One of my favourite photo subjects is musicians in concert. Not just from the audience’s perspective, but from up close and in person. I have been truly blessed to have fantastic access as an event photographer. The opportunities presented themselves because of my volunteer involvement with the Port Credit festivals and Gilda’s Club of Greater Toronto. There is no other way to describe it, but in my opinion, it is a dance of sorts between the photographer and musician. At some point, I will post those images. One of my favourite bands to photograph is the Tartan Terrors, a Celtic band in Burlington, Ontario. As a bonus, my son Chris is one of the lead vocalists and plays the guitar. They also have a fantastic stage presence and schtick. 

It was almost exactly two years ago, in March 2020, when I had an opportunity to go on a road trip with the band. I love road trips – Chris loves driving, I love being chauffeured – a match made in heaven! Chris and I form a splendid combination of similarities and opposites simultaneously. This drive provided an opportunity to spend seven to eight hours per day with no one else in the car to referee. One example of our differences is the part of the clock we’re vertical and functioning. I habitually wake up around five am. With Chris, three AM is often the time he goes to bed. One similarity – we have an altruistic attitude and an absolute insistence on living the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do to you.

My Chauffeur, Chris, doubles as a band member

Most band followers are passionate fans, and there is a long history of them entertaining throughout Ontario and various regular venues in the USA. This trip would include two of their favourite venues – “The Kate” in Old Saybrook, Connecticut and “Mauch Chunk Opera House” in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

Tartan Terrors open at the Kate
Ian Irmisch, Co-founder of The Tartan Terrors

The Kate was built between 1905 and 1908 and used as a community theatre, basketball court and eventually the town hall. Katherine Hepburn’s father brought their family to this area over and over for forty years. Katherine, in the meantime, became famous the world over and continued coming back to her “Paradise” – Fenwick and Old Saybrook. After Kathryn’s illustrious 65 year career, she retired to her paradise in 1997. She passed away in 2003; the town council moved out of the theatre building. The town council voted to restore the theatre, and with the Hepburn Family’s permission, the theatre became the Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts centre, affectionately known as” the Kate.”

The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Centre: “The Kate”, Old Saybrook, CT

The Mauch Chunk Opera House was built in 1881 and, because of its central location, was easily accessible from New York and Philadelphia. It is one of the USA’s oldest Vaudeville theatres. It is one of the most significant structures in the Victorian village of Jim Thorpe. March 2020 was the 20th annual St Patrick’s Day that the Tartan Terrors would play. AND do they ever know how to celebrate this day in Jim Thorpe? Unfortunately for me and all of us, March 2020 was no ordinary time. It was the start of the Covid shutdowns. More on that later in this article.

As an interesting sidebar – Mauch Chunk means “Bear Place” in the native Munsee-Lenapee Native American language.

Mauch Chunk Opera House, Jim Thorpe PA

I intended to see firsthand what life on the road was like for these musicians. One difference is that I wouldn’t need to bunk 2 and 3 to a room. However, I would get an up-close opportunity to observe their interactions before, during, and after the show.

I am biased, but after watching them up close on numerous occasions – I have grown to admire their dedication to the craft. I remember one particularly snowy night in Newmarket where most of them had significant head colds. They went on stage and showed absolutely no hint of their medical issues. Not only that, but immediately after the evening show – the gear got packed and all headed to Jim Thorpe, a seven-hour drive OVERNIGHT!

Emily, Chris are in the foreground. Charlie is in back on drums

The first leg of this trip was to perform at the Kate. We didn’t solve any of the world’s problems on the day down. Still, We had significant, meaningful conversations – indeed, Chris got me to consider several things that from my vantage point were hardly visible anymore. It was an eye-opener in many respects. As we checked, the news of panic over this new virus called “Covid-19” was not only on the television. Signs of an impending alarm were all around. There were very few cars in the hotel parking lot. By the time we checked in, the NBA was forced to shut down after discovering several players had Covid. March Madness, the big college basketball tournament, was cancelled. The NHL cancelled the season. This Covid thing was turning out to be a huge issue. Large venues with attendance in the thousands shut down. Smaller venues were not, at least not yet.

