Former Chicagoan Ron Pen holds a very lengthy and lofty title at the University of Kentucky in Lexington: Professor; Director, John Jacob Niles Center for American Music; Coordinator, Division of Musicology and Ethnomusicology.
You might think him some stuffy, pipe-smoking academic. If so, you would be wrong.
He has a buoyant personality, sports a beard Santa Claus would envy and wears flip-flops year-round. That fashion statement caused more than a few double takes when he last visited Chicago in March, to pal around and perform on St. Patrick's Day at the Mayne Stage with two new friends, Brian FitzGerald and Martin McCormack.
They are known as Switchback and have been a musical duo for a very long and critically acclaimed time. They first met in the mid-1980s at Durty Nellies in Palatine.
“Imagine Marty in a green V-neck sweater up onstage playing with his brothers and his sister,” says FitzGerald — who plays guitar and mandolin and sings — of that encounter. “He's from a family of 10 kids, you know?”
“We were the von Trapp family of McHenry County,” says McCormack (bass, guitar, vocals).
They first played together in a larger band called the Wailin' Banshees.
“We played traditional Irish music, and as a rebellion against that, Marty and I started writing our own songs and playing them between sets. That basically alienated the others in the band,” says FitzGerald.
Deeply influencing their music and songwriting were the many concerts they saw and heard at the Berwyn club FitzGerald's. They never had to pay to get in. Brian's brother Bill owns the place, a venue that features performers from around the world.
“FitzGerald's really was our musical finishing school,” says McCormack.
Playing everything from bluegrass to country to blues to jazz and rock 'n' roll, with Celtic thrown in as well, Switchback has been on the road since 1993, stopping only long enough to create some great albums and DVDs.
The pair's album “The Fire that Burns,” was named one of the top choices for 2003 by Performing Songwriter magazine, a national publication. For three years in a row, the pair was named the Top Irish Group by the Irish Musicians Association. Their admirably ambitious 2005 album, “Falling Water River,” a tribute to fallen soldiers in contemporary wars, was called by Robert Tomaro, music director of the Beloit/Janesville Symphony, “Beautifully conceived, beautifully orchestrated and performed. It's an instant American classic.”
I wrote, “(It's) a stunning and remarkable achievement … a sweeping and moving musical tale, (that) touches the heart and mind and soul in ways that are real and unforgettable.”
The duo play some 200 shows a year, across the planet. They have opened for the Moody Blues and Leon Russell, shared stages with Gaelic Storm and Chicago's Liz Carroll. They tour Ireland yearly.
“If you really want to make music for a living and for a life, you have to get out there and play everywhere,” says McCormack. “You play retirement homes, you play churches, you play schools and you play prisons.”
“It is a good thing to get off the beaten path,” says FitzGerald. “There are a lot of small towns where people have a real hunger for live music.”
They met Pen when he was vacationing with his wife, Helen, last year on St. Joseph Island in Canada, where Switchback was performing. They all talked, and the next thing the crowd knew there was Pen up onstage with his bow and the boys — kindred musical spirits.
“They are so tight that they are willing, even eager, to take chances,” says Pen. “They are welcoming to other musicians; they are able to communicate.”
“Ron is a virtuoso on the fiddle,” says FitzGerald.
Pen is also a fine writer, author of “I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles,” the definitive biography of the composer and singer. (I wrote the introduction.) That's why the fellas asked him to write the liner notes for their latest album, “Kanoka.”
Here is some of what he writes:
“Marty McCormack and Brian FitzGerald have forged an identity and shared vision over a twenty-five year relationship that has enabled them to enfold others in their music as an integrated extension of themselves.
“‘Kanoka' is an astonishing ramble through the heart of Americana soul, a love story redolent of Walt Whitman's lyrical verse.”
And, finally, this: “‘Kanoka' surely will be characterized and marketed as Americana, but this album transcends that commercial branding formula. ‘Kanoka' is more than Americana — it is the sound of America itself.”
The album features such other musicians as Lloyd Maines on pedal slide guitar and Chicago's harmonica wizard Howard Levy, along with drummers Jim Hines and Nick Hirka.
Pen will not be at the formal CD-release party, which takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Mayne Stage in the Rogers Park neighborhood.
They are sure to plays songs from “Kanoka,” but beyond that, who knows? McCormack and FitzGerald are joyful, ebullient and unpredictable performers. There is no telling who might make his or her way up on stage. Their circle of musical friends is vast.
Though she has yet to perform with Switchback, Bonnie Koloc gave them a piece of advice when they were starting out: “Wear something nice onstage.”
They have tried, but, when you're wrapped up in their music, you won't even notice.
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