by Diana Nollen Published in The Gazette March 9, 2023.
Eastern Iowa’s traditional Irish music will lose a big part of its mettle when Coppers & Brass plays its final concert — fittingly — on St. Patrick’s Day, at The James Theater in Iowa City.
But the heart of the music will continue pulsating through the local Irish Sessions that gave rise to The Beggarmen band, before it pivoted into Coppers & Brass. It’s hard for fiddler Tara McGovern to remember when one ended and the other began, saying: “I really feel like they run together.”
They settled on 18 years ago.
Piper Brad Pouleson had left The Beggarmen, and in 2005, Keith Reins added his guitar and vocals to Joe Dutcher on bodhran and McGovern on fiddle and vocals, for the beginnings of Coppers & Brass. The name comes from the title of an Irish jig, one of the most common ways of naming an Irish band, with the other being to adopt an Irish word or phrase, McGovern said.
“We were a trio for a little while,” they noted, “and then we added Frank Claudy, who was just a legendary flute and whistle player. He grew up in Baltimore, and has played with every amazing Irish musician that you ever could imagine.”
The current Coppers & Brass lineup includes McGovern, 44, their spouse, Dutcher, 45, both of Coralville; Reins, 68, of Iowa City; and Claudy, 70, of Bettendorf.
“So really, the root of how we got together — which is the root of how The Beggarmen got together — is that it grew out of these Irish Sessions. It’s people coming together just for fun,” McGovern said, “just for the pure enjoyment of it, to play music together in a restaurant or a pub or something, a couple hours every couple of weeks or every week or every month, just like you would see at a pub in Ireland.”
The sessions — like jam sessions where people bring their instruments and join in — are held the first and third Monday evening of each month at the Sanctuary Pub, 405 S. Gilbert St., Iowa City.
After the Coppers & Brass farewell show, Reins and his family are saying farewell to Iowa City and moving to Tucson, Ariz.
McGovern said Coppers & Brass “most likely” will disband, “because Irish-style guitarists are few and far between, and Keith is the best of the best. There’s really not a way for the band to go on without him.”
Their last hurrah will turn The James’ intimate space into a Gaelic gala, with the spotlight also shining on the Champagne Academy of Irish Dance, harp duo Wandering Wild, poet David Hulm, historian David McMahon, and singers Colin Nies and Noel VanDenBosch.
Irish music is woven into McGovern’s DNA, since their mother is from Ireland, and filled their homes with music from her homeland. McGovern said their mother wanted to play the fiddle but grew up poor and didn’t fulfill that dream until she was an adult with two young children. Both children watched their mother play, and as soon as they were big enough, between age 3 and 4, they both began Suzuki violin lessons.
“I don’t know how much is happening at 3 1/2,” McGovern said, “but when you’re the littlest person with the littlest fiddle in the family, it feels important to you.”
And they haven’t stopped playing, being part of several other ensembles, including the eclectic Freegrass String Trio, which will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 10, at The James; and The Soft and Low, a folk-rock collaboration with Jeffrey C. Capps. McGovern also recently played in the orchestra for City Circle Acting Company’s production of “The Secret Garden,” at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.
But Tara and their Coppers & Brass band mates gravitate toward traditional Irish music, rooted in history and the repertoire, most often played by a band in the corner of a pub in Ireland or fueling the fleet feet of Irish step dancers.
“It’s these tunes that have been played for hundreds of years,” that constitute the traditional style, McGovern said.
“It’s also somewhat the instrumentation, although that has evolved over time. For example, it really wasn’t probably until about the ’60s that you would have even heard of guitar playing in an Irish band. It was the folk revival that brought more typically folk instruments into Irish music.
“But there certainly are instruments that are absolutely Irish,” they noted, including the uilleann pipes, which are Ireland’s national bagpipes; the harp, being the country’s national instrument; and fiddles.
“I think there’s something to a music that’s carried forward through time, to such a long time period. And that carries a history — and to a certain degree, it’s a history of oppression and colonization and resilience. You can’t separate that from Irish music,” they said.
“But if somebody shows up at the session with an instrument that’s not typical, that just excites us. There are no rules to Irish music. It’s really about communities, and it’s about joy and about expression.”
What: Coppers & Brass farewell concert
Where: The James Theater, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
When: 7:30 p.m. March 17, 2023
Featuring: Coppers & Brass, Champagne Academy of Irish Dance, harp duo Wandering Wild, poet David Hulm, historian David McMahon, and singers Colin Nies and Noel VanDenBosch
Tickets: General admission, $17 adults in advance, $20 door; $12 students in advance, $15 door; thejamesic.com/
Irish Sessions: 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. the first and third Mondays of the month, Sanctuary Pub, 405 S. Gilbert St., Iowa City; also, lobby traditional sessions before all six performances of “Dancing at Lughnasa,” May 5 to 7 and 12 to 14 at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 405 S. Gilbert St., Iowa City