Last March 13 I went to a party and played music long into the night to celebrate a close friend’s 60th birthday. By the next morning I was panicking, wondering if I had just doomed my family (in fact, we didn’t catch COVID until November), and later that day canceled all my St. Patrick’s Day shows. The bar manager was chill, writing back that he was pretty sure everything was going to be canceled anyway and that we’d catch up hopefully in a few months.
A year later, I have yet to set foot on a stage, to yell drunkenly about the British Empire, or even to drink a shot of whiskey in public. Pandemic time moves strangely and in my circle of friends: the joke has been that somehow a year later it’s still March 2020. And yet if we’re stuck in this time loop, then it’s one that’s always March, but never St. Patrick’s Day.
Based in the Twin Cities, I am a working part-time musician with a strong voice and a good drive on rhythm guitar and bass. For most people, St. Patrick’s Day is a fun time to party, but for musicians like me, it’s far more important. First, it’s the only time of year when Irish music pays us what we’re worth, a burst of income that can sustain the habit over the months to come. (And of course, it’s just as crucial to the pubs that hire us!) Second, though, and what I’m really missing right now, is that it’s the one time of year when everything just works. Every song choice is right. Every joke lands. Every call to the crowd gets a response, and of course there’s always a crowd. Tip jars overflow. It must be what it’s like to be a rock star.
There’s some money for musicians in various relief bills and calls for New-Deal-style arts programs to help rebuild the performing economy. We’re going to need it. Around the county, performing artists are struggling in so many ways. Almost 20% of all workers in the arts and entertainment are unemployed, with countless more full-timers experiencing reduced pay and hours. For Irish musicians like me, the loss of a second St. Patrick’s Day season (which in some cities can last for a month) is hitting hard right now. But in the classical world, the loss of winter holiday pops shows or highly-paid gigs performing The Messiah in churches was at least as big a financial blow. These seasonal shows may not be high art, but the paychecks make a huge difference.
So does just the experience of having a willing audience. On a typical night at any other time of year, a three- or four-hour Irish pub show is a grind. The first set takes place as dinner finishes, and you try to hold some of that audience for the music. If there’s going to be magic, it usually happens in the second set as the liquor flows, the crowd waxes, and as a band we hit our stride. It’s also where we place our absolute best material. The third set is unpredictable, though often playful or profane or experimental. On a good night everything works, but those nights don’t always happen.
Except around St. Patrick’s Day, when people seek out pubs and music eager to enjoy themselves. At The Dubliner, one of St. Paul’s great pubs, on my last 2019 St. Pat’s show, I remember the audience shouting out a request for a song I don’t really play much. Still, I roared into “Jack’s Heroes” at once, knowing there was a call-and-response that if I could get going — typically something that takes a lot of work the first time with a new song and new crowd — it would work. So I shouted, “Too-ra-loo” and pointed to the crowd. At once, a dozen voices echoed “Too-ra-loo” right back, and with easy joy and instant community, we were off and running.
A few years ago, in the Before Times, I wrote for The Current about how the work of being in band — practice, collaboration, performance — had become one of the foundations on which I sustain my mental health in the face of severe depression, anxiety, and a life of ideation around self-harm. Without warning, a year ago almost to the day, that support was kicked away just as we were heading into the most joyful time of my musician’s year. And now it’s another March, but never St. Pat’s.