Dr. Mark Pippenger is one of those guys with an expensive hobby that his wife, Diedre, mostly scratches her head about. Rather than taking high-dollar golf excursions with his buddies or something along those lines, though, Pippenger spends his money on good Irish music.
That wouldn’t be much of a problem if it consisted of buying CDs or downloading off iTunes. No, Pippenger rents out the bands themselves. And these aren’t your run of the mill regional folk acts but acclaimed, important Irish bands such as Danu, which will perform at the Flying Saucer Draft Emporium on Friday at 7:30 p.m. (and Eureka Springs on Saturday), the Old Blind Dogs, or the famed Altan, which played Robinson Center Music Hall a couple of years ago.
Pippenger helped start the Arkansas Celtic Music Society about three years ago with a group of Irish music- and culture-loving Little Rockians. When Pippenger, who was assistant professor in the departments of neurology and geriatrics at UAMS’ Donald W. Reynolds Center on Aging, transferred his office to Asheville, N.C., last year, he maintained his Irish music connection with Little Rock.
Beginning with Danu’s appearance this weekend, Pippenger tells us he’s booking six Irish music shows with the Celtic Music Society in Little Rock before summer comes. The Celtic Music Society has bounced around from venue to venue to find the right home and now seems to have settled on the Flying Saucer’s basement, which can hold up to 200 fans. And hey, there’s Guinness available just up the stairs. Plus, the growing River Market could build the crowds. “A consistent venue should help with the audience,” he said. “Virtually all of the bands that we’ve had come through have told us that. If we’re consistently at the Saucer, we’ll build a more loyal audience.”
Being a local promoter of these acts, many who embark on a tour of the U.S. for a couple of months, gives Pippenger access to the players. It’s those relationships that bring such acts as Danu back.
“We’ve gotten a reputation from the bands of taking care of them,” Pippenger said. “Our crowds, though small, are considered knowledgeable.”
Danu, a young Irish band, has in the past couple of years moved into the upper echelon of traditional acts, becoming a consistent folk award winner from the BBC. This version of Danu will be changed somewhat from the group that came to Juanita’s in 2002 (and entertained a 10-week-old Scott Harris, my son). Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh has joined the band as a vocalist, and piper Donnchadh Gough should be with the group this time after missing the 2002 show when he was becoming a dad. Tickets for Friday’s show are $20.
Pippenger returns to Arkansas about once a month and still operates an Alzheimer’s clinic in El Dorado at a senior center there. He moved to Asheville to open a memory clinic and he said he hoped soon to get involved in a research project originating out of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. After settling in at Asheville, Pippenger says, he’s started to bring Irish music shows to that area as well as Charlotte. “Those shows, unlike here, break even,” he said.
Though Pippenger is American born, his wife is from County Wexford in Ireland. So, she’s probably a little more understanding about her husband’s hobby. They also recently welcomed their fifth child, Aine Maire.
As any music promoter would tell you, booking bands isn’t cheap. Though Pippenger says he’s willing to indulge his passion and use his lecture money to fund the shows, it’s nice to get something back in ticket sales to offset the cost.
“There are just a few of us promoters and presenters of this kind of music around the country,” he said. “In Asheville, there are people so passionate about bluegrass that they’ll hock themselves to the eyeballs to bring in great art.”
But he acknowledges that Irish music crowds here may not grow much beyond the devoted few. “The bands we’re bringing in won’t come in for less than a substantial guarantee. If nothing else, I’m going to have a few nice shows to attend in the next few months,” Pippenger said. “I’ll continue to do this, as long as I don’t go broke. If nobody else comes, at least I get a cracking good seat and I get to hang out with my friends.”