Larry Theiss and Bill O’Connor have some ideas about why their Irish performances always seem to end in standing ovations.
“I don’t think there’s anybody else like us,” Theiss said of the Milwaukee trio Theiss and O’Connor, which plays Saturday at Portage Center for the Arts in celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day.
Audiences have told the group they enjoy the unique three-part harmony, storytelling and songs that produce a range of emotions, the group said.
“Sometimes you’ll feel a tug at your heartstrings, and at other times you’ll want to dance,” O’Connor said of their music.
Theiss (pronounced “Tice”) and O’Connor formed their group in 1967. Theiss plays the guitar and sings, O’Connor plays the guitar and sings, and his wife, Lin O’Connor, also sings. Their son, Christopher O’Connor, plays the bass guitar, but he might not travel to Portage as he recovers from minor surgery.
They’ve not played together continuously since 1967 – “Periodically, we take vacations from each other,” Bill O’Connor said — but Saturday’s audience should expect polish.
“Bill (O’Connor) has written some of the best Irish songs I’ve ever heard,” Theiss said of the group’s long history, which, he added, involves too many Irish festivals to tally up.
“Our guitar playing is unique nowadays. It’s high-quality, finger-style playing and strumming that you just don’t hear much anymore,” Theiss said. “The harmonies we do are as good as any harmony you’ll hear by any group. I think a lot of Irish groups sound very similar; they’re very instrumental and feature an Irish fiddle and guitar and maybe an Irish whistle, but they don’t do much harmony.”
Selections for Saturday’s show include the Irish classics that an audience might sing and clap along to, such as “Wild Rover,” and then original, humorous songs like “Irish by Music.”
“That’s the song about me and all the other people who wish we were Irish,” Theiss said of the piece written by O’Connor, who, himself, is Irish.
The group will play “Kilkelly, Ireland” by American songwriter Peter Jones — a song that’s about an Irish man who came to America in the 1800s and is based on many years of his correspondence with family in Kilkelly, said O’Connor, who promised more details and many other stories like that one for the show on Saturday.
“I try to keep my mouth shut,” he said, “but I need to tell stories.”
Asked what he thinks most people find appealing about Irish music, O’Connor shared a story about a performance that the group gave shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. They played at Borders Books in Fox Point, Wisconsin, and had held some reservations about the timing of their show.
“People came up to us after the show and thanked us for it,” O’Connor remembered. “We told them how we almost cancelled and they said, ‘Oh, no, no, no – this is exactly what we needed.’”
“I think Irish music is reassuring,” O’Connor said. “It affirms the value of life. The people that we sang for that day were filled with joy. They had fun.
“We certainly don’t do this for the money. We’re not getting rich from this. We enjoy interacting with people, getting their responses and, hopefully, making them feel good about life.”