Professors attempt to revamp Irish music

Youngstown State University English professors Philip Brady and Steve Reese are thinking beyond the traditional Irish drinking songs.

“Our music is — I think — powerful, poetic and lyrical. It’s not just diddly-eye-dies, drinking and dancing songs,” Brady said. “We like to have an audience that is prepared for a good listen.”

In 2001, the two formed Brady’s Leap, a Celtic band, along with YSU physics professor Jim Andrews, Kelly Bancroft and Istvan Homner. They’ve since produced two albums: “The Road to Killeshandra” and “Heart of the Stranger.”

But the band’s roots run deeper than a decade.

Since 1990, Reese and Brady would casually play music together while sitting in Brady’s living room.

Brady, a vocalist and the band’s front man, said he attended the same undergraduate school as Andrews and Reese; they didn’t know one another then, however.

The band flourished under “a creative leakage” Reese had in 2002.

“He wrote at least 20 incredible songs — many of them based on lyrics or poems from old sources,” Brady said.

Brady’s Leap has used poems from 14th-century Welsh poets, English poets and an eighth-century Irish poet.

The band said it tries to use interesting juxtapositions to avoid the folk and Irish standard it says pervades the genre.

Reese said avoiding the Irish cliches is often difficult, but they do their best to remain authentic.

“One hardship is that there is not a real niche for this,” he said. “We tend to stay away from the kind of stuff that people will shout for with traditional Irish music.”

“People want to hear, ‘When Irish eyes are smiling,’ but we don’t really do that,” he added. “The cliche songs are fun to do, but not really what we play for.”

Brady’s Leap has performed at various venues, including Cedars Lounge, Irish Bob’s and other local pubs. They have also played in Boston and Chestertown, Md.

Brady said the band feels most comfortable at venues with smaller audiences. Their support from YSU faculty and students has provided them with a local flock.

One student drew a picture of the band from 20 years ago, and it still hangs on the wall in the English Department in DeBartolo Hall.

Karen Schubert, an English instructor, said she has been listening to Brady’s Leap ever since she was an undergraduate student at YSU in the early 2000s.

“They’re wonderful and lively, with a rich range of cry ballots and toe-tapping songs,” she said. “When you listen to them, it’s obvious that they care a lot about each other and their music.”

Brady and Reese are poets by trade at YSU. They said the poems they teach often inspire them to sing.

“Steve’s music brings together all these different strands and genres in ways that are really surprising,” Brady said.

Reese added that the music brings out the rhythmic qualities of speech and accentuates them.

“We both spend a lot of time studying the sounds of written word. Harmonies and drum beats are a way of intensifying the music,” Reese said.

Brady said a fair amount of work goes into the craft of writing and translating music.

“They are life-long activities, and I think William Stafford, an American poet, said you need to pick something for your life that you’re not very good at so it takes you your whole life to get there,” Brady said. “It feels like that with poetry.”

Brady’s Leap has 15 songs that have yet to be recorded.

Brady said the finished product of a song feels rewarding. Though they practice only once a month, Reese said practices are often laid back and driven by a surge of live performances.

Andrews, the band’s bass player, said Brady’s Leap has performed about 60 to 70 shows since he joined in 2003.

He said his most memorable experience was playing at Murphy’s Pub in Alexandria, Va., on a stage that was six feet wide. There, the band played for Andrew’s former professor.

“We spilled over a bit,” he said. “It was just fun because it was the day before St. Patrick’s Day.”