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The Other Steve Miller
Posted in Songwriter Chronicles

Five Songs to Play on St. Patrick’s Day

What more can I say? (Photo courtesy of the Clintons.)

As Guinness clocks near zeroes in bars across the country, it’s time to start thinking about the 4th Century saint whose feast day calls for mass consumption of corn beef, cabbage, alcohol and taters. No, I’m not referring to Saint Alexius of Rome, but the other saint whom we commemorate every March 17: Saint Patrick, Enlightener of Ireland, scarer of snakes, converter of Gauls, elucidator of the Holy Trinity via a three-leaf clover.

On this day, it doesn’t matter if you’re 100, 50, 12.5 or zero percent Irish, or whether your last name has an O’ preceding it, if you enjoy shamrocks, hearty mirth, leprechauns and a nice, stout pint of ale, you, too, are Irish. (Disclaimer: My paternal grandmother’s maiden name is Helen O’Keefe/O’Sullivan, so my 25 percent makes observance of this feast day mandatory for me.)

Luckily, St. Patrick’s day falls on a Sunday this year, which makes for optimum celebration of the Irish in all of us — not that any other day of the week would impede these yearly obligations. And for those who want to honor this holy day even more by, say, playing an open mic set at any pub/bar-like establishment, here are some songs to consider:

“Whiskey in a Jar”

This traditional tune has been remade numerous times since the 17th century, but the version that stands out the most in my mind is the 1972 cut recorded by Irish rock legends Thin Lizzy. Metallica also recorded this song in 1998 and made it a hit, but I’d recommend playing the Thin Lizzy version if you’re only manned with an acoustic and your voice — drop-tuning bar chords don’t translate well in open mic setting. That, and I find the Lizzy version much more expressive and truer to its Irish roots — and, of course, less James Hetfield-y, whose career of “yeahs” have recently been compiled.

“Danny Boy”

When I was putting together a similar min iset around this this time last year, I was somewhat hard-pressed to find a version of this Irish folk standard that I could a) memorize quickly and b) easily find the chords. I settled on this version by the Celtic Women, which actually has no instrumental accompaniment and is, frankly, a little cheesy. The reason I chose it is because I quickly figured out it was in E-flat major, and I wanted to segueway from one of my non-Irish originals in the same key to this one, so it worked out. If you’re more comfortable playing in C (who isn’t?), Eva Cassidy’s beautiful version may work better. In fact, this is a far superior to the Celtic Women version. What was I thinking?

“I’m Shipping Up to Boston” and/or The Boondock Saints Theme

If you have a full band at your disposal or have friends in a wooden flute ensemble, playing these would bring out the crowd’s inner Irish. I can’t say I’ve attempted to play either, but if you can pull off either one, you would deserve to drink free for the night; your friends would love you, but your liver would hate you.


Any Song by Flogging Molly

I’m not necessarily a fan of this group, but having seen them at Warped Tour in 2004, these guys are the embodiment of everything Irish music should be: heartfelt, jovial and conducive to pint-raised sing-alongs. If you have to choose a song or two and, again, have a band and/or fiddles at your disposal, consider “Drunken Lullabies,” “The Irish Pub Song,” and the cryptically titled “Beer, Beer, Beer.”

“Let’s Drink (Some Alcohol)”

And now, a moment of self promotion: I wrote this song last year as an attempt to pander to the bar crowd, while, at the same time, inserting some satirical elements to make it a little unsettling, i.e. the reference to Dante’s Purgatorio. I debuted this song last year at an open mic a few days before St. Patty’s Day at Missoula’s premiere Irish bar, Sean Kelly’s, which I actually mention in the opening lines of the song. If you’re to play this song, feel free to insert a bar and weekday that best applies to you. Also, if you want to replace the spoken-word bridge with allusions to classical works of your choice, that also works. I only ask that you don’t make CDs of your performance and keep 100 percent of the profit. Saint Patrick would not do that.

Feel free to add any songs to the list I may’ve missed. You can never have too many Irish songs.

I wrote the above last year, thinking this blog would be developed and live by St. Patrick’s Day ’12. But it wasn’t, so here it’s sat, unpublished and unedited, for almost 13 months, which explains why the writing — at least to me — seems a little rough. But I wanted to preserve the post as a reflection of who I was at this time last year, so aside from a few minor changes, I kept the content as it was originally written: short, informational, to-the-point, rigid. In other words, a true blog post. I’ve since deviated from that format, though it may see its return with the piecemeal release of a TBA project. More on that later.

