Switchback is an award-winning American musical duo comprised of lead vocalist/bassist Martin McCormack and guitarist/mandolinist Brian FitzGerald. The group draws on traditional Celtic music and original Americana songs that reflect their Irish heritage and Midwestern roots. Performing this exciting mix of styles, their expert vocal harmonies have won them comparisons to such well-known duos as the Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel.
Starting in 1998 with Dar’s Place, Switchback has recorded over a dozen albums including Nancy Whiskey, Bolinree, and The Hibernian Mass. Their television specials, The Americana Sessions and The Celtic Sessions, have aired on PBS stations around the country.
These days, Switchback performs over 200 shows each year touring the United States, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Italy, and the Netherlands. As a part of the duo’s 2017 tour, they recently made a stop at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center of the Arts on Tuesday, March 28, 2017.
As we make our way into the cozy Grunin Center auditorium, we’re surprised to see the stage set only with two open guitar cases.
Soon, the members of Switchback — Marty McCormick and Brian FitzGerald — arrive on stage, McCormick asking the audience, “How are you?”
Telling the crowd he hails from “Woodstock, Illinois — the town made famous in the Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day,” McCormick introduces his colleague Brian FitzGerald, who with a grin on his face, tells the audience he comes “from Lansing…”
“Michigan?” we wonder.
“Iowa!” he says with a smile.
“This is our second time in New Jersey,” reveals McCormick, “and we love being here, as we have family in Perth Amboy.”
Opening what McCormick refers to as “an intimate evening of Irish music,” the duo begins with a tune called “Star of the County Down,” featuring a thumping rock beat provided by McCormick’s acoustic guitar bass and FitzGerald’s acoustic guitar.
Following animated applause, McCormick asks the audience, “How many of you have ever heard of ‘poitín’?”
Explaining that poitín is “Irish moonshine,” McCormick tells a humorous story of how the substance is designed to help the digestion of lambs when given a single teaspoon by farmers.
“The last time I went to Ireland, however,” he states, “the farmers were giving each lamb a half a glass! As soon as they drank it, the wool became just like a puff ball — making it that much easier to sheer!”
Sounding a bit like U2’s lead singer, Bono, McCormick energetically delivers the lively folksy tune associated with this unusual elixir, “The Hills of Connemara,” telling how it’s “smoked from rice and barley.”
Going on to note that “Summertime is comin’,” the duo next performs a lovely ballad entitled, “Go Lassie Go.”
Asking “How many have been to Ireland?” the group launches into “Traveling Down an Irish Road,” a song about meeting new friends on the Emerald Isle. This catchy tune features FitzGerald on the mandolin — its beautiful tremolo ringing out — in addition to top-notch vocal harmonies along with the rhythmic clicking of their feet.
Following a lively instrumental, “The Wobbly Jigs,” Switchback performs a segment from one of their more lengthy works, Hiberian Mass — a recessional entitled “Holy Saints of Ireland.”
Stating “we need you to be mighty in voice,” McCormick asks the crowd to say “‘Holy Saints of Ireland,’ just like you’re at a pub!” at several points during the song. Featuring FitzGerald on lead vocals, the audience clearly enjoys joining in on this moving piece.
Before their next tune, McCormick asks, “So how many would like to see an Irish jig?”
When the crowd responds in the affirmative, he wryly replies, “So would I!”
“Here’s a song I danced with my grandpa back in Illinois,” he states.
Relating the lyrics of a traditional jig which are in Irish, the men jokingly translate the words to mean, “I wish they all could be Jersey girls.”
As the audience smiles, the duo begins the tune — in the middle of which, McCormick actually dances a jig!
FitzGerald dedicates the group’s next song “to all of the older married couples who’ve been together 50 years or more.” Entitled “Golden Jubilee,” he sings the lead on a lively tune about a woman who wants her husband to wear the same clothes he wore the day she married him… a half century ago.
Next, Switchback performs a highlight number of the show entitled “Connemara Man,” a bluesy syncopated number featuring Irish dancers from New Jersey’s own Devon Academy of Irish Step Dancing.
