voice you can easily hear if you listen to her background playing. The little trills and runs behind the choruses of a song like “I Miss My Home” (from the new album) have bluegrass and swing touches reminiscent of someone like Vassar Clements. Gaelic Storm gives Klein a lot of room to be creative. “Here I improvise all the stuff in the songs,” says Klein. “I have a basic framework that I’ve developed for a song, but I don’t play the exact same notes every night at all. With the back up stuff, I’m always playing around, trying new things.”

Finding her voice led to recording a solo album, entitled “Salt and Pepper” while she was still in Limerick. After the album got great reviews in the Irish and American press, Klein booked fall tours of the Northeast in 2001 and 2002. By early 2003, everything that came out of the year in Ireland and her solo CD had quieted. She was in New York City waiting tables and trying to figure out her next musical move when an e-mail arrived from the boys in Gaelic Storm. They were looking for a new fiddle player and Klein had been recommended.

Klein was interested, but first she asked herself some questions. “‘So I’m going to be the fiddle in this song-based band, am I going to enjoy it? Will I get along with them?’ Up till now I’d really been only in instrumental based bands,” recalls Klein. Soul searching, and a successful audition weekend behind her, Klein joined the band.

It’s been a year now and Klein is pleased with her new direction. “I’m enjoying it a lot,” says Klein. “This is the first time I’ve done music full-time. I’d done little spurts of full-time, but I’ve always had to go back to some little job.”

This big job means 130-140 concert dates a year and being on the road close to 200 days. Many of those days are traveling in a fifteen-passenger van with a trailer full of equipment. “Pull in. Unload the gear. You sound check, you play, and maybe you go to one bar. Then the next day you’re out of there,” Klein says with a chuckle and a groan.

On this night in Springfield, the concert ends with a raucous jig that has the whole crowd standing, dancing, cheering, and screaming wildly. Then it’s out to the lobby to hang out and sign some autographs. On many nights, everyone will be invited to adjourn to a local establishment to raise a glass or two (not an option on a Sunday night in Springfield). “It’s a fun band,” says Klein with a smile. “The fans really are like ‘friends’ of Gaelic Storm.”
—Kris Garnjost ’78