When I wrote the post in late February 2012, I was at a somewhat unsatisfying and stagnant place musically. I had yet to join Andrea Desmond and the White Lights, and Mariko Rose Ruhle’s band (of whom I am also a proud member, and you’ll likely hear more about) hadn’t been formed. My musical activity consisted of practicing/recording in my tiny Central District bedroom and performing two songs at the Hopvine’s weekly open mic. That’s all well and good, but after playing with full bands like Margo Foorehead, the Clintons, the Magic Square and Newsfeed Anxiety, the acoustic performances by necessity felt very limited, and were not near as fulfilling or exciting as playing with an ensemble. I was a solo-acoustic singer-songwriter by default, which meant I hinged everything on those 10-minute, once-a-week time slots. It was a dark time.

My desire to play more than two live songs a week brought me to Waid’s, a Haitian restaurant on the Central District/Capitol Hill border. Waid’s is a place where “closed” and “open” are hard to discern — save for Friday nights; the crowds and bass-heavy music make certain of that clarity. On most weeknights nights (that I’ve seen), it’s black iron gate between the building and Jefferson Street is barely open or entirely shut, and it’s “OPEN” sign is off. The first night I went — March 5, 2012 — the establishment had all the signs of being closed, but the door was unlocked, so I went in. Nobody was there, it seemed, until I called out and someone emerged from the back. I asked if there was an open mic that night, to which the person confirmed. An empty, unlit stage and dance floor seemed to suggest something different.

But people slowly made their way into Waid’s, with musical gear, art supplies, and protest signs, some of which read “STOP ruSh Limbaugh” and “Vote your heart Barry Ladenburg Seatac City Council.” A DJ soon arrived and began playing a mix of flamenco, bossa nova and straight reggae, and three stage lights illuminating the hanging lanterns and fake palm trees. A leather-jacket-wearing woman with a guitar came in; she was the guitarist of a three-piece, instrumental punk/grunge/prog group that would begin the night’s festivities. I asked her about the open mic and how long it had been in existence. “It’s in its baby stage,” she said, adding the few they’ve had so far were “regular hootenannies.” That seemed promising enough.

My initial impressions of this alternative open mic were fairly positive: not only would I get to play twice as long — four songs compared to two — but the crowd seemed creative, receptive, and one fellow even gave me a Kashi cookie. The opening group’s drummer (whose name escapes me, as do the other names from that night) welcomed those in attendance, saying, “Welcome to the house of love. It gets real beautiful in here.” Judging by the hula-hooping and the spread-out canvas covered in painted handprints that seemed like a pretty accurate assessment. It was like a disco-hippy version of Cheers, though I definitely felt on the outs, dressed in a polo and sweater, seated by myself to the left of the stage, constantly taking notes on my MacBook (which explains this detailed recounting; my memory’s isn’t that photographic.) Still, I thought I had the pulse of this audience — the young, artistic and somewhat disenfranchised — and was eager for my set to show I was (kind of) one of them. I was told I’d have 15-20 minutes to play, maybe longer depending how many performers showed up. It didn’t look like many had, so I was free to play upwards of four, maybe five, songs! This indeed seemed like the “house of love.” But that was before my set.

I plugged into the guitarist’s small, gain-heavy amp (which doesn’t sound the best with a Washburn acoustic-electric) and introduced myself, saying that I was happy to be there. The open mic coordinator told me if I did well, they’d let me know, but should the opposite happen, the “sandman” would come kick me off stage. It sounded like a joke, so I opened with my ode to the frustrated, declassé 20-somethings, “Recession-Era, Stuck-at-Home, Post-Grad Blues,” penned during those months I was stranded in my hometown, jobless, and living in my parent’s house — a situation more and more find themselves mired in these days, with an artificially improving economy, a shrinking job market, and nationwide student debt at more than $1 trillion. With lines like “It seems my degrees don’t mean anything / At least not to the people who are hiring” and “Day after day on the job boards / With nothing to show, nowhere to go, and all my former classmates know that / All these things elude me now…” I thought this song would resonate with this group, and I performed it as if I were some Bob Dylan/Bruce Springsteen figure, capturing the zeitgeist of our age. It was also my first time playing the song live.

