Celtic rockers Enter the Haggis play Friday at the Kate
If you've got one of the greatest — or at least most distinctive — band names in musical history, why would you change it?
But three years ago, the Canadian Celtic-rock band wonderfully known as Enter the Haggis did just that. Fueled by a set of new songs that tended toward more of a mainstream, rootsy sound than the indigenous Irish instrumental and structural flourishes that inspired and shaped their earlier work, ETH announced they would thenceforth be called The Jubilee Riots.
For all their best intentions, though, despite a very solid album called "Penny Black" and a similarly good EP "Penny Red," it's best to say the idea ultimately didn't work.
As such, Enter the Haggis will be the name on the marquee when the band performs Friday in the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook. In retrospect, with over two decades together, a dozen albums and EPs, countless gigs and a global fan base all on the plus side of the ledger, it's probably best that the Haggis, ah, re-Entered.
"This whole music business thing is an ongoing experiment, no matter how long you've been a band. Business and art make for a funny combination, and you make decisions and see where they lead you," says Trevor Lewington, the guitarist/vocalist who writes the bulk of the band's songs. He's on the phone from his home in London, Ontario, talking about the twists and turns in the group's career.
"You know, first and foremost, we try to write good melodies," he says. "That's where it starts. We all grew up on rock, but we also have traditional Irish instrumentation for a reason, and it's where the band came from. Some songs sound more mainstream than others and some more Celtic, but musical growth is organic and natural. I'm proud of what we did as the Jubilee Riots, and we still perform a few songs from 'Penny Black,' but I think it's safe to say we won't record as the Jubilee Riots again. We're Enter the Haggis."
Along with Lewington, the band includes Brian Buchanan (vocals, fiddle, guitar), Craig Downie (bagpipes, vocals), Mark Abraham (bass) and Bruce McCarthy (drums).
All of these musical identities and influences are delightfully blended on two recent releases. First came "Cheers and Echoes," a 20-year retrospective that commemorated the "return to Haggis" decision. Then, earlier this year, they released an excellent seven-song EP, "Broken Arms," featuring tunes like "First Defenders," an anthemic rocker that would sound right at home at a Foo Fighters show, and "Mrs. Elliot," a perfect vehicle for a modern Irish street dance.
That stylistic dichotomy is something the band — whose contemporaries include the Dropkick Murphys, the Young Dubliners and Black 47 — is now comfortable with.
"Being a 'Celtic rock' band is both a blessing and a curse," Lewington sighs. "We've had so many opportunities because of that pigeonholing, and so many struggling bands tell us how lucky we are to have that association. True enough. But we've also fought that label for years because sometimes we just want to be viewed as a band without those ties. That was the idea with Jubilee. We wanted to be able to spread our wings and explore a little without it being judged against the expectations or associations of Enter the Haggis."
Of course, the musical landscape has changed drastically during the band's existence. For years, they recorded for a label, which was great except, as Lewington says, "the music business wasn't very interested in what we were doing. We weren't a priority."
The wipeout of major labels and the rise of the DIY ethic provided Enter the Haggis with new opportunities.
"There are so many tools at a band's disposal today," Lewington says, "and we were able to reach out all over the world and find people who might be interested in music that wasn't just on the charts. It's been fantastic."
The Hags have funded recent albums through Kickstarter campaigns and even reached out to their loyal fan base for narrative anecdotes and story ideas — some of which Lewington put to music.
"If I've got a story to work with, the music and melodies come easier to me," he says. "It seemed fun to reach out to our fans. A lot of them are very creative and interesting people, and we know that because we've met them. We're very lucky to have a solid fan base who've grown up with us."
Lewington says Enter the Haggis always tries to play all-ages shows.
"We have so many fun, danceable songs — perfect for families," he says. "Plus, we've seen people who were kids when they first came to shows, and now they bring their kids. We've got three generations of fans in some places. It there's any problem, it's trying to fit 20 years worth of songs into two sets. But that's a good problem to have."
Lewington adds that one of the most amazing things is a pattern of recognition beyond just the performances themselves. "We travel a lot of the same circuits and go to the same towns," he says, "and sometimes we'll recognize a cashier at a gas station or some of the same faces working at a Chipotle restaurant." He pauses and laughs. "That should probably make me feel old. But instead, there's something incredibly comforting about that."
Enter the Haggis, 8 p.m. Friday, Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center. 300 Main St., Old Saybrook; $29-$33; thekate.org, 1-877-503-1286.
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