STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
John Forth is a member of the classic rock cover bands Sons of Thunder and Acoustic Rewind. But one of the Upper Merion resident’s busier times of the year is in March, as the lead singer and guitarist of the Irish music outfit JohnnyDew.
“I actually got (the name) from a song ‘The Little Beggarman.’ They keep singing about Johnny Dew (also spelled ‘Johnny Dhu’ and ‘Johnny Doo’). He’s like a gypsy, like a homeless guy,” Forth said.
Forth’s plays Irish tunes as a “solo” incarnation of JohnnyDew from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 17 at George’s Market at Dreshertown, 1650 Limekiln Pike, Dresher; then joins up with the rest of the band on St. Patrick’s Day from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. at Screwballs Sports Bar and Grille at 216 W. Beidler Road in King of Prussia. “I’m gonna sleep well after that,” Forth said.
“It has been a huge success the last two years,” he said of being the St. Patrick’s Day band at Screwballs. “And this year being on a Friday, and playing all night, it is going to be a blast.”
Officially a “traditional Irish music with a rebel flair,” JohnnyDew is John Catterall on banjo, fiddle, mandolin and vocals; Forth’s nephew Dave Shaw on vocals and guitar; Rick Smith on mandolin; Forth’s son (and Sons of Thunder bandmate) Jack on vocals and percussion; Jimmy Watson on guitar; and Mike Blair on bass and “melodies on his keys.”
JohnnyDew will be part of the St. Patty’s festivities 2 to 6 p.m. March 12 at the Norristown Maenner-Chor Club, 920 Haws Ave., Norristown. The event will offer traditional, homemade Irish fare, beer, soda and party favors. Tickets are $20. Call (610) 272-9043 or go to www.norristownmaennerchor.com.
Forth began playing Irish music 30 years ago, the year his son was born and his cousin, famed jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, passed away. In 1987 Jimmy Reilly, a guitarist Forth was in a band with at the time, invited him to sit in with a two-guitar/banjo Irish jam session with his brother, Tommy Reilly. It was that night when Forth said he discovered “real stuff” Irish music was less “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” and more rowdy, anti-England rebel songs like “Black and Tans,” with a refrain that includes the taunt “come out and fight me like a man.”
Later that evening, “they must have been mad about something because they both were jawing each other the whole time. Next thing you know, these two guys are beating the crap out of each other, rolling around their backyard. I had to get in the middle of these two muddy, crazy Irishmen,” Forth said, who would continue to play with the Reilly brothers in a band called Gaelic Heat for 15 years. According to Forth, that group once played at four different venues on the same St. Patrick’s Day. “It seems people like the rebel tunes more than traditional music,” he observed, pointing to the peppier tempos.
Of Jaco Pastorius, Forth said that years ago the troubled, two-time Grammy nominee was one of three of his cousins that would come to visit during the summers of his childhood. “Those summers were all basketball and music,” he said.
Forth was particularly close to Pastorius’ father, Jack, who he described as “a huge local musician” that “toured the East Coast back in the ‘60s. Always won the battle of the bands against Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Frankie Avalon and those guys.”