It’s late August, the height of the racing season, and singer/songwriters Kevin and Katie McKrell are sitting on the patio of the Parting Glass, an Irish-style pub in the heart of Saratoga Springs. They’re there to play a show, but right now they’re watching the show as the summer party people file in after a day of losing or winning at the track.
For Kevin, it’s just one more night at the Parting Glass, a venue he’s played once or twice nearly every month for 25 years. But while there’s something intimately familiar about the scene, there is also something new. For years, when you said “The McKrells,” you were talking about a Celtic-bluegrass band that livened up pubs and festivals around the Capital Region and beyond. Today, the McKrells means something much different. The old band is gone, and earlier this year Kevin teamed up with his daughter, Katie, whose own music career has shown promise for some time, but had lately stalled. Father and daughter have come together now when both are at turning points, in a sense reinventing themselves through their collaboration with each other.
At 52, Kevin has the ruddy complexion of a man who’s seen many miles on the roads of a few continents. For three decades, he’s played every Irish pub and dive bar from here to Hell’s Kitchen and back, along with many in Canada, Ireland, and Europe. He once played Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation as opening act to the Furey Brothers. He’s been a permanent fixture on the regional music scene as well, first in the late ’70s with Donnybrook Fair, a high-energy, crack-harmony Celtic outfit. That group was followed by namesake band The McKrells, whose virtuoso players Kevin led through three albums. The quality of Kevin’s work has long garnered the respect of his peers, in praise money can’t buy.
“Kevin’s an anchor, a master. He’s not gonna not do quality work” says Michael Eck of WAMC’s Performance Place. “A veracity informs what he does, and it always comes from the right places.” Eck gives the nod to daughter Katie being brought in to the act. “I think it’s positive for Katie joining now, after being on her own. By doing that, they come together as peers.”
Kevin agrees that the change is the right move at the right time. The permanent-band gig has its rewards, but McKrell needed a break from The McKrells. “Once you’re in a band with guys, all of a sudden this false loyalty thing develops. I go to Europe five times a year, and that became an issue—‘why aren’t we going?’ Everything you do, you’re attached at the hip. They [were] brilliant players, but I just wanted to move on. It ran its course; you lose steam.”
Out of the ashes of the old band, McKrell has built a new configuration, the Hard Road Céilidh Band. The focus here is Kevin and Katie, who sometimes play as a duo, but more often with a revolving cast of backup players. “A Céilidh or céilí [pronounced “kay-lee”] is a social event,” Kevin explains, “typically with Celtic music and dancing. The word is in fact a Scottish Gaelic word for ‘visit,’ indicating that these cultural events began as informal gatherings in people’s homes.”
If Kevin is the star of the show, his daughter Katie isn’t far behind. She sings harmony, backup, and the occasional lead, and is a constant onstage foil to her father. Now nearing 30, Katie has performed as a solo singer/songwriter, having penned several intriguing, edgy pieces of her own, but this is her first band experience. After recently enduring a rough patch medically and emotionally, Katie understands the Hard Road part of the new combo’s name. Not only does it seem to be a good place for her musical growth, it’s a safe haven for her personal progress as well.
At the Parting Glass, show time is looming, but there’s no visible sign of concern in Kevin’s demeanor. “I go on when I want to,” he says. His long relationship with the pub allows him to call his shots on this point, and makes the gig as informal as an old Gaelic visit.
As fans file in, they find Kevin and say hello. He greets them as old friends, sharing his time with ease and humor.
“You gonna sing me some songs tonight?” one man asks, stopping by with his companion.