Following energetic applause, the men say they are going to take a short intermission where “merchandise will be sold for a good cause” joking, “it goes to us.”
During intermission, we take a moment to chat with vocalist/bassist Martin McCormick who talks about the group’s recent busy schedule.
“We’re going to Tuscany, Italy tomorrow, and then Hawaii, and then we’ll wrap this part of our tour up with a week in Des Moines,” explains McCormick. He also goes to note, “but we love playing here in New Jersey because of all of the musical history and great bands.”
McCormick’s partner, Brian FitzGerald, certainly must agree, as for tonight’s performance in the Garden State, under his blazer, he’s sporting a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band T-shirt!
FitzGerald tells us the duo just arrived this morning in New Jersey from Arizona and already did a performance earlier in the day for an audience of 400 kids. Revealing they “played songs about Irish troubles — like the potato famine,” FitzGerald is pleased to note that “the students really could relate.”
They also did a second concert during the day for youngsters with special needs, FitzGerald calling it “unique, because the kids all got up and danced.”
The lobby lights start to blink, signaling it is time for Act II.
Starting the second half of the performance, McCormick arrives on stage, asking the crowd, “How was your break?”
Moving on to the staple, “Drunken Sailor,” featuring a lively extended instrumental introduction — Switchback performs a compelling toe-tapping version of this famous sea chantey complete with an uptempo coda.
Detailing the deep correlation between Irish and bluegrass music, McCormick and FitzGerald move on to a song entitled “The Red Haired Boy” before giving the audience a taste of what they call their “Americana music.”
Acknowledging they recently went to the “high plains of Kansas” — which, they explain, is “definitely not New Jersey” — the duo expertly plays their country-western-ish and bluesy “Kansas Love Song,” which sounds like it could come straight off any one of the bluegrass albums by former Grateful Dead mandolinist, David Grisman.
Describing a “moon shee” as a “little spirit,” McCormick says “If you go to Ireland and ask anyone, “Do you believe in fairies?’ you’ll get this response: No, we don’t. Yes, we do. No, we don’t. Yes, we do.”
Going on to reveal that a moon shee can get you dancing — “for ten years!” — they, nonetheless, perform “Banshee’s Jigs,” a song with a driving rhythm in double time, FitzGerald dancing around while playing and ending with a grand flourish!
Moving on to a collection of Irish songs that McCormick states “you’d play in a Chicago pub,” Switchback performs a medley of traditional Irish tunes including “Moonshiner,” “Colonial Boy,” and “I’ve Been a Wild Rover” that sound so authentic, one can practically taste the ale!
The crowd sings and claps along on lyrics like, “No! Nay! Never!” lifting up their imaginary glasses of Guinness as the duo sings, “If moonshine don’t kill me, I’ll live ’til I die.”
Joking it’s “time to introduce the band,” McCormick tells the audience that his partner, Brian FitzGerald, once studied music with “Jethro” Burns from the legendary country music duo, Homer and Jethro. FitzGerald returns the favor by calling McCormick his “favorite Irish tenor.”
At this point, the men perform “Benediction,” another segment from their epic Hiberian Mass — a goodbye song with a gorgeous melody and vocal harmonies, not to mention touching lyrics like, “God bless us and keep us and see us safely home.”
Switchback concludes their evening of Irish music with the Devon dancers as they perform an up-tempo toe-tapper called, “The Wren,” the crowd happily clapping, nodding, and smiling along.
Before leaving the stage, McCormick shares some heartfelt words with this New Jersey crowd at the Grunin Center.
“Thank you for coming out on a Tuesday night,” he says. “You thought you were just here to be entertained, but little did you know you were doing your civic duty.”
And after pausing for a moment, he concludes by adding, “With all that’s going on in the world to divide us, this theater is one of the few places where we can all still come together, share, and build the fabric of a community.”
For more on Switchback — including upcoming performances, recordings, and more — please go to waygoodmusic.com. To learn more about future programmng at Toms River’s Grunin Center — including Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years on April 22, Yesterday: The Beatles Tribute Live from Las Vegas on May 13, and American Idol’s Jax Live in Concert on June 2, please go to grunincenter.org.
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