The members of Celtic rock band Na’Bodach chose their name when the group was formed more than 20 years ago, and they were a bit younger and perhaps more cheerful. Roughly translated from broad Scottish, the moniker means “not a bunch grumpy old men.”
Two decades later, however, there’s some question to that name.
“The irony rises with every passing year,” says guitarist and vocalist Glenn Owens.
Na’Bodach (pronounced “nah boe-DOCK”) returns to Randy Now’s Man Cave on Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown for a rollicking performance on Saturday, June 29. They appeared at the venue last summer and rocked the Cave.
It’s just one of this season’s docket of eclectic performances at the Man Cave, which will soon host sword swallower, strongman, sideshow, and variety performer Adam Real Man, “the Dean of Coney Island’s Sideshow School,” on Friday, July 12.
Na’Bodach draws not only from the acoustic Celtic tradition but, since it is an electric ensemble, blends these songs with contemporary rhythms, harmonies, and styles that range from progressive rock to jazz to avant-garde to straightforward rock.
The band — which also insists on being interviewed as an ensemble — was never interested in reproducing the music in the manner of a traditional setting. They say they’re not mummifying this music in the past, relegating it to a sonic museum piece.
“That’s one of the things I love about this band — it’s our vision of what we’re going to do,” says fiddler, mandolinist, and vocalist Wolf Hul, a Trenton native now living in Lawrenceville.
The change-ups in instrumentation and even electrification might puzzle sticklers for tradition, but the band believes it is staying true to the soul of the Celtic sound. Besides, the music has been evolving since its very inception.
Mark Stewart, who sings and plays bouzouki (and some fiddle), reflects that long ago in Ireland, instruments like the fiddle and guitar were imported, brought by traders or travelers from Europe.
“The Celtic tradition is a powerful, living thing, handed down through generations, and it’s strong enough to absorb these (instruments) while still remaining faithful,” says Stewart, who grew up in East Windsor. “I think if Irish and Scottish players had electric guitars they would have played them, along with the pipes.”
In addition to Owens, Stewart, and Hul, Na’Bodach is rounded out with bassist Bayard “Buddy” Osthaus of Pineville, Pennsylvania, (who also plays bodhran, fifes and whistles); Sellersville, Pennsylvania, resident Randy Decker on drums and percussion; and Casey Jones, a lifelong piper originally from Trenton, now residing in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania.
Jones, who sings and plays electric pipes, fifes, and whistles, is in fact one of the founding members of Na’Bodach. As a retired member of the United States Air Force, he is also a past member of the USAF pipe band.
In his mid-70s, Jones is the senior member of the group, and Stewart, in his mid-50s, is the youngest.
Jones, along with Trenton sign maker and arts supporter George Zienowicz and the late Andy Redmond, decided to get together and explore the music of the Celtic countries sometime in the late 1990s. They specifically wanted to focus on the songs known by Irish and Scottish soldiers, as well as the Celtic music that evolved in the United States.
Osthaus and Owens joined later, part of the various permutations of Na’Bodach between the time of its formation and now.
“We all met somehow in the late 1970s, playing in cover bands around Trenton, including at City Gardens, and it was Andy (Redmond) who had this Celtic background, just Irish through and through,” Owens says. “He’d grown up with regimental music, like bagpipe bands, and fife and drum bands, but decided to play guitar and form this band in the late 1990s.”
“It’s his vision — taking very old songs and putting a twist on them, updating them, and making the music fresh for a modern audience,” Owens says.
When the guys start to talk about who came and went, and who was replaced by whom in Na’Bodach, the information gets almost as complicated as the “begats” of the Old Testament.
What Owens calls their “classic lineup” of the early 2000s recorded a couple of CDs, titled “Knickers Down, Bottoms Up,” and “Boys of the Morning.”
The band rehearses every week if possible, in Lambertville mostly, but also in Ottsville, Pennsylvania, to accommodate the band members from northeastern Pennsylvania.
“We’re always learning new things, re-arranging material — Na’Bodach is a living thing,” Hul says.
The group recently played at the Mercer County Cultural Festival, the Hoboken Irish Festival (held, ironically enough, at Sinatra Park), the Ship Inn in Milford, as well as the KiltFest in Feasterville, Pennsylvania, and at the Dubliner on the Delaware in New Hope — Na’Bodach’s home away from home.
They have graced larger stages such as the Sellersville Theater, but also perform frequently at many smaller venues, like libraries and private parties.
“We blanket the Bucks County and Hunterdon County areas, but we’d love to spread out,” Hul says.
Except for Jones, who is retired but still does some freelance carpentry, the members of Na’Bodach all have day jobs: Stewart is a software developer for a banking software firm; Osthaus is an engineer with an electronic testing agency; Decker does graphic design; Owens is manager of transport at NFI trucking; and Hul is a freelance designer and project manager for his own WINC Design Studio.
The men all have different backgrounds and influences, but in hearing their stories, music has played a huge role in all their lives since childhood.
Stewart’s father was an electrical engineer who loved music. His mom is Mary Elizabeth Stewart who is a founding member of the Princeton-based Medieval and Renaissance music group, the Engelchor Consort.
Both parents as well as Stewart himself sang in their church choir for years.
“They played Medieval and Renaissance music while I was growing up, so I heard it since childhood,” he says. “My parents also listened to a lot of folk music, like Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio, so I got my love of that from them. When I started playing American folk music, it took me back to the very roots of the British and Irish traditions.”
Stewart admits it is a little unexpected to be employing a bouzouki in a Celtic band since the instrument’s roots are in Greece.
“Irish musicians brought the bouzouki back to the traditional bands, and it’s became part of the music in Ireland, Scotland, and farther afield,” he says. “I first saw one with the Tannahill Weavers, a Scottish band.”
He says that he started on guitar in grade school and later added bass, mandolin, bouzouki, and fiddle. Stewart jokes that he has also been singing all his life, “annoying friends by inventing harmonies to songs on the radio.”
The Lambertville resident studied at Princeton University, graduating in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in religion. His wife, Annie, is a librarian and medical editor, and the couple has a daughter.
Growing up in Croydon, Pennsylvania, and currently living in Morrisville, Owens played violin as a child, then guitar as a teen. He notes that his parents loved classical and folk music, but also the sounds of the Big Bands. In fact, he believes he is named after legendary bandleader Glenn Miller.
“My father worked for PGW (Philadelphia Gas Works), and mom stayed home to raise us, but there was always so much to listen to around the house,” Owens says. “My brother was 10 years older than me and a very accomplished musician. From him, I heard the Beatles, the Kinks, all that British Invasion music of the 1960s.”
“I’ve always loved so many different forms of music, and influence-wise I’m all over the map, from Sly and the Family Stone to the great new funk bands coming out of Brooklyn,” he adds.
“This (love of various styles) has helped me as a player, since I like to play all different genres,” Owens says. “As far as Na’Bodach, I came out of the rock and funk worlds and had never played Celtic music, but I just fell in love with it and never left. That’s how I ended up in this band.”
Owens has been married to his wife, Michele, since 1974. “Currently she’s not working, but tending to and putting up with me and our cats seems to be enough for her,” he says.
Hul, who started playing violin at age six, comes from a Ukrainian-American family, and both parents worked in Trenton’s now-closed factories, particularly in rubber production.
He says the older family members weren’t particularly musical, but he and his siblings found themselves playing instruments.
“The boys played violin and the girls played piano, that’s how it seemed to work out,” he says. Hul played violin seriously as a youth, studying classical and Broadway show music. He says he performed with a Ukrainian orchestra and was always in the pit band for school musicals, but sometime in high school decided violin “wasn’t cool anymore.”
“I stopped for a long time, but about 12 years ago I discovered Celtic music and got really involved very quickly,” he says, noting that his introduction to the sounds of the British Isles came through the eminent folk rock group Fairport Convention as well as prog rockers Jethro Tull.
He graduated from Rider University with a fine arts degree in 1981, and then earned an MFA in theater design from the Mason Gross School of the Arts in 1988.
Hul’s wife, Debbie, is a guidance counselor at Hunterdon Central High School; the couple has been married for almost 37 years.
In addition to his graphic design work and musical activities, Hul hosts radio shows on WDVR 89.7 FM in Sergeantsville: Celtic Sunday Brunch and Mainly Acoustic on Friday nights. (You can stream the station at www.wdvrfm.org.)
Hul says he and the other band members don’t write originals for Na’Bodach but prefer re-writing and arranging traditional Celtic tunes, breathing new life into older material and then electrifying it.
“Yes, some purists will be put out, but most people who love Irish and Scottish music react positively,” he says.
“There’s something about the integrity of the music,” Hul adds. “When we play out we get new fans who didn’t even know they liked Irish music. In the end it’s got this special kind of energy, and people really respond.”
Na’Bodach, Randy Now’s Man Cave, 134 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, June 29, 8 p.m. $15. Coney Island sword swallower/strongman/sideshow performer Adam Realman, Friday, July 12, 7:30 p.m. $12. www.mancavenj.com.
More information on Na’Bodach: www.nabodach.net.