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Portland-based quartet keeps Irish sing-along custom alive and well around Pacific Northwest

If You Go

What: Beltaine, a Portland-based, Celtic-influenced quartet

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25

Where: Spinella's Off the Wall, 436 N. Main Ave., Gresham

Show information: visit spinellas.com or call 503-492-0800

Beltaine information: visit beltainemusic.com

COURTESY PHOTO: BELTAINE - Portland-based Beltaine comprises John Keys on dulcimer, flute, and vocals; Jamie Vandenberg on accordion; Tyler McDowell on bass guitar; and Brian Baker on guitar, vocals and percussion. Some bands encourage audience participation — clapping, singing along and so forth — more than others.

The Celtic-flavored Portland quartet Beltaine makes no bones about wanting their audiences to be part of the performance. To that end, they even pass out lyric sheets of traditional songs to members of the crowd.

"When we started playing in pubs, playing sing-along music, we'd give out song sheets for most of our tunes," explains John Keys, who sings and plays hammered dulcimer, flute and penny whistle in Beltaine. "A lot of people want to sing along."

A common practice in Ireland or Scotland, but less so in America, Keys sees it as proof of music's universality and ability to bring people together.

"The relationship of Celtic music to (contemporary American) music and the influence of Celtic music on music in general, (shows that music) is a universal language," he says. "It allows communities from different backgrounds to share a story."

Rounded out by Brian Baker on guitar, vocals and percussion; Jamie Vandenberg on accordion; and Tyler McDowell on bass guitar, Beltaine will share plenty of musical stories when they perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, at Spinella's Off the Wall, 436 N. Main Ave., Gresham.

Formed in 2003 as a fairly traditional, instrumental Celtic band centered on the simple, ancient tones of the hammered dulcimer, Beltaine's members met through a dinner theater-type show they took part in at Bethel Lutheran Church in North Portland. Their sound gradually evolved into what Keys describes as a "fusion" of rootsy and traditional styles.

"Fusion is an overused word, but we brought some influences from my background, jazz and blues," he says. "Jamie is classically trained and a piano teacher. Brian has a rock background and brought that into the Celtic influence. We brought all that in, and mixed with some more popular tunes, led to the singalongs."COURTESY PHOTO: BELTAINE - When Beltaine plays their Irish-influenced reels and jigs, audiences — and their feet — tend to respond in kind.

Although his 55-year-old toes have yet to be tickled by genuine Irish clover, Keys has the lineage to back up his Northern Atlantic-bred musical leanings.

"I have a Scottish and Irish background," he says. "My mother's maiden name was McDonald, so she came from the Donalds ... my great, great grandparents are from there."

Keys credits his older sisters with passing on their passion for music to him.

"They got me really started into music growing up," he says. "Kathy Lee, who lives in Northern California, plays on a number of (Beltaine) CDs, adding fiddle parts. Kathy and Maureen, my other sister, also taught me (vocal) harmony, which is something we incorporated into Beltaine."

Keys was first seduced by the hammered dulcimer after hearing someone play one decades ago at the downtown Portland Saturday Market.

"I fell in love with the sound of dulcimer 10 or 15 years before I started playing it. When I first started playing it, I saw that that Celtic sound — those jigs and reels, and the direction of Celtic music — tells a story," he says. "Sometimes it's sad. Other times it's fun and whimsical, but it's always engaging."

Beltaine mixes their own original tunes with traditional music and more contemporary fare.

"Even some pop music," Keys admits. "We have a lot of influences. We do a Van Morrison tune. (He) has an Irish background, so that fits in. We will even do more contemporary songs like ("Rock me mama like a") 'Wagon Wheel,' the song by Bob Dylan and Old Crow Medicine Show."

Beltaine plays primarily around the Pacific Northwest and the Portland and Oregon Coast pub circuit. Althought they recently released a new album of songs, "Tilly's Jig," they're just as comfortable being considered entertainers as they are musicians.

"Musicians are artists. Our focus is creating an environment for folks in which we tell stories — some of them are true — and creating a sing-along so they can feel they're part of it," Keys says.

This give-and-take reminds some older audience members of when their grandma or grandpa would sing the timeless, melancholic melody of "Danny Boy" to them as a lullaby.

"Sometimes these songs have a strong meaning to someone in the audience and they feel part of it," Keys says. "That's an important piece of Celtic music. It's so engaging.

"We go through hundreds of song sheets a year," Keys adds, "because people want to take them home with them."COURTESY PHOTO: BELTAINE - Beltaine plays most of their shows on the Pacific Northwest pub circuit, festivals and events like the St. Patricks Day party at Kells Irish Pub in downtown Portland.


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