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Switchback featured at local music festival
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Mother’s Day weekend is fast approaching and with it comes the Gays Mills Folk Festival of Music and Dance. This year, the concert and workshops will feature headlining act Switchback.

An accomplished genre-crossing act, the duo of Brian FitzGerald and Martin McCormack has been playing together for 28 years. What began as purely Irish music, evolved when the two began integrating elements of Americana – country, blues, rock, and even jazz.

“If you are playing original music, Celtic is a good component for getting the crowd fired up,” said FitzGerald with a gentle laugh.

The soft-spoken musician noted that both had received classical training. McCormack trained as a classical tenor. FitzGerald studied classical guitar and also did some vocal training. The experience strengthened their abilities and he credited it with improving their ability to perform.

As a duo, both sing. FitzGerald plays mandolin and guitar. McCormack plays bass and guitar.

Growing up in Chicago had a sizable impact on their music, exposing them to a variety of genres.

“Before Nashville became the big name for country music, it was Chicago and the WLS and the National Barn Dance show,” FitzGerald recounted.

The show, which began in 1924, played on the radio for over 50 years.

FitzGerald’s family opened the still flourishing FitzGerald’s Night Club, which has showcased an eclectic mix of music from all over the country since it first opened. You can hear roots music one night, blues the next, followed by jazz or even an international act after that.

With a large Irish community in the city, musicians with an interest in traditional Celtic music gathered regularly.

The fateful night that set the FitzGerald upon his current path was St. Patrick’s Day when he was 22.

“I was pretty much adopted by an Irish group that sent me home to get my instruments and let me sit in and play,” FitzGerald said.

That led to his first studio experience, playing on a couple of tracks for ‘Cuz Teahan and Friends’.

It was through playing Irish music that he met McCormack.

McCormack’s grandfather, born and raised in Ireland, had kept the traditions and music of his homeland alive and vibrant in the large family.

The two met at the pub playing Irish music. Within a year they were playing in the Wailin’ Banshees. After six years, they wanted to incorporate the other music they loved. And they have been on the road as Switchback every since.

“It pretty much forced us to play as a duo,” FitzGerald said a touch ruefully. “The other musicians were strictly traditional Irish. And we thought we were extremely versatile.”

They learned to tighten their act and developed the harmony and style that has made them a successful act welcomed across the county and back in Ireland too!

They have also delved into liturgical music. Plumbing their Catholic roots, the duo has written five masses, the latest the Hibernian Mass. The pair was inspired to write the latest mass after a visit to the island on which St. Patrick constructed his first church in the 5th Century.

Liturgical music is a challenging and highly competitive field, so FitzGerald is quite proud of the accomplishment.

“We were both raised in Catholic families, so we could draw on that training,” FitzGerald noted. “The translation of the mass changed a few years ago, so that has created something of a challenge and an opportunity for new music. Some aspects are fixed because the words of the mass are immutable, they are prewritten by the church. But the introductions, the exits, the meditations are open for writing.”

The pair has received plenty of critical acclaim, and more than a few awards over the years. Their album ‘The Fire that Burns,’ was named one of the top choices for 2003 by Performing Songwriter magazine. For three years in a row, the Irish Musicians Association named the pair the Top Irish Group. They have also been recipients of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers-Plus Award 2005 to present.

Switchback tours throughout the United States, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Italy, and the Netherlands playing over 200 engagements a year. They also lead tours focusing on a specific region of Ireland each October, covering history, customs, and, of course, pubs and music.

On top of their tour schedule, Switchback regularly presents outreach programs for schools, community events, senior citizen groups, and special needs audiences. They also offer outreach programs on Celtic music, songwriting, and music appreciation as well as music residencies.