Blame Not the Bard
Online—Sunday, March 14 at 7 p.m.
In the fall of 2014, Blame Not the Bard debuted as Jim and the Brix at that year’s Fiddlers Picnic. In the seven years since, through a new guitarist, an album, many Iowa Irish Fests and a pandemic, their love of traditional Irish music is as strong as ever.
Andrew Philbrick (vocals and bass), Nikki Philbrick (fiddle, mandolin, vocals) and Corey Baker (guitar, vocals, percussion, songwriting) have been together in this iteration of the band since 2018. None of them started out as traditional Irish musicians, but they have delved so deeply into the style that they’ve been described as “Iowa raised, Ireland rooted” — a phrase they lifted from a description written about them in an Iowa Irish Fest program and have frontloaded in their self-definition ever since.
“All three of us grew up in Iowa, but we have felt a strong connection to the humanity that Irish songs highlight,” Nikki wrote in an email. “In them, we have found love, war, laughter, sorrow and joy. We may have been raised in Iowa, but have felt rooted to these songs that are sometimes centuries old because they’re just so — human.”
The band takes their name from a poem by Irish poet Thomas Moore, “Oh! Blame Not the Bard.” The poem dwells on the enduring nature of the work that artists create and how they can speak across years and cultures.
“We feel that is just as important today as when it was written in the 1800s,” Andrew wrote.
Blame Not the Bard takes its St. Patrick’s Day show online this year, like so many others, with a performance on Facebook this Sunday evening. They took some time to answer a few questions via email for Little Village, as well as put together a playlist of Irish tunes for you to enjoy until then, from both traditional artists and local contemporaries.
What drew you to traditional Irish music? Did you learn your instruments out of a desire to play this style specifically, or pick up new skills on instruments you already played?
Nikki: None of us started out as traditional Irish musicians! Andrew grew up playing the euphonium and studied it through college at the University of Iowa; I studied classical violin throughout high school at Preucil and, later, the University of Iowa; and Corey has been known to play (and teach!) a bit of everything.
Each of us has really taken our own path to Irish music.
I personally fell in love with Irish instrumental music when my first violin teacher, Janet Ault, took me to see Natalie MacMaster at Hancher Auditorium when I was probably about 12. I didn’t know a violin could do that, and I remember being rooted to my seat through the show. It took me about 15 more years to gain the confidence I needed to really pursue this music that spoke to me so deeply, but I finally did and it’s been a whirlwind since!
Andrew: I started listening to Irish music during my time as a University of Iowa student, when my aunt sent me a mixtape with some Irish classics. From there, I started searching for more music like it and stumbled on the Irish & Celtic Music podcast, hosted by Marc Gunn, and my listening evolved from there. By the end of college, I was known to listen (and sing along to!) Irish music while driving my Cambus shifts.
Corey: I learned to play because music has always had an element of magic for me. I’ve been in many (kinds of) bands. Every type of music has something to be learned from it, from a listener’s and a performer’s point of view. Irish music has been particularly gratifying for me because it combines elements of a folky, sitting-around-the-pub or -fire kinda feeling with the let loose, heck with it, have fun of rock and roll and yet requires a bit of musical training to do it well. It helps to work with Andrew and Nikki, who know when to take it seriously and when not to!
How do you see the role and value of storytelling as it intersects with musical performance? Do you tell traditional stories, personal stories, fairie stories, all of the above?
Andrew: Our goal with Blame Not the Bard is to tell the stories behind the songs we are performing. Many of the tunes we play are steeped in historical accounts from the average railway builders, sailors and shop owners to famous warriors and revolutionaries. These songs are truly an oral history of events, challenges and the feelings of prior generations. We highlight these stories and equip the audience with background information that may help deepen their understanding of the music.
Nikki: I don’t think you can have Irish music without storytelling! That’s a lot of the fun of this tradition!
Corey: Andrew’s love of the story, and the ability to share it with a crowd, made me want to write some Irish songs. There are so many cool stories in the Irish culture. Some are serious, some are metaphors, some are hidden meanings and some — we’ll never know. Again, it appeals to me and my rock and roll past.
What has the last year of COVID-19 been like for you, in terms of losing performance opportunities, etc? How have limitations on rehearsals or performances affected you artistically?
Nikki: It’s hard to put into words exactly how the last year has been for us. We were actually playing a show at the Southside Boat Club, which is a venue on the Mississippi riverfront in Keokuk when the news broke that Illinois had shut down restaurants and businesses. It was a very surreal feeling to know what was happening just across the river. We knew we were on the precipice of something big (and uncertain), but I don’t think any of us could have really prepared for what was coming.
At first, we just accepted the break. We were coming off of one of our busy seasons, and it was actually pretty normal to take a break from after St. Patrick’s Day until the beginning-middle of April. For me, the feeling of loss really hit in the summer, when we would have been playing summer festivals (such as the Iowa Irish Fest). These are some of our favorite shows to play, and while we have always believed the hiatus was for the best, it was tough to realize they wouldn’t be happening!
