Fiddlin' around: Irish fans dance and jam

Ryegrass Rollers
at Miller's
Sunday, March 16


Sunday night was St. Patty's Eve, a night usually reserved for anti-pinch prep talks and little else. But despite the lack of green beer, the folks at Miller's were exceptionally cheery and pub-like. The responsible party? The Ryegrass Rollers, who made merry with two hearty sets of traditional tunes.

Before Sunday, my knowledge of the history of Irish music reached only as far back as Shane MacGowan's battles with the bottle. However, the Rollers' lively introduction to the Gaelic/Celtic old-school stuff was impressive and intriguing.

All four members share a great passion for, and scholarly interest in, the culture and music of Ireland. What's most admirable is their energy and focus; it's obvious that each member has spent countless hours of precious free time learning and exploring the genre.

In addition to her day job as a web page designer, Michaux Lowry is also an accomplished fiddler and vocalist, and a constant presence at the Blue Ridge Irish Music School. Heather Trout, a biology teacher at Greene County High School, moonlights as the Rollers' self-taught chief flautist and multi-instrumentalist (on their CD, she's credited with playing the bones!).

Alex Caton, another excellent fiddler, spends her non-band time pursuing her doctorate in Archaeology at UVA. And finally, Phil Audibert, guitarist and vocalist, has been both innkeeper and radio news director.

At Miller's, the melodies the Ryegrass Rollers "covered"– with the exception of the occasional lament– were of the spirited jig and reel variety... and they had great names, such as "The Luck Penny," "The Humours of Whiskey," and my favorite, the "Star of Munster."

The characteristic beat, simple but strong, was struck quickly on the bodhran, a Celtic frame drum that Lowry and Trout played with a double-ended stick. The fiddles and flute bobbed over the notes at a dizzying pace (only the slower nostalgic odes featured vocals).

At times, several kids eagerly demonstrated their Riverdancin' skills in front of the stage. The moves appeared to combine the concentration of sword-dancing and the agility of ballet, requiring much nimble-footed hopping and toe-pointing. I'd heard that Irish music fans take their fun seriously.

If you're interested, contains more information and downloadable samples from their new CD, Rue the Day. Their inspired performance Sunday helped me realize one thing... weeding the sham from the rockin' doesn't have to be such a challenge, after all. Even to a newbie.