If you live in Bellingham like me, then you undoubtedly recognize Jan Peters (pronounced (Yahn), the multi-talented musician from Irish local band, Gallowglass. Maybe you don’t know Jan Peters, but you surely have seen him. Anyone who frequents downtown Bellingham is sure to encounter him at some point. Maybe you saw him onstage at a packed-to-the-rafters show at the Honeymoon, or hosting Irish night at the Star Club, maybe he was on stage with Hot Damn Scandal, or playing a set at the Subdued Stringband Jamboree, or maybe he walked up and said hi to you at the Co-op. He seems to be everywhere. (He’s often seen walking while practicing harmonica.) When I met with him the other week, I was relieved to finally put a name to the face and actually learn about this person who seemed to always be on the fringe of my social circles, as well as at the center of multiple music scenes.
Jan grew up with music in his blood; his father is a jazz trumpet player in Ithaca, New York, and from an early age Jan was learning, playing, and improvising music. He started on the piano at 7. By age 12 he could play the blues in every key. For a large portion of his life, however, he didn’t pursue music with any anticipation of profession. Music was just what Jan felt.
Before he chose to dwell in Bellingham, Jan got his start in Davis, California. His musical journey began in the tried-and-true, old-fashioned way that befits blues and folk musicians—from the ground up. He began hitting up all the open mics in town and within a year he was performing regularly. After a few years of consistent appearances around Davis, Jan was invited to play piano and organ with The Bill Scholer Blues Band, the best blues band around. He was gigging 2-3 times a week in Davis and Sacramento and making money on the side playing mandolin in a children’s music band, and continuing the open mic tradition by running two himself.
In 1991, Jan was invited to participate in a cultural exchange with Uman, Ukraine. The sister city with Davis had already participated in architectural, scholarly, and municipal exchanges; now they wanted to do a musical exchange. So, off Jan went to Ukraine, to Uman, within the about to collapse Soviet Union – an event which would happen two weeks after their return to the states. The coincidence is merely that, but who knows, maybe it was the blues that brought the wall down.
Up until this point, Jan’s emphasis had been American-origin music, through and through. He played blues, sang jazz, and American folk/singer-songwriter stuff. Folk has been around for centuries of course and American Folk certainly has it’s own styles. In Ukraine though, he was exposed to a whole new type of music—Roma. Roma, as Jan so eagerly educated me, is the proper and real name of what many people call Gypsy, not to be confused with Romanians. Romanis have no one homeland, and for example there are Romanian-Romani’s, such as the great Lache Cercel & The Roma-Swing Ensemble, who Jan brings to the Green Frog on First Tuesdays each month. The Romani people originated on the northwestern Indian subcontinent, and for centuries have lived as a primarily itinerant people traveling and living in Europe and the Americas. Some 4 million Roma people are peppered throughout Europe, fitting into all walks of culture, yet carrying on many of their cultural traditions, such as their amazing Roma music.
Jan continued this trend of pursuing folk, blues and rock in Northern California where he joined Clan Dyken. He recorded Revive the Beauty Way with them, an album dedicated to Indigenous People’s rights and the story of Big Mountain, Arizona. In 1998, he moved to Bellingham seeking to grow closer to his mother, brother, sister, and niece. Only after moving here did he discover how rich our town is in music.
He quickly met up with a Bellingham staple, Robert Sarazin Blake, at the local farmer’s market. I imagine one musician recognizes another fairly quickly in such a busker friendly town as this one. They quickly hit it off and decided to start playing together. They organized a Monday night set at the relatively new Boundary Bay Brewery. They played together there for 6 months or so and developed a small but loyal following. Robert was just beginning his touring cycles and took off, leaving Jan with an interesting situation on his hands. It didn’t take him long to find a new partner in young guitarist Stell Newsome. Monday grew even larger and soon began packing Boundary Bay Brewery every week. The Monday Night Project was born and grew in band members and attendance. Five to seven people now played in the band, including his sister Maggie Kavanagh, and together they sang in gorgeous harmony. The shows were lively, packed, and full of rowdy dancing. After almost 5 years of weekly shows, life had led its course and the Monday Night Project* gave up their regular weekly performance and spent the next 5 years playing all over the area, including a “whole bunch” of weddings. After that, It didn’t take Jan long to find a new creative partner. *In 2009 he recorded his songs with that band and the album is called ‘These Waters’ by Jan Peters and The Monday Night Project- It’s on line and Jan has hard copies too.
Manjun, an especially kind and quirky local legend, asked Jan to play music with him. Majnun was an older musician and composer who had toured alongside Bob Dylan, John Denver, and the Beatles. He had a great heart for the community and, purportedly, a remarkable skill on the guitar. After they played together, they soon formed the Naked Hearts band. Aaron Harmonson joined on bass to round out to a trio and the band began to play an assortment of Irish tunes, Swing, and Folk music from just about anywhere and everywhere. They played at the Honeymoon every Thursday for over two years, as well as weddings and other venues around town.
