The Celtic Magic of EQUINOX

A Contemporary Sextet Explores the Passionate Mysteries of a Musical Repertoire Spanning 5 Centuries

    icon Apr 12, 2012
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From the cornucopia of musical artistry populating the Great Lakes Bay Region, the group known as Equinox is decidedly one of the more singular ensembles creating a distinctly original sound that is born from a passion for Celtic music blended with crisp vocals and contemporary musical translations that creatively reinvent a genre of music spanning several centuries.

Consisting of Vern Pococke on vocals, low whistle, and various percussive instruments; Jean Marie Learman on vocals, whistles, flute & concertina; Bobbie Pennington on highland pipes, bushman & bass; Leslie Gregory on fiddle & vocals; Katherine Morris on vocals, guitar & whistle; and Liz Sauer on percussion, the music created by Equinox is as much ancient in origin as it is fresh with the contemporary and often innovative translations they bring to the material.

Recently the group finished recording and released their fourth CD of material, entitled Autumnal Equinox, which is easily their most completely realized, beautifully recorded, and emotively stunning work to date, ranging from creatively textured instrumentals to haunting renderings - as displayed on songs such as Are You Sleeping, Maggie? - that fuse traditional Celtic song structures with contemporary melodic collaborative excursions reminiscent of The Doors playing whistles and fiddles in the Highlands rather than electric organs & guitars on Sunset Strip.

The genesis of Equinox actually began 18 years ago when Vern was doing work for Mike Ducharme and playing traditional Irish music while he worked.  “Both Mike and his wife Becky liked it and we happened to listening to this album by Van Morrison and The Chieftains called Irish Heartbeat,” explains Vern. “Mike brought out his guitar and was friends with Doug Baldwin, who lived two blocks away.  We started fooling around with it and began having parties at my house.”

Eventually, these sessions evolved into annual get-togethers between St. Patrick's Day and the Vernal Equinox - a gathering with friends when they would make Irish food and conduct sing-a-longs. “It got to a point where we thought we'd try to pull a band together,” continues Vern. “And when we started out we were god-awful horrible and we knew it,” he laughs. “But we really liked playing the music so figured we would give it two years and if after that time if we still sounded horrible, we would give it up. But if there was any sign of improvement, we would move onward.”

Through this intrepid spirit of persistence, the core trio of Vern, Mike, and Doug tried to enlist other musicians and friends, to little avail - until one fateful day when Jean Marie Lear man entered the picture.

“Jean Marie could not only sing and play guitar, but she could handle the flute and concertina,” explains Vern, “so she started to come to one rehearsal for every four the rest of us would work it, simply because it took us that long to catch up to her level of proficiency.”

Their early dream was to simply play pub songs at local venues on St. Paddy's day, but the more they listened to the traditional Celtic groups like The Chieftains, Planxty and The Bothy Band, the group became more enamored with traditional music and started to realize that a majority of the music people sing in the U.S. on St. Patrick's Day isn't even Irish music.

“It's more like the Tin Pan Alley version of it,” notes Vern. “with songs like When Irish Eyes are Smiling and My Wild Irish Rose. We wanted to purse Irish music that was more authentic and more pure and instrumental.”

“We started following more popular Celtic bands at the time, like Gaelic Storm and Old Blind Dogs and CMU would bring these artists into Mount Pleasant, so we would go see them whenever we could,” continues Vern. “Our goal was to pursue and revive real traditional Irish music as opposed to 'Green Beer' Tin Pan Alley music. And the more we listened to these bands the more we developed a passion for it.”

As for how this passion for Irish music developed, Vern points to when he was a child watching Westerns on television. “I realized that most of the music on these Western TV shows came from Ireland,” he explains. “Songs like Johnny Comes Marching Home and The Girl I Left Behind and even Custer's 7th Red Calvary theme song were all Civil War songs with Irish origins.  But growing up the only exposure you had was Joe Feeney on the Lawrence Welk show singing Danny Boy.”

