Kilted Spirit’s manic Irish-music marathon proves popular at Phoenix venues

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Colleen Collins (from left) plays along with fellow Kilted Spirit members Chris Moreno and Eily Hallagan. The Irish folk band entertains audiences with traditional and modern tunes. (Madeline Pado/DD)
With their rowdy fusion of traditional Celtic folk and modern tunes, Phoenix band Kilted Spirit destroyed the division between performer and audience at Seamus McCaffrey’s last Friday.

Kilted Spirit is more than just a folksy bar band. In the course of their four-hour show, they distribute shakers, red-haired wigs and costumes to listeners in their mission to rouse the audience to participate — not to mention delivering a rambunctious, rollicking show.

“We have a kilt that we bring, usually when people are drunk enough. We get some guy to come up on stage and dance around in it,” band member Colleen Collins said.

The band is made up of Collins, Liatt Bailey, Eily Hallagan and Chris Moreno. Since the band was born two years ago from a choir group at the Irish Cultural Center, the members have played regular shows at Seamus McCaffrey’s and other local Irish venues.

Everyone but Moreno sings, and a mix of acoustic guitar, fiddle, upright bass, bouzouki — “we like to call it a mandolin on steroids,” Collins said — and a slew of unusual percussion instruments drives the band’s manic marathon. Collins’ forceful stomp is the only constant, anchoring the band to a danceable beat despite the lack of a drummer.

“We don’t have (electric) bass and drums,” Collins said. “We feel like we have to do something that’s different from all the other Irish bands that are playing here in Phoenix. I’d say probably 75 percent of them are Irish rock bands, and we want to be something different than that.”

To assign the members static musical roles is nearly impossible, because members switch instruments between and sometimes even during songs. The band’s repertoire stretches from the sea shanty “Drunken Sailor” to Mumford & Sons, from bluegrass to Michael Jackson.

Bailey is an electrifying and eccentric frontman. He hops, skips, jumps, pounces and careens around the bar, perching and leaning on handrails and directing bawdy flirts at choice bar patrons. Above all else, the wide-eyed, smiling singer dives into the music without reserve, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

“He puts the spirit in Kilted Spirit,” Collins said.

Hallagan has played violin since childhood, and is a classically trained musician and a member of Sweetwater Strings, a string octet that performs at weddings and other events. Her alternately lilting and blazing fiddle melodies form the core of much of the band’s music. For Hallagan, Irish folk music offers an opportunity for energetic mass participation that is less common in the rigorous classical tradition.

“It’s hypnotic in a way that a lot of cultural music is,” Hallagan said. “To some people it may seem repetitive, but the fact is that it’s a folk art and it’s designed for people to be able to join in and celebrate in it, rather than being an art form that’s high on a pedestal and unattainable.”

It’s clear that the band and the crowd are having a blast throughout the show. In the middle of a song, Collins pokes fun at Bailey with a holler of “You look like a leprechaun!”

Bailey responds, “You missed your note!”

Later in the night, there are outbursts of jigging in all corners of the pub.

“It’s not for the money at all,” Collins said. “We make all these friendships and relationships down here. The bartenders are awesome. This is one of our favorite places to play because they’re so supportive of us.”

Mealedia White, bartender at Seamus McCaffrey’s and the general manager at Turf Irish Pub, first hired Kilted Spirit on the strength of their demo recordings.

“They get it popping,” White said. “They’re more than just a band. They’re fun.”

St. Patrick’s Day is, unsurprisingly, the band’s biggest day of the year. This year, they played at three venues in Phoenix for a total of nine hours. But it’s by no means the band’s main event, as they’re kept occupied by monthly shows at Seamus McCaffrey’s, Turf Irish Pub and other Irish venues.

“There seems to be a market for Irish music all year long,” Collins said.

Collins looks ahead to recording a CD showcasing the band’s favorite songs and playing more festival concerts. Her “dream goal” is a summer tour.

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