At the end of it, I was met with a very tepid response, which wasn’t at all what I expected. “Is the sandman going to come?” I asked the coordinator. “You work on your pitch,” she said, holding her right hand beneath her chin as if to prop up her head, “otherwise, he’s going to come.” The crowd laughed at this reply, and I did too, albeit nervously and dejectedly. I played my next three songs in tense self-consciousness — hyper-aware of each off-pitch note I sang —  trying to correct my errors by following the coordinator’s advice of lifting up my chin, as if that would’ve helped. After a very uninspired rendition of Newsfeed Anxiety’s “Good With U,” they pulled the plug on the set. “You have the same name as that other band, so that’s good,” the coordinator said on the microphone to me as I packed away my guitar. The sandman truly had come.

I sat by myself after the set, and no one approached me. The subsequent entertainers — a free-verse poet backed by a hip-hop beat, and a spoken-word artist — garnered far better responses than I did. It was near 11 p.m. on a work night, and I had overstayed my welcome at the “house of love” on 12th and Jefferson. The last bit of poetry I heard for the night was the following:

Women indulge in roast beef and chocolate cake not because they don’t care, but because they don’t have to care.

Thank you.

The “sandman” comment haunted me that following week. I titled my chin, but still couldn’t quite seem to achieve the pitch the event’s coordinator wanted from me. It shook my confidence, especially from the position of a solo singer-songwriter: no matter how proficient the guitar playing, or how well crafted a song may be, a warble-y, sandman-beckoning pitch can ruin you, or at least make you far less successful. Since then, I’ve learned that I’m best in a supplementary, Scottie Pippen role, not necessarily the front person, but as an aid to the front person, someone who works behind the scenes to fine tune somebody else’s material. I’m most comfortable as a lead guitarist/backing vocalist/quasi-producer/arranger. At the time, however, I was still stuck in frontman mode from the Newsfeed Anxiety days, and a open mic experience such as that made me question my musical fate. Had I really been that pitch-y all along? And how does one go about amending this? Vocal exercises? Herbal tea? Chin tilts?

Then it dawned on me: I will return to Waid’s for another mini-set, but not just any mini-set — the Saint Patrick’s Day mini-set. adjusted for time constraints. My first performance at Waid’s may’ve been an all-time low for open mikes — barring being booed and/or physically removed from the stage, it couldn’t get much worse — so if I was going to be disliked, I may as well be bold and unapologetic about it, like playing “The Beautiful Ones” in days of old.

The plan was to play four Irish/drinking-themed songs, divided into two same-key melodies: Metal Face’s “Beer in the Baler” to Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey in a Jar,” and “Danny Boy” to “Let’s Drink (Some Alcohol).” Granted, it would be two days after Saint Patrick’s Day, but the spirit would still linger. The mini-set, I assumed, would be so unlike anything played at Waid’s that it would almost definitely elicit a reaction, most likely a negative one. But that was the point. If this sandman were to come, if I were barred from ever playing Waid’s again, at least I would do so honoring my Irish heritage, passed down to me by my paternal grandmother, Helen Miller (O’Keefe/O’Sullivan). My ancestors would be proud.

After re-familiarizing myself with “Whiskey in a Jar” and listening to Celtic Woman’s aural “Danny Boy” on a loop, I was ready to return to Waid’s, and all that entailed playing a mini-set there. My memory of this night is much less vivid — I wasn’t in the manic note-taking mode of the first visit — though I remember talking with the members of three-piece opening band, and telling them I was bashful about singing because someone pointed out my inconsistent pitch (this person, as you can remember, was that band’s drummer, though she didn’t seem to remember me).

I’ve written enough about these songs to where a complete recap of the set would just be redundant. What you need to know is that the mini-set went over surprisingly well. It was almost strange how warmly it was received. Irish songs at a Haitian restaurant aren’t exactly the most compatible of marriages, but this cognitive dissonance seemed to resonate. When I was done, the event coordinator said to me, “I don’t know who said you had bad pitch, they were wrong.” It truly was the house of love that night, or, at least from my perspective, the house of relatively positive feelings. But I don’t credit my pitch — which probably wasn’t all that improved — for the turnaround: I credit the playlist above. If it worked well for me, imagine what it can do for you at an Irish pub, or at your friend’s corn beef and cabbage party.

Let me know how your St. Patty’s Day music endeavors go by leaving a comment. What worked well for you? What didn’t work? Did you modify this list in any way? Do you think U2 should be a part of this list? Why or why not?

I will leave you all with a relatively new Irish jig by John McClellan, front man of the Clintons, Montana’s most beloved band. This sums up Irish-ness in three minutes and 21 seconds better than I could ever in my lifetime.

Top ‘o’ the feast day, y’all.

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