Traditional Irish music and dance with a rock edge
Children often say they dream of being a teacher, a firefighter or president. A far less commonly stated aspiration is to become a rock’n’roll performer in a traditional Irish music show.
As a boy growing up in Richmond, Va., this is not what Chris Smith set out to do. Yet today, it has become his livelihood and his passion.
Smith, 33, of Williamsburg, Va.,was on road in Arkansas with Rockin’ Road to Dublin, a show that fuses traditional Irish songs and dancing with a rock ‘n’ roll concert, when he had the chance to talk about the upcoming show. Rockin’ Road to Dublin will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 24, at The Maryland Theatre in downtown Hagerstown.
Smith identified himself as the “drum set player from the music side of this whole show.”
He and Irish dancer Scott Doherty, 30, also of Williamsburg, conceived of and created the show.
“We have taken the world of Irish dancing the traditional way and fused it together with a rock ’n’ roll concert feel. It’s old Irish tunes, with a rock ’n’ roll concert feel,” Smith said. “We have been working on the show six years total, from the time of the idea and performing it on and off for four years.”
Rockin’ Road to Dublin features 14 dancers, two vocalists, and an eight-piece rock band with two drum sets, two guitars, two violins, a bass and a keyboard. “Rockin’ Road to Dublin” is not only the name of show but the name of the opening number, while traditional songs include “Fields of Athenry,” “A Nation Once Again” and “The Minstrel Boy.”
Smith and Doherty were both working as performers at Busch Gardens Williamsburg; Doherty as an Irish dancer and Smith as a musician in a different show.
“One day we were at the gym talking about how at some point we wanted to create our own shows. We started talking about ideas and it kind of morphed into the Irish dancing rock ‘n’ roll show out of nowhere,” Smith said.
The two brainstormed ideas for songs and numbers. After two years they had an opening weekend, and then spent a year “making it better.” After a small weeklong tour, they spent another year and a half tweaking it to become the show they wanted it to be.
“Now we are doing 80 cities. Basically, it was one big jump to the next. People are really enjoying it,” Smith said. “People come in not knowing what to expect. They think it’s going to be a traditional Irish show. Then they start to think, ‘I don’t know what this is.’ It’s high energy, fast rhythms for the dancers, high-energy excitement and things are never dull, not even for a moment.”
Though Smith is of Irish descent on his father’s side, he did not know a lot about his heritage for much of his life.
“I didn’t know much about Irish music and stuff. I was a technical theater major with an emphasis on lighting,” he said. “I played drums on the side.”
During college, his drum instructor played at Busch Gardens. Smith saw his instructor playing the bodhran, a traditional Irish drum, in a show there.
“I thought it was cool and asked him to teach me. A few months later, he said, ‘I don’t want to work there anymore. You want my job?’ So I auditioned and got the job,” Smith said. “I played with a five-person Irish band in the middle of Busch Gardens.”
Smith continued that for more than three years, working alongside an Irish dancing show and gaining appreciation for the art. He went on to tour worldwide with Celtic rock band The American Rogues and discovered a “full affinity for the musical side of Irish music.”
Making the upcoming Hagerstown performance of Rockin’ Road to Dublin especially meaningful to Smith is that his grandmother will attend.
“It’s the first time she has been able to come. I traveled the world for more than six years and she was never able to go. I’m excited that she is finally coming to see what I have been working on all this time,” he said. “The show really is for everyone, with great singing, dancing, drum sets. We have taken basically what you think will be a rock ’n’ roll show meets Irish tradition and made it more epic, more cool.”
In contrast to Smith, who discovered his Irish heritage an an adult, Doherty grew up near Boston, and has been in touch with his Irish side as long as he can remember. He started Irish dancing at O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance at age 6.
“To be honest, I did it because my parents made me. I had older siblings and my parents threw me in with them. Thank God I ended up loving it because they threw me in and I had no choice,” he said laughingly. “I’ve only ever done Irish dancing. I’m definitely a one-trick pony.”
Doherty, who also spoke by phone while on the road, said he is “100 percent Irish, through and through.”
“It’s always been a big part of my life. We did everything celebrating our Irish heritage growing up,” he said.
The Irish dancing show at Busch Gardens is well-known in the Irish dance world, he said. In 2005, Doherty made his professional debut with the North American tour of Riverdance. He also danced with Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance, and during 2007, he began working with the Busch Gardens show. In 2009, he won the Irish Dance World Championship.
“A Nation Once Again,” which he said is “like the unofficial anthem of Ireland,” is one of Doherty’s favorite parts of the Rockin’ Road show, he said.
“My grandmother was very strong into Irish heritage. I would always see her standing up, singing it and it meant so much to me, so I knew we had to make it the finale of the show. We had to make it as big and epic as it deserved,” he said.
Another of his favorite parts is a number featuring a montage of ’80s rock songs including “Back in Black” and “Walk This Way.”
“For me, as an Irish dancer, I’ve grown up dancing to Irish tunes to the sound of a fiddle or an accordion or something like that,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun onstage.”
Doherty said most shows have ups and downs, or “boring moments.”
“We kind of ride that a little bit, but we never get down to boring. People tell us afterward, ‘We were never bored. We never took a break from watching the show. It keeps your attention from start to finish,’” he said. “When you have the best dancers and singers up there doing their thing in every number, it’s quite the spectacle.”
Doherty challenges the idea that if you have seen one Irish show, you have seen them all.
“Most people around the world these days have seen some sort of Irish show or Irish dancing in one form or another,” he said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that before.’ Well, if you think you have seen it all when it comes to Irish music and Irish dance, come and see our show. I guarantee you that we will prove you wrong.”