The Teetotalers teamed up through happenstance
The Teetotalers may be the finest Celtic band ever to form in North America, and it all happened by chance. Fiddler Martin Hayes, singer and guitarist John Doyle, and flute player Kevin Crawford—three legends of Irish traditional music—first came together as a randomly chosen “hat band” at a weekend festival in northern California a few years ago.
“The director there does this thing on the Sunday where he puts musicians’ names in a hat and comes up with new combinations,” explains Crawford, reached in Washington, D.C., where he’s teaching flute at a music summer camp. “You don’t have time to prepare a program as such—you’ve got maybe half an hour to see what you can come up with. We thought our set would be a bit of a disaster because we hadn’t had time to work things out, but the audience absolutely went crazy for it. We came offstage and said ‘We should try to develop this more.’ ”
The musicians live far apart—Hayes in Boston, Doyle in North Carolina, and Crawford in Ireland’s County Clare. They kept discussing the idea over the phone, however, and exchanged tunes in emails. Earlier this year the new trio decided to make a go of it with a tour of Ireland. “We spent a week before that rehearsing and coming up with material that suits our respective styles,” says Crawford. “We were able to forge a sound that was our own. It went really well, and we did another two-week tour in the U.S.”
Neither Crawford nor Hayes has worked regularly with a singer before. “That’s been the learning curve for me—it’s quite a revelation, to be honest, to understand the working of songs. The tunes we play are all very rare and unusual versions, primarily associated with County Clare. I came with probably 90 percent of the melodies, because that’s my passion. I trawl through archives and old recordings. I’m a complete nerd, if you like, when it comes to them. That’s my life.”
All three musicians are steeped in the Irish tradition—able to take it in fresh directions, and new heights of inventiveness, without ever losing touch with the essence. They’re constantly experimenting. “As a guitarist John is fantastic at coming at a tune from various angles,” says Crawford. “He’s not a one-dimensional accompanist. He can make the music really come alive with very different stylistic approaches each time. I think he’s the key ingredient in a lot of ways to making this Teetotalers thing accessible for a lot of people.
“The three of us are very in-the-moment players in terms of live performance. It’s very important for audiences to know that you’re not just going through the motions. We really fight to make every gig a success, and the sparks are flying. Playing in the Teetotalers with Martin and John, I’m living the dream. It’s all you could ever have hoped for in a musician’s palette, like. I’m having a ball.”
The Teetotalers play the Mission Folk Music Festival on Saturday and Sunday (July 21 and 22).