Taking the mastering and performance of traditional Irish music to a public level became a mission for the group, so they started picking up other musicians like Kay Brown and working up arrangements where three different melodies would be positioned together. “This isn't a medley so much as it is taking three tunes and working them into a mini-set,” notes Vern.

“We found the more serious we got as a band that the people who couldn't put the time into keeping up with us dropped out,” continues Vern. “We enlisted Eastside Mike Smith who was a more proficient guitar player than previous ones we had; and the most members we had in the band at the time was eight, consisting of two accordion players.  The latest member to join was Leslie Gregory on fiddle & vocals and she's been with us for seven years.”

Rounding out the sound centered around enlisting Liz Sauer on percussion, Bobbie Pennington on highland pipes, bushman, bass; and Katherine Morris on vocals, guitar & whistle. “Kathy was playing with a band called Hoolie,” explains Vern, “and they actually were our inspiration. We'd go up to The Green Hut and see them play Celtic music, but eventually they shifted from Celtic to Sea Shanty music and now they tour Europe with these Sea Shanty bands playing pirate music,” notes Vern.

“Kathy liked singing harmonies and has been playing folk music for 30 years. She knows alternate chords and has a real feel for it.  I'm probably the worse musician in the band, although I can sing,” Vern modestly states. “Kathy and Jean Marie love to sing but we decided rather than have a lead singer, it would be more interesting to have a variety of singers.”

Defining Moments

While their line-up has evolved over the years, giving Equinox a broader and deeper dimension to their distinct sound, finding an audience in the Great Lakes Bay region that would be appreciative toward the ancient Celtic sounds they created posed a different set of challenges for the group.

“At first we couldn't get hired anywhere,” explains Vern, “so we would rent the VFW Hall on Oakey & Adams and hire a headlining act. The first time it was Ziggy & the Bayou Blasters and then the second time it was The Purple Warblers. We would open the show and use the headlining band's PA system and that actually went well. We didn't lose money on any of those shows and did them as fundraisers for the community.”

“That expanded into a whole series of fundraisers at First Presbyterian church for the development of Roeser Park, which we raised thousands of dollars for; but it also created our own audience.  Eventually we started playing festivals around the state and by far the biggest one we played for 7 years was the Michigan Renaissance Festival. At the height of our performing, we played eleven gigs in eight days around St. Patrick's Day and are more selective about what we do now,” adds Vern. “The problem is that we don't play around this area a lot. We're really popular in places like Standish, Jackson and Ypsilanti. Last year when we performed in Alpena 300 people turned out on a summer afternoon.”

With several recordings behind them Autumnal Equinox is the group's latest and most impressive work to date, marked with a crisp yet warm and vibrant production, and extending into a unique sonic blend that merges the traditional with more modern and innovative translations of Irish music.

“Most Celtic bands start out playing traditional work and then put their own style into it,” states Vern. “Artists such as Enya started out performing Celtic music with a family band and then moved into Pop music; and Sinead O'Connor has a traditional album out, so the music evolves.”

For their prior CD release Summer Solstice, the group rented the State Theatre in Bay City and had 300 people turn out from that while they made a live recording of the performance.  “It was making the live recording of that that we latched onto a formula of sorts for recording our music. When we started recording in the studio the formula was to isolate everybody and have them lay down their parts to a scratch track, which is the way most producers do it,” explains Vern.

“We got a quality recording out of that process, but not the rich more animated sound that the band has when the perform live. Leslie lives in a nice big house on Heritage Square, so we tried recording together at the same time in her living room and the sound suddenly became much more ambient - it has a live feel but also some isolation to it, so if somebody blows a part it's still possible to re-record it by dialing down the channel, yet you don't lose the live feel and richness to the work. Brian Wilson recorded this way on his last tour, with a live group recording in a controlled environment for that very reason - the sound is not so much isolated instruments but a natural ambient sound.

“Leslie's philosophy about recording was if we are going to cover something there is no point in playing it the way the original artist performed the song. It needs to be different and hopefully better, so our interpretation sounds better than the original; otherwise why bother.”