Also strange was to watch other bands react to the shut down. At that time, it seemed no musician really knew what to do. There were a lot of live streams and videos being posted; putting content out felt a bit like shouting into the void. Even more than that, we didn’t want to crowd out the musicians for whom this was their only livelihood. Their tours were being shut down — an entire year’s worth of revenue was gone, seemingly overnight. As hard as it was to find our own footing in this impossible time, we wanted to be supportive of our fellow musicians in whatever way we could be — even if it meant staying quiet. Eventually, we found our groove and have been putting out a virtual concert once every couple of months via Facebook Live and YouTube.
Artistically, we have been busy! I don’t know that a musician can ever really stop being a musician — it’s part of who I am and how I interact with the world around me, even when the world is scary and overwhelming. I started a music school, teaching pay-what-you-can group fiddle classes and a few private lessons. I’ve also used this as a time to dig into some techniques that I haven’t always had time to explore while playing shows and still holding down a full time job. That kind of creative exploration needs room to breathe, and I’ve tried to make the most of it. Andrew has been working on learning to play the Irish tenor banjo (something we look forward to introducing to the band when the time is right!) and, being that we are married and quarantined together, we have been able to play a few tunes together which has been a lot of fun to explore.
One particularly interesting experience was the evening of the derecho — we had no power, a yard full of tree branches, a neighbor’s tree blocking the road right by our house, and nowhere else to go because of the pandemic. Andrew grabbed his banjo and headed for the porch, I grabbed my fiddle and followed him. We sat on the porch and just played tunes. It was a weird, but kind of beautiful, juxtaposition. What else are you supposed to do when the world, as you know it, has so suddenly changed?
As for the band — from my perspective, on the very few occasions that we have gotten together to rehearse to record a virtual concert, it feels like both no time has passed and an eternity has passed. I have no doubt that the time will come to be together again.
Corey: This last year? I’ve had all the time in the world. With that kind of spare time, I could’ve written a hundred songs, but I didn’t. Music is nothing without the interaction of people. Actually, I can have some serious hermit tendencies, but this last year made it more obvious than ever: It is all worthless without each other. This is what lead me to folk music to begin with. Rehearsal? Nope. There’ll be time for that later if we do what’s right — now! Luckily, we all agree with this approach. Personally, I think what is coming artistically on this planet is going to be as if it is shot from a cannon. We need it!
COVID aside, of course, what has the traditional music community in Iowa been like for you? Do you take opportunities collaborate and jam together? Is there a camaraderie with the other Irish artists in the area?
Nikki: There are some absolutely wonderful Irish musicians — and dancers! — in eastern Iowa and we are quite privileged to know several of them. It is not unusual for dancers from the Champagne Academy of Irish Dance in North Liberty to join us at shows — they are always a crowd favorite, and we are always amazed to have such a great Irish dance school so close to home! They also collaborate frequently with Coppers and Brass, another fine band that plays lovely traditional and original tunes. We also know, in more normal times, that there is a great Irish session at Sanctuary Pub about once a month.
This April, we will join forces with a brand new band, A Rogue Wave, at the Raven Wolf Bar near Williamsburg as we headline the inaugural show on their brand new stage! This show will include a lot of firsts — our first time joining forces with another eastern Iowa band, the first show on the new stage at their new venue and our first time playing a live show in over a year! We are thankful that the fine folks at Raven Wolf Bar are putting so much thought and care into creating a COVID-safe event.
What’s your favorite Irish ghost or faerie story? Make our readers shiver!
Andrew: One of the BNTB originals on our debut CD, Soundcheck, is based around the story of the Cailleach in Irish mythology. “The Old Hags of May Day” was written by our very own Corey Baker and tells the tale of a dairy farmer in County Mayo. Our farmer wakes on a fine May morning to discover all of his milk is gone and as any farmer knows, there is nothing scarier than a cow that has run out of milk! The cows are in good health but someone has been stealing the milk before the farmer can get to his milking chores in the morning. After asking around, the local priest tells our farmer about the Old Hags and their ability to shapeshift and transform into a wild hare! The next morning, our farmer finds a wild hare in his barn and scares her off. We can’t say for sure that his barn was visited by a shapeshifting Cailleach, but we can’t deny it either! You’ll have to listen to the song and decide for yourself.
Corey: My favorite is always the one I’m working on. “The Banshee” is nice and spooky and dark. I really went way in there when I wrote it. “Old Hags of May Day” is a folky, ghostly kind of “fairy-tale” wonderment. Right now I’m working on one from an old tale called “Pat Diver’s Ordeal.” In this tale Pat Diver is refused a bed because he has no story to tell. Over the course of the following night he finds himself witnessing murderers trying to dispose of a body by burning, transporting the half-burnt corpse for the criminals and finding himself lucky he wasn’t buried with said corpse. In the end, guess what? He has a story to tell! If you can find it, read the story. You’ll have to stay in touch and let me know how I did with the writing and how me mates did at arranging it with me. This is great stuff! Can you believe people dance, and drink and laugh to this stuff? LOL! So many great stories.