The show at the Kate went on as planned. The show was terrific, as usual. It is an extraordinary feeling knowing that the band was so moving that most in the theatre were dancing, bobbing up and down or singing along. There wasn’t a person whom I spoke with that I didn’t proudly proclaim that my son was on stage. I’ve always been blown away by the musicians’ sheer energy passed to the audience. After the show, the theatre manager announced that the Terrors show was the last event until further notice. 

After the show, all the band members spent the next hour meeting their fans, signing autographs and packing gear. The band members decided to go to the pub at the hotel to chill. You will never guess what they did. All the band members who showed up at the pub participated in the Karaoke event for another couple of hours until the bar closed. They love music that much!

Daniel Pentecost – flew in from Nashville

The next day, the drive from Old Saybrook to Jim Thorpe. We checked in to our various places and agreed to meet for dinner. News of Covid closures in large and small venues was being announced all around us. The Tartan Terrors show was still a go! The following day people emptied store shelves in a manic hysteria. One by one, the band members were receiving either their bad news from venues about cancellations or information about other bands and their cancellations. 

One Canadian band was on their way to Florida for the gig. They were called and told to turn right back and go home while in Georgia. Remember, the typical musicians get paid AFTER they play the show, so the band is on their nickel until they play. The odds of being a famous and financially successful musician are likely pretty close to the odds of winning the lottery.

Joel Pearl – is a wrestling fan

Watching these people up close, in pursuit of their dreams at the expense of creature comforts, is both heartwarming and gut-wrenching at the same time. They are indeed following their dreams. As a financial planner – I think it is a waste of life to spend it on a job, activity or pursuit you don’t like. I have spent the last thirty years getting clients to identify their hearts core and follow their dreams.

Emily, the fiddler and a tap dancer extraordinaire, had ten gigs cancelled by Saturday mid-day. I’m not sure of the other members’ exact cancellations. Chris’ other band, Eclectic Revival, had their shows cancelled for the rest of the year. That evening’s show was still on! 

Emily Yarascavitch – is also a fiddle, violin and a stepdance instructor

I played an essential impromptu part, as they needed to put together a quick show in memory of Ellen Irmisch. Ellen was the part-owner of the Tartan Terrors along with her brother Ian. She was the combination band business manager and dancer/choreographer for the dance pieces. We got photo donations from everyone, and I managed to get something and relayed it to the AV tech at the theatre. We saw on the news that even the border crossings to get back home were being closed. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived at the border crossing. The show was still on!

In Memory of Ellen Irmisch – the lady with a heart as big as the world

I’ve never quite seen anything like the audience in Mauch Chunk – they loved the band. People were dancing in the aisles and the generous area in front of the stage. Some marched down to the front of the stage and placed bottles of scotch on the scene. There were songs that band members came down from the stage and played in the middle of the people dancing. 

They were the consummate professionals on and off the stage to a man and woman. It was a great show! After the show, the theatre manager announced that they were closing with all upcoming shows cancelled outright. That was also the Tartan Terrors’ last show due to the pandemic.

Charlie McKittrick – I can never see him in concert without thinking of Animal on the muppets. See his song on this blog site.

Sunday following the concert, they all went their separate ways. Some by car, others by plane. On our return journey, there were more announcements of closure. Restaurants were closing in New York City. We were in upstate New York, and closures haven’t gotten there yet. We were in the only car crossing the Canada, USA border at the Queenston- Lewiston bridge. The border agent advised us to quarantine for 14 days.  

Phil Hood – He’s your guy if you want to find great burgers nearby.

You don’t need me to rehash the next two years – we’re all in a collective funk or depressed and don’t need any of the wrong or sad news. We’ve all lost family members, friends and work colleagues. We’ve all had to adapt in one way or another. We each have stories of the impact. We had to adjust to a new world of regulations that were, in reality, a moving target; we had no choice. 

This article is part one of two; it is a preamble for the Tartan Terrors return trip to Mauch Chunk. It will be the first venue the Tartan Terrors will play after being shut down for two years! Stay tuned for Part Two, which is coming your way sooner than you think.

Chris Kerba – He got all his musical talent from his grandfather Sami. The poor guy got his sense of humour from me.
Daniel Pentecost – Fiddler extraordinaire
Ian Irmisch – the original Terror

3 Responses

  1. I feel blessed to have been a silent witness to all this. And I loved reading this through your eyes. Thank you so much for painting a spot on picture of that time. ❤️

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