About 3 ½ years ago, with 20 years of experience under his belt, Jan left Bellingham and returned to Davis to join his friends from his early days as a performer. After 6 months of mixing in with his friends, including the increasingly renown singer-songwriter Rita Hosking, he met two very fine traditional Irish musicians, Skyler Blakeslee and Laura Tjoelker. They had a band called The Blackbird, named after one of their favorite traditional tunes, and invited Jan to join. This would plant a seed in Jan that would grow to become Gallowglass. More so than any other experience, this band inspired and pushed Jan in his skills, driving him into different rhythms and chord structures. Though relatively unstudied in this music, Jan found these melodies, songs, tones, and chords to be ones he had felt and loved for many years. What he had considered a lifelong love of Irish music now became a newfound passion. Jan worked with Blackbird for a year and a half, then returned to Bellingham 2 ½ years ago. This time he had a new instrument in tow, a long necked octave mandolin – the Irish Bouzouki.
With a job waiting at the Majestic as asst. manager, booking agent, and director, it didn’t take long for Jan to jump back into the music game. This time he fell into cahoots with Brit Keeton, a devoted traditional Irish and folk musician, and his old friend Robert Sarazen Blake. With Blake he played an annual, 10 years running, St. Patrick’s Day night at the Boundary Bay Brewery under the name The Paddy Whackers. Only this time, Jan had more to bring to the table. (Hear them this St. Patrick’s Day night at Boundary Bay 9:30 to 11 or so!)
Shortly after beginning to play with Brit, Jan met Zach Bauman, a fine folk musician. The three of them started playing in March 2014 and then on St. Patrick’s Day night their very good pal David Lofgren, of Snug Harbor and drummer for Robert S. Blake, joined them. David also plays with Giant’s Causeway, a fantastic Irish band of our town and region. This rounded out the group that would become Gallowglass, one of the Bellingham region’s most distinctive traditional Irish bands. They meet once a week to practice and typically play shows several times a month. Each member is especially dedicated to Irish music and they are constantly working to improve themselves, practicing on their own daily. They’re all talented musicians so the instrument list can get a little long: Jan sings, plays the bouzouki, and one of 27 harmonicas; Zach plays traditional mandolin, guitar, bouzouki, and vocals; Brit is expert, lyrical, and skilled on her fiddle and also a budding vocalist; and David plays percussion while specializing in the Bodhrán, the traditional Irish frame drum.
Jan wants to keep this band around and really grow with it; he hopes that Gallowglass is here to stay. Traditional Irish music has been growing in popularity the past few decades and is finding a strong niche of followers through concerts, Irish sessions, and the internet. This music can be enjoyed locally and globally, and is still greatly loved in its homeland by natives of Ireland even though the members of Gallowglass are very much American musicians. The name Gallowglass means foreign mercenary, which is fitting, because in a way, they are mercenaries of Irish music, foreigners who have found their calling in support of this cause. This brings up an interesting question though; can a traditional Irish band with strong roots in the Americana music culture remain traditional or is their music a creation/mashup that contributes to the evolution of new traditional music? For example the bouzouki and harmonica are relatively new to Irish music, and Jan can make a harmonica wail like a traditional bagpipe or button box accordion. Nowadays, and for the last 30 years or so, one can hear those instruments on many Irish recordings and performances. Jan says that they try to stay rooted in the Irish tradition, but that they aren’t afraid to let their influences shine through in their arrangements and in the nuances of their playing.
I grew up with folk music, a taste for Irish and Celtic music, and a deep passion for fantasy. When I heard Gallowglass play at the absurdly packed Honeymoon on the 26th of February, I was swept away to a fanciful world where taverns and pubs have rowdy dances, where maidens sing of sunken sailors upon chalky cliffs, where the musk of horses fills the streets and battles are fought by hand and up-close. Whether you are a Tolkien fan, Martin, Jacques, Brooks, or some other fantasy rich author; whether you’re a fan of traditional Irish music or a lover of masterful improvised jams or maybe you just love a good tune; Gallowglass has something for you. If anything, just go to see musicians that are truly passionate about what they do and work hard to honor traditional music and its culture. Just listening to their music, you can really hear that they give a damn and that translates to great music and great times. As Jan says, “I don’t know many Irish tunes, but the ones I know, I know in my marrow. I’ll play one tune for hours; I play every day to deepen my relationship with the tunes and to further my understanding of the language within the music. You can learn the skeleton of a tune, but then can you make music with it? As a band, Gallowglass is absolutely discovering how to make music with the music.”
You can watch Jan host and sometimes perform every Monday evening for Irish & Folk Night. It begins with an open Irish session from 6:30 to 8 and is followed by a feature performance from 8 to 9:30 or so. The features range from local Irish or Scottish bands to regional solo artists of almost any fine traditional folk music and song. Now at the Honeymoon Meadery for winter and returning to the Boundary Bay Brewery beer garden for summer. Jan will be going to Ireland in July with Peadar MacMahon, his co-founder of Irish & Folk Night, and a great man of song himself. You can see all about it on Jan’s Youtube Channel, Jan Songs Productions. You can also find Gallowglass at http://gallowglassmusic.squarespace.com/. All of this can also be found on Facebook as Gallowglass and Jan Songs Productions.