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Thursday, 12 December 2013 11:18

Concert review: Switchback once again pleases its loyal fans at the Focal Point, Saturday, December 7

Concert review: Switchback once again pleases its loyal fans at the Focal Point, Saturday, December 7
Written by Jason Warren

Bill Monroe once stated that Ireland, and Celtic music in general, is the musical motherland of bluegrass. Switchback testified to just that when they took the stage of the Focal Point on Saturday night.

The band has made the trek to St. Louis since Brian FitzGerald and Martin McCormack began as a duo in 1993. They embody the dual musical citizenship of Celtic music and the traditions of what has become known as Americana.

Switchback played to a sold-out crowd inside the warm space of the Focal Point. This faithful following brings to mind the fervor (if not the size) of the loyalty matched by the fan-base of the Grateful Dead or Phish. Before the first notes were played it was easy to understand why the fans were dedicated; these road warriors have a personal relationship with their audience, to the point where FitzGerald and McCormack know a number of fans by name. Musically Switchback is a hybrid of everything they learned on the road as well as mentorships from Kenneth "Jethro" Burns (of Homer and Jethro fame) and Terrence "Cuz" Teahan.

The duo blasted through two sets that seemed to come more from audience requests before, during and amidst intermission than a preplanned song list, creating a looseness that the audience responded to with glee. Over the course of the two hours Switchback went through a repertoire that spans a 20-year career including traditional Irish songs, originals from numerous studio albums, musical delights and other surprises. Each song built upon the vocal abilities of both FitzGerald and McCormack, an uncanny approach to their instruments and a striking resemblance to Pete Seger. The duo enlisted audience participation and taught the history of the songs in their repertoire.

FitzGerald is a one man rhythm section supplying a bass groove and pounding out a drum beat with his foot, the later a rhythmic middle ground between John Lee Hooker and the bodhran. Wielding both the mandolin and guitar, McCormack danced around the stage playing with a stringed fluidity. As a mandolinist he drew images of the bluegrass of Bill Monroe and the jazz of David Grisman; as a guitarist his playing is a cascade of rhythm and lead work that pulsated with folk chordal patterns, arpeggios, Jimi Hendrix and Rory Gallagher

. Libations flowed and the Focal Point seemingly turned from a listening room experience to an Irish pub. Jokes were made, stories were told and music filled the air as Switchback bounced from traditional songs, original compositions and Christmas tunes. They flowed from one song after another much like pints of stout rolling out of the tap.

Switchback took on traditionals like "The Wren," "Danny Boy" and the raucous "The Drunken Sailor." They showed off their songcraft with "Connemara Man" during which McCormack seemed to channel the spirit of Rory Gallagher, the country drinking song of "Pour Me" and "Nancy Whiskey." Snow had covered the streets of St. Louis, which made the seasonal faire of "Good Ole Saint Nick," "The Littlest Stranger in the Manger" and the encore of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" more than appropriate. Still, a night with Switchback would not be without its surprises, which came in the musical form of Hendrix's "Little Wing," the Iowa version, aka fast and loud, of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and a showcase for McCormack's mandolin skills with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli's "Chasing Dreams."

As the show closed, the house lights went up and the crowd began to put on their hats and coats to embark outside to the cold St. Louis winter, vocalist and bassist McCormack braved the elements to thank the members of the audience for coming out. It is this dedication to the fans that has kept them coming back and filling up the Focal Point twice a year, every year and in some cases traveling beyond the St. Louis' metro borders to experience Switchback's live and in person.

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