In terms of shaping the contours of their sound, each member of Equinox brings something unique to the table. “On one song I wanted to record two whistles on it because I really liked it,” relates Vern. “But those whistle flutes are really high so you need a bottom end to the coloration in order to distinguish them.  Jean Marie added a mellotron to the track and it really made the tonal balance work.  When we do that song live our bass player covers it, but volume dynamics are important to us.  We don't play at the same volume, but approach tempo dynamics from a more natural perspective. It's funny, because when we play louder we tend to play faster; and when we play softer, the tempo is usually slower.  If you record to click-tracks, it takes the life out the performance.”

“What's great about this band is that its real competitive in the sense that the people that comprise the group all like to perform and like to be heard, so we try to give everybody an opportunity to be featured.  We have a drum solo on Autumnal Equinox and a couple of pipe tunes, so overall the balance is really strong on this new CD.”

Keeping the Legacy Fresh

In terms of what posed the allure towards Irish music that drew each member of Equinox together, Vern points to the enduring and haunting tonality of Celtic music, which spans hundreds of years of history from its point of origin.

“I personally like music that is 300 to 400 years old,” reflects Vern. “It has an ancient quality and a lot of it is written in minor keys, but there's this sense of mystery about it and hearing something really old, but that is usually played in 4/4 or 6/8 times, as with a jig.  It's very danceable music and there is a lift to it.”

“For example, with Are You Sleeping, Maggie on the new disc, that tune is based on a poem that's a couple hundred years old and had music put to it.  So it's a combination of ancient mystery and highly danceable music that is energetic when you play it well together.”

“People will come to see us expecting Clancy Brothers music or something from the 1960s, and then discover something much more than they expected,” notes Vern. “You catch the fever - it's very infectious music and if you do it right it will take your breath away.”

“The good thing about being in a 'genre' band is that you've already got festivals set up that play this music, so whenever you perform at them you're like a new sound for that. You don't have to sell yourself as a unique thing because the band has its own take on that genre, but the genre already exists,” reflects Vern.

Having invested 18 years of his life cultivating the contours of Equinox, when asked the most challenging component of moving the band forward, as with most things that hold value in life, Vern points to the nature of commitment.

“Having busy talented people finding the time necessary to move things forward is always a challenge,” points Vern. “People need a personal investment in it that meet their personal goals for what they want.  We've had members say they're not used to rehearsing so much with a band and the performance to rehearsal ratio is not right for them, so ultimately the commitment comes down to the music and what we're seeking to achieve with it.”

“In the future we want to make two more CD's right away - Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox centered upon music reflective of that season,” continues Vern. “With the winter one we don't want to do a Christmas CD so much as music in the Celtic genre with a winter orientation. Plus we're to the point now with experienced musicians that we do have a combined sound. Everybody contributes things and take it up to the level that we want.  We're pleased with the way we sound now.”

Nonetheless, change is inevitable with most things in life, and while the current incarnation of Equinox is 7 years old now, their dancer, Liz,  is leaving for grad school in Florida, as is their bass player, so the group is presently auditioning bass players and looking for a new dancer.  “Liz is a really good percussionist and started with us when she was 15.  It will be sad to see her go,” notes Vern.  The group also recently replaced their piper Bob Pennington with a Dennis Lowe.

After their CD release party on Saturday, April 28th, Equinox will be doing a Community Concert in Jackson and also performing for the 'Music on the Marsh' series at the Bay City State Park in July.

For more information on Equinox and to purchase any of their CDs, you can visit their website at Autumnal Equinox is available for only $15.00 and if you order more than one of their discs, you can obtain an additional discount.  They also will soon be selling tracks through I-Tunes.

For booking information, call 989-792-7036 or 989-686-6033.


Equinox Celtic Music Concert & Autumnal Equinox CD Release Party will be held on Saturday, April 28th at the White Crow, 3736 Mackinaw in Saginaw from 7-10 PM. Admission is $12.00 and a discount for students and seniors is available.

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