The connection between Maine and Canada’s Maritime provinces goes far beyond the busloads of folks from New Brunswick who come to Bangor to shop. It’s a cultural thing, from our winter weather hardiness, to our shared ancestries, often French and Celtic, to our musical tastes.
Violinist and singer Colin Graebert, one-fourth of the Bangor-based Celtic rock band the Galley Rats, finds lots of inspiration in Canadian music, such as the traditional music of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, and the popular Newfoundland folk-rock band Great Big Sea.
“When I first started playing violin when I was nine or ten, I had a conductor who had us play a four song fiddle set with the Bangor Youth Ensemble,” said Graebert, 29. “I just fell in love with the music. I started playing at contradances and doing fiddle competitions and going to fiddle workshops. It really inspired me.”
The Galley Rats — the current incarnation of which is set to perform on Saturday, March 15, at Feile Pub in Wells, on St. Patrick’s Day on Monday, March 17, at Paddy Murphy’s in Bangor, and on Saturday, March 22, at Nocturnem Drafthaus in Bangor — technically first were formed in 2008. Graebert and his former roommate, guitarist and songwriter Seth Grondin, would sit around their living room, playing folk songs, Celtic songs — whatever sounded good on guitar and violin. That developed into the first incarnation of the Galley Rats, which played around the Bangor area for about a year.
Grondin moved away, however, and the band fell mostly dormant for a few years. In 2010, Graebert, also an accomplished jazz pianist and musical theater accompanist, met guitarist Pat Sylvia and drummer Drew Albert while the three were in the pit band for the University of Maine’s production of “Hair.” They found many musical similarities between the three of them.
“For this kind of music, the vocal work is just as important as the instrumentation,” said Graebert. “You’ve got to be able to sing, to harmonize, to really bring that element just as much as the instrument you’re playing.”
Along with bassist Caleb Sweet, the new version of the Galley Rats debuted in 2012, and has since expanded its reach to include the entire state, playing pubs and venues from Wells to Bar Harbor. Graebert would love to take the band into New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, but has found that work visa requirements are a bit daunting for four guys who just want to play a few shows in Saint John or Halifax. The band is working on an album of all original material, which they hope to release in the fall.
Graebert finds that their style of music appeals to a broad array of listeners — from traditional Celtic fans to those who prefer a little more rock in their folk music. The Galley Rats played a well-received set at the Maine Celtic Celebration in Belfast last summer, to a mixed crowd; they will return for the 2014 festival for multiple sets throughout the weekend.
“It’s a real split. We have folks that love both elements of it,” said Graebert. “I think the biggest thing about this kind of music is that it’s just a lot of fun to listen to, to sing along to, and to drink to. There’s a reason it’s stayed alive all these years, in Ireland, in Canada, in New England and beyond. It’s as fun to hear as it is to play.”