A Thai restaurant might seem an odd place to find a Celtic fusion musician and dancers. However, pipe and drum band Tartanic and the McCrackin dancers don’t conform to tradition. Adrian Walter and his wife Jill Jack, a.k.a. Fanny Lowereen McCrackin, and professional dancer Jessica Watson (Eateth McCrackin) met with GetOut at Nunthaporn Thai Cuisine to take a break from the usual festival fare and discuss Tartanic, its origins and music, and their fans.
Dressed in street clothes, it was a bit odd to seem them out of their characters, but it was a reminder that the troupe does have a life outside of the Arizona Renaissance Festival. Modern gypsies, Tartanic travels from festival to festival across the country year round. Walter and Jack gave up having a permanent home to live the equivalent of the itinerate poet life — except they provide a full show of music, comedy and dance.
After placing our orders, Walter pulled out a small pouch with silver sticks. Screwing them together revealed a pair travel of