Across the Pond is a Celtic band without a single member from Scotland or Ireland. It doesn’t need one. Somehow, the music managed to unite a Navy veteran, a former chemist, and a full-time guitar instructor who got his start in a country rock group called Hired Guns.
Sure, band leader Dan Diviney can trace his Irish ancestry back to the 1700s, when his forefathers emigrated to central Pennsylvania to work as lumberjacks and coal miners. But he had no background in Celtic music — the first instrument he ever played was a tin whistle his mother bought for him at the end of his six-year career as a Navy meteorologist.
That was in 1980, but it wasn’t until 1989 that he picked up the whistle for the first time. In the middle of relocating his family from Nebraska to Pittsburgh, he went to see Makem and Clancy, an Irish folk duo famous for songs like “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” Watching the men play, Diviney said, something clicked.
“Even though I’m a native-born American, the music comes out of 800 years of oppression,” he said. “It’s addictive. So, for the last 15 to 20 years, that’s been the primary focus of my life.”
He started playing whistles and bodhran, an Irish drum, at seisiuns — jam sessions for traditional Irish music. That’s how he met Mike Morrison, a full-time performer and guitar instructor. In the past, Morrison had played in a country band called Latigo Smith, which later evolved into Hired Guns. But his interest in Celtic music stemmed back to his childhood on a farm near Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, where he grew up listening to bluegrass and old-time Appalachian music.
“That type of music has a lot of its roots in Scotch-Irish music,” Morrison said. “The immigrants who who came and settled in the Appalachian Mountains were mostly Irish and Scottish, and they brought their music with them.”
By 2004, Morrison and Diviney had formed their first Irish band, Cormorant’s Fancy (the cormorant, Diviney said, is a large, black waterbird common on the Irish coasts). The group had Morrison on the guitar, flute, and mandolin, and Diviney on the drums and whistles, but no fiddler — an essential instrument in traditional Celtic music. That’s something Chuck Krepley noticed when he saw the band in 2007 at the historic Fairfield Inn in Fairfield, Pennsylvania.
At that point, Krepley — a former chemist — had nearly 30 years of experience on the violin. He had started his musical career as a bluegrass banjoist, but took up the fiddle to add an extra layer of authenticity to his French and Indian War re-enactment group.
“We played a group of Scottish highlanders from the 1700s who were serving with the British Army,” Krepley said. “Historically, banjos weren’t around in the 1750s, but fiddles were.”
In 2007, he was also halfway through a two-year apprenticeship with Bluett Bros. Violins, a handmade instrument store in York. Diviney and Morrison auditioned him for the band, and the dynamic clicked.
Three years later, Cormorant’s Fancy disbanded and rebranded as Across the Pond, Diviney said. He, Morrison, and Krepley are still the band’s primary three members, and they play about 90 shows a year from North Carolina to Montreal.
Weddings and Celtic festivals are some of their primary gigs, naturally, but the band books a surprisingly diverse range of performances. Diviney said they’ve played a corporate event in Manhattan for Captify, a fast-growing British tech company. Back in March, the romance novelist Nora Roberts — a famous resident of Boonsboro — hired the band to play a traditional evening cèilidh at her home.
“Celtic music is sort of a niche market for a niche audience,” Krepley said. “But I think because of the energy we put into performances, we attract fans who wouldn’t ordinarily be interested. Celtic music can be haunting, it it can be ethereal, it can be powerful and driving, and it just has an authenticity that I think immediately appeals to people.”
Diviney might be the band’s leader behind the scenes, but Morrison is the “quarterback” onstage, Diviney said. That’s largely because the band doesn’t play with a traditional setlist. They’ve worked out a repertoire that ranges from the contemporary — songs written in the past century — to traditional Gaelic ballads written over a thousand years ago. Morrison goes onstage with a loose list of songs, but mostly depends on audience feedback to decide what the band will play next.
“I like the ability to be able to let the show take on its own life,” he said. “And if something is really working during a show, I want to keep that vibe going for a little bit.”
The band’s Alive @ 5 performance tonight will also include Emily Warren, an 18-year-old step dancer trained at the Broesler School of Irish Dance in Baltimore. By the time she was two years old, Warren said she was watching taped “Riverdance” performances every day at home.
Her parents initially tried enrolling her in ballet — the classes were much closer to her home in Gettysburg — but quickly realized her affection for both forms of dance was not equally distributed.
“I was not having it,” Warren said. Her parents enrolled her at the Coyle School of Irish Dance near Philadelphia — an hour-and-15-minute drive from her house — and later transferred her to Broesler, a nearly two-hour drive away. But the commute paid off. She’s now an open champion in Irish dance and tours regularly with Across the Pond.
“I think it really adds to the performance value,” Warren said. “I’m really big on pulling people up from the audience. And it’s traditional. When you go to a bar or pub in Ireland to see a band, nine times out of 10, they’ll have an Irish dancer with them.”