STORY WRITTEN BY CHRIS CAMERON
For Digital First Media
Singer/songwriter John Byrne is officially a Philly guy these days, but the front man for The John Byrne Band and his band members have some local connections, too.
“My banjo and guitar player Rob Shaffer is a fantastic musician and he’s originally from Downingtown,” he said. “Now he lives down the block from me in Fishtown.
The band released its debut CD, “After The Wake” in 2011 and the former Patrick’s Head front man and high school English teacher suddenly found his musical services in high demand.
“Before I became a fulltime musician, I worked as a teacher at The Lincoln Center in Audubon in an alternative education program. I did that for seven years and really loved it. But after our first album broke, I was turning down opportunities to play. My biggest fear is regret. I didn’t want to look back on my career and think that I never gave music my full effort.”
He was busy writing songs for his sophomore release when life intervened.
He broke his hip and damaged his knee during a soccer game and he and his wife went through a miscarriage.
“It was a pretty dark period,” he said. “My band is great and they helped me through. We started touring again while I was on crutches and we were working in a number of Irish tunes and folk songs. After a while, the songs that I had written prior to the accident and the miscarriage seemed kind of distant.”
What came out of those experiences turned into “Celtic/Folk” the band’s 2013 release, which helped push them on to the FolkDJ Charts. The CD is traditional Celtic and American music, songs which the band had been performing live.
Byrne was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland and grew up around family members who always sang and played music for fun. To hear him describe it, music was a way of life and a form of socialization during family gatherings. They sang music, but it wasn’t necessarily all traditional Irish music.
When he started performing in the U.S., to his surprise, he started getting labelled as the Irish folk singer.
“I came to America because I love American folk and rock music, but people said I had an Irish influence,” he said. “To me it was just folk or roots music. To me the great Irish bands are the ones who really stretched their sound. In our music you hear Irish influence, but you also hear New Orleans and Americana.”
Byrne has surrounded himself with a group of top musicians: multi-instrumentalist Andrew Jay Keenan, fiddler-cellist Maura Dwyer, Shaffer on just about anything stringed, singer and multi-instrumentalist Dorrie Byrne (no relation), drummer Walt Epting, and Vince Tampio of bass and trumpet.
On their third release, “The Immigrant and the Orphan,” the band draws on the Celtic and Americana influences, yet manages to create a modern sound of all originals.
Byrne’s music has found fans on both sides of The Atlantic. The album was released to a sold-out crowd at World Café Live in Philadelphia and two weeks later to a sold-out crowd at The Mercantile in Dublin.
“Growing up I never had a desire to sing on stage,” he said. “I just wanted to sing really well in front of my family. I’m the only one in my family to settle in America.”
“The Immigrant and the Orphan,” opens with an ode of sorts to Byrne’s father, also named John. The song “Sing on Johnny” was inspired by his father’s illness and a little bit of Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
“That one came along late in the process,” Byrne explained. “My father has a degenerative lung condition and when we found out about it, it was a shock. My father has always loved to sing in the house. I always felt that if I could hear him singing, then I knew he was all right.
“It took me a while to play that one for him. I think we both needed to be comfortable dealing with it, but when he eventually heard it, he loved it.”
Judging from the band’s recent string of successes, he shouldn’t have any regrets in his musical career.
The band has performed at large festivals and venues up and down the East Coast and throughout the Midwest, and Ireland. John has toured with or opened up for acts as diverse as Ian Gillan (of Deep Purple), Gaelic Storm, Sharon Shannon, Luka Bloom, The Saw Doctors, The Screaming Orphans, Solas and The Young Dubliners. In Fall, 2012, John and the Band performed with The Irish Tenors for the Liberty Medal Presentation at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia before President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.