As the Station Manager for Celtic Rock Radio, I’m always on the search for bands. What I listen for is a unique sound. Many folks can play an instrument, and several of them get together and form a band. Can they play? Sure. Do they have a sound that’s all their own? Not always.
This is one reason why, when I first heard the Steel City Rovers, I sat bolt upright and asked myself, “OMG, how do I get in touch with these guys?!”
The Steel City Rovers – SCR – are a Canadian band based out of Hamilton, Ontario. They are a fantastic quintet featuring lead vocals, rhythm guitar, pipes/accordion, fiddle, and drums. Did I mention lead vocals? I should have said, one of the most amazing lead vocalists I have ever heard!
SCR began as a duet featuring the McKenna brothers, Ryan and Joel. They would play at pubs and local venues, and sometimes at festivals. While they had a good act, with Ryan singing lead and Joel backing him up, they didn’t quite have the strength as a duet to reach their full potential. And did they ever have potential.
I describe Ryan McKenna as a Celtic Johnny Cash. The man’s voice can completely rivet you in place. He has tremendous range, but while he doesn’t drop down as low as Johnny, when he sings in his clear baritone, there’s little else you can do but listen.
I mentioned that the brothers took their act as far as they could go. That’s when Mark Fletcher came into their lives. Mark is a tremendously talented arranger. While he plays the Scottish small pipes for SCR, he also plays the Irish whistle, the accordion, the mandola, and the pieds – which is a type of “stomping in place, boots on a board” percussion.
When Mark heard the McKenna brothers, he knew he could help them advance, especially given the sheer power of Ryan’s voice. He asked them to trust him as he began to offer his musical input, and then true magic began to happen. With Joel helping to edit Ryan and Mark’s intense creativity, the band’s sound filled out. Their compositions became more experimental. They started to combine different influences to create different melodies, and today they offer a catalog that I have never heard anywhere else.
I had the opportunity to chat with both Ryan and Mark, and I’d love to share bits of the conversation.
Ryan is not only the lead vocalist, he’s the band’s lyricist. Perhaps that’s because he was “blessed with the blarney,” as any good Irish lad should be. There’s actually a video of him introducing a song at a festival where he did a quick bit, “Now, this next song is in French, so you may not understand it. Luckily, it’s an instrumental.”
Ryan tells stories, and that’s not surprising given the type of fellow he is. Ryan McKenna is what I can truly call joyous. I haven’t met many folks like this, but Ryan has a way of channeling life’s possibilities and sharing them in his music. He told me the most amazing story of the day his mother was dying in the hospital. The family had all come to join her when the doctor came in to say, “Sorry, Mrs. McKenna, but there’s nothing more we can do for you.” “That’s alright,” his mother said happily as she continued to share in her family’s presence. The doctor was confused. “I don’t think you understand. You are facing a terminal situation, and there’s nothing more we can do.” Ryan’s mother assured the doctor that she did understand, but it was more important to be happy in the moment. What a way to look at things!
And Ryan certainly captures this attitude in his lyrics. Whether he’s celebrating being Irish in a song like Drop of the Pure, sorting out a busy man’s life in Moment of Time, or cautioning us all on the history of whiskey in Single Malt of Knowledge, Ryan knows how to tell a tale.
When you add in Mark’s musical arrangements and Joel’s rhythm guitar, there’s nothing that SCR can’t do. The three songs I just mentioned are about as different from one another as any band’s repertoire can possibly be. Drop of the Pure is interesting because the verses have an easy, yet powerful, groove that makes you bob your head from side to side. But then the chorus is a little frenetic as Ryan quickly repeats “Éirinn go Brách, All my life, I’m an Irish Man.” Oh, and you want to talk range? Listen to Drop of the Pure all the way through and hold on to something when Ryan finishes with a long, high note that could rival a Puccini aria.
Next is Moment of Time, which is a lovely waltz. Ryan heard the melody one day when running far too many errands, and sang to himself, “I don’t have a sh*t ton of time…” The tune was sweet, but obviously the lyrics needed a change, and became, “I don’t have a moment of time” in which the character of the song just wants to spend a moment with the special person in his life and not be so busy – even if only for a short while.
Then there’s Single Malt of Knowledge. This one is nothing short of a good old fashioned revival song in which Ryan employs the full power of his amazing baritone. Whoof! I had to ask if he grew up with a lot of Pentecostals in Hamilton, and Ryan did confess to his love of the Good Book. He may have been raised Catholic, but he and Joel did their fair share of spreading “the word” in their younger days. You simply have to listen to this song, the chorus of which is “And the Devil said, it’s all God’s fault, that man got knowledge of the single malt.”
But now to an SCR song that has special meaning for me. This song is Summon Your Courage. From a story standpoint, I think this is one of the most brilliant songs I have ever heard. Summon Your Courage is written from the point of view of a senior officer to a junior officer on the eve of battle. “You sir, new sir, tried tested and true sir. You sir, new sir, this battle could cost you it all.” The senior officer tells the junior man to summon his courage. He’ll be alone until the morning. Don’t be clever, don’t be right. Stand your post and be upright as the birds join you in greeting the dawn of a new day.
Remember that story Ryan told me about his mother? He told it to me when describing the subtext of Summon Your Courage, that life is about getting the job done, but still finding its joy. He really took my breath away with this observation because I never would have gleaned a message like this from a song like that. To me, Summon Your Courage is about who you are inside. Are you brave enough to keep going when it counts? Are you smart enough to keep your wits in the face of crisis? But the song ends with the forethought of when the battle is over, “Singing of rum, and women, and comrades, and home.” To me, I see a medieval encampment, even though Mark told me he hears the voice of older staff sergeants demanding, “Eyes forward, shoulders back”, which is another of the song’s lyrics.
All in all, Summon Your Courage is a deeply passionate song that brings together everything that the Steel City Rovers have to offer. It’s one of those signature pieces like Stairway to Heaven, and I truly hope that everyone reading this article pops right over to YouTube and listens to the studio recording before watching a live performance. Anything that SCR does in the studio is simply awesome. (BTW, the studio version is embedded below.)
The Steel City Rovers have also been up to some pretty neat live events, such as a recent performance with Ontario’s International Symphony Orchestra. How many times does a touring Celtic band perform with a 60-piece ensemble? What a night. Ryan told me that when he heard the sound of everyone playing together, he thought, “So this is what our music is supposed to sound like. It’s finally complete.”
The Steel City Rovers normally play festivals and venues in Ontario and on the East Coast of the United States. In addition to Ryan, Mark, and Joel, you will also find Devon Martene, who plays fiddle and mandolin while singing backup vocals. Devon is also trained in classical French horn, and plays this instrument on Summon Your Courage. SCR has two drummers, Mike Cotton in Canada and Jeff Tripoli in the U.S. You can find their show schedule on their website and on social media. They also host tours of Ireland from time to time, and that’s an adventure I plan to take someday.
If you can see them live, do. If not, you can watch videos on their YouTube channel and purchase CDs from their website. While I love all the bands I broadcast, I’ve got a special place in my soul for SCR. Okay, I’ve got a special place for all my bands, but make time to listen to these lads from Ontario and you’ll see what I’m talking about when it comes to the Steel City Rovers.
The Steel City Rovers are now LIVE on Celtic Rock Radio!
The Steel City Rovers plays a unique bland of traditional Celtic music and North American bluegrass-folk. They have an amazing sound with great vocals, and they breathe new life into centuries-old melodies and instrumentals.
This highly-active touring band headlines at several large festival stages. They also give intimate concert performances, and educate others in workshop and master-class settings. And upon occasion, they performs internationally with symphonies.
Enjoy some of the tracks now broadcasting on Celtic Rock Radio!
From Left to Right
Joel McKenna: Backing Vocal , Acoustic Guitar
Ryan McKenna : Lead Vocal , Bodhran, Irish Whistle
Devon Martene: Backing Vocal , Fiddle , Mandolin, French Horn
Mark Fletcher: Scottish Smallpipes , Irish Whistle , Accordion, Mandola, Pieds.
Jeff Tripoli: U.S.-based, Percussion and Drums
Mike Cotton: (not pictured) Ontario-based Percussion, Drums
The Steel City Rovers at the 2019 St. Augustine Celtic Music and Heritage Festival
Try these great Steel City Rovers videos!
Connect with the Steel City Rovers!
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