Chicago has produced some of the finest Irish rock bands in the country -- two of which are back together and celebrating milestone occasions this St. Patty's weekend.
First, the Drovers -- formed on St. Patrick's Day back in 1988 and widely acclaimed as one of the genre's finest -- are reuniting for a special, one-night-only concert at the Abbey Pub. It's the band's first performance in a decade, and it marks the return of singer-fiddler Kathleen Keane after 21 years.
Then, Irish punks the Tossers (pictured above) celebrate a new album and their 20th anniversary with -- what else? -- their annual pre-St. Pat's bash at Metro.
"We're not doing anything fancy for it," says the Tossers' singer and mandolin player Tony Duggins. "There's never been nothing fancy about us."
• 7 and 10 p.m. March 15
• Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace
• Tickets: $15-$20; (773) 478-4408; abbeypub.com
with Kevin Flynn & the Avondale Ramblers, the Blind Staggers, and Continental
• 9 p.m. March 16
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Tickets: $18 advance, $20 day of; (800) 514-ETIX; metrochicago.com
Immediately after asking if he remembers the band's first St. Patrick's Day show, I realize it's a foolish question.
"No," Duggins laughs, "not at all. I'm 38, we started this when I was 18. We hadn't written any songs. We played traditional stuff just so we could get into bars.
"I do remember our first show ever, though, at Robert's Road House [in Hickory Hills]. I remember this old man, Shawn. May the Lord have mercy on him -- he's gone now, but he was this old Irish guy who used to go crazy at our shows. He'd go totally wild. He'd get a bodhran and come up on stage and jam with us. ... People at our shows, they like to have a really good time, that's for sure."
The Tossers -- Tony Duggins, tin whistler Aaron Duggins, guitarist Mike Pawula, fiddler Rebecca Manthe, drummer Bones and new bassist Peter Muschong -- pre-date the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, both of whom have shared bills with them.
For 20 years, they've been hailed as one of Chicago's more invigorating live performers, mixing Irish roots with a Pogues-ish punk fury. Now older, some with kids, the band doesn't assemble for shows as often as it used to, though both Duggins and Manthe have a standing gig at the Abbey the first Friday of each month.
"The Emerald City" is the band's latest album, produced by Andy Gerber (Smoking Popes, Local H) at Million Yen Studios in Chicago, out earlier this month. The title does not refer to Oz or Seattle.
"It's about Chicago, absolutely," Duggins says, "because it's a very Irish city and always has been. The Daleys proved that fact. Just look at the poll sheet of our judges. It's all Sullivans."
As such, Chicago's twist on Irish music is nearly unique, Keane says.
"We've had so many players from the old country, as they say, but some of the traditional players who have emerged from this scene in Chicago have been recognized internationally as some of the best traditional Irish musicians in the world," she says. "It's rare, too, because for folks in Ireland to acknowledge an American doesn't happen that much. The standards are so high."
Keane is one such player. After just four years as a charter member of the Drovers (pictured left) -- the house band at Metro for several years during the '90s -- she took her lauded fiddle and tin whistle skills to Los Angeles, where she played with the famous Celtic ensemble Gaelic Storm before eventually returning to Chicago and forming a sprawling, 20-member group of her own, the Keane Machine.
With an '88 start date, this week makes a 25th anniversary for the Drovers. The band recently made most of its recordings -- including the universally acclaimed 1991 debut, "World of Monsters," plus some previously unreleased tracks -- available on iTunes.
"I'm super-excited about this Drovers reunion, even though I'm having to learn quite a bit of music!" Keane says. "Growing up playing traditional Irish music, you know, as a kid all the boys made fun of me. Irish music was, to them, dorky. I'd be dancing at school, and they'd be laughing at me. I joined the Drovers, and all of a sudden I'm playing traditional music fused with, I guess you'd say, rock. It's Irish music, with a twist. A lot of people were loving it and not necessarily or at least always consciously knowing it was Irish. That was neat. Then the boys in my class who made fun of me were paying cover charges to see me in the Drovers."
The lineup reuniting this weekend includes Keane, David Callahan (bass, mandolin, vocals), Mike Kirkpatrick (guitars, vocals), Jackie Moran (drums, percussion) and Chris Bain (violin, viola, bouzouki). The re-formation has taken some doing, if only because Callahan now lives in Sweden.
"People are very excited and asking, 'Are you guys getting back together?!'" Keane says. "Well, we're doing this, and who knows what'll happen after this. Wehad to add a second show, so people are excited to see us play, and I think this will be a special night."