The Drovers aren’t an easy band to pin down. Their “Celtic rock” is a combination of rock ‘n’ roll and updated traditional music driven by both rockabilly and Irish rhythms.

“We’re a rock band that has a solid connection to a tradition—beyond the world of commercial rock ‘n’ roll,” says guitarist Mike Kirkpatrick, “so we can do a lot of instrumental things that no rock band can do, and we can do a lot of sort of rock ‘n’ roll things that no ‘trad’ band can do.”

“Irish music isn’t archaic,” adds fiddler and band leader Sean Cleland. “Yes, it has old roots, but we’re an extension of the Irish tradition. Folk music always changes . . . it’s living and breathing.”

Trying to find a way to merge the two different styles is no easy task, but the Drovers simply draw on their experiences as individual musicians and do what comes naturally to them. They use a combination of modern and traditional instruments: Cleland has his fiddle; singers Liam Moore and Brendan O’Shea play acoustic guitar and bass, respectively; Kathleen Keane plays the flute, accordion, and tin whistle; Jackie Moran beats out the rhythm on a stripped-down drum set and a bodhran (an ancient goatskin drum); and Kirkpatrick rounds things out on electric guitar.

All six of these Chicagoans are either Irish or Irish-American, but their commitment and individual connections to traditional music are more than just an accident of birth. While Moore and O’Shea are the only Drovers who grew up in Ireland, the other members of the band have devoted much time and effort to learning the craft of Irish music.

Cleland spent many summers playing music in Ireland, and studied under Liz Carroll, the internationally known Chicago fiddler. He was also taught by Noel Rice (as was Moran), a major figure in the Irish music scene centered mainly in the Irish American Heritage Center at Wilson and Knox. Before forming the Drovers in 1988, Cleland taught at the center and was a member of Rice’s traditional group Baal Tinne, playing in pubs and at monthly ceilis (Irish hoedowns, where people of all ages come together for traditional music and dancing) on the northwest side.

Kirkpatrick became deeply involved in Irish music after moving to Chicago from Arizona ten years ago. The oldest Drover, he writes most of their music, composing for Hubbard Street, MoMing, and other Chicago dance companies as well. Like Cleland, Kirkpatrick has made trips to Ireland, traveling around the countryside and filling notebooks with rare traditional tunes, some of which have never been recorded and are unknown outside their regions.

Kirkpatrick explains that because the bulk of traditional music is passed on orally, the best way to learn tunes is to spend time listening and playing in pubs and at rural sessiuns (pronounced like “sessions”)—unstructured, participatory performances of traditional music. “When I go to Ireland I go to the sessiuns with some of the younger people, but the guys I seek out are the farmers—the guys who play for their own enjoyment.”

On Tuesday nights, Cleland, Kirkpatrick, and Keane can be found at Augenblick, a north-side pub where they play as part of a group Cleland describes as “strictly traditional.”

Cleland and Kirkpatrick express wonder at the response their music has drawn from local club audiences. “The things that’ll really get people moving are the traditional tunes,” says Kirkpatrick, “Sean will start up on a reel and the dance floor just fills up.” While it isn’t unusual to see some step dancing at a Drovers show, anything goes on the dance floor.

The group has come a long way in the two years since its initial performances. “We were pretty much stuck playing Irish places,” says Cleland. The band also faced personnel troubles in the beginning, going through a succession of temporary singers while Moore was on an extended visit in Ireland.

This early stage was also marked by a heavier reliance on songs by other groups. “It started off being basically whatever songs people in the band knew,” according to Kirkpatrick. Their repertoire included songs by R.E.M., the Pogues, the Waterboys, Christy Moore, and Van Morrison. “But a lot of what we were doing wasn’t cover material so much as it was traditional material,” he adds. The Drovers have infused jigs, reels, and polkas with their own sound, translating the traditional tunes into modern terms.

Since the arrival of Keane, the most recent addition to the band, the makeup of the group has remained stable, which has allowed them to concentrate on musical growth and writing. “It’s been a pretty solid band for almost a year now,” says Kirkpatrick. These days the traditional tunes remain a part of the Drovers’ sets, but the covers have largely been replaced by the band’s own music, a danceable folk-rock hybrid with a uniquely Irish flavor.

While Kirkpatrick is acknowledged the group’s primary songwriter, he stresses that the Drovers’ creative process is collective. “A lot of the tunes are mine,” he says, “but I’ll get up to a point in a tune where I can’t come up with any ideas, and at that point I’ll just throw it open to the band . . . so that by the time it gets to the stage, it’s not exclusively my stuff—it means something to everybody in the group because they’ve all had their say in it.”

A few songs stand out among the Drovers’ dozen original works: “Leave It All Behind,” a fast-paced reel sung by O’Shea, “Cailin Alainn,” a powerful song with Gaelic lyrics, also sung by O’Shea, and the plaintive “See You Below in the Morning,” with Moore on lead vocals.

Cleland and Kirkpatrick describe their current status as a successful club band as a period of adolescence. While a bit tentative about what the next step might be, their individual commitments to the band and the music remain strong.

At present, they are putting the finishing touches on a four-track demo tape, which will be their first release. (Three of these songs were recently recorded live at the opening concert of WBEZ’s Flea Market.) And they’ve just returned from Monaco, where they performed along with members of Chicago’s Trinity Academy of Irish Dance for Prince Rainier at the opening of the Grace Kelly Memorial Library.

Their next Chicago performances are tonight at the Abbey Pub (3420 W. Grace, 478-4408) and tomorrow night at Traffic Jam (401 W. Ontario, 440-1450 or 951-0699), where they’ll open for the Elvis Brothers. The Drovers will also be making a live recording of their performances on Tuesday and Wednesday, July 3 and 4, at Schubas (3159 N. Southport, 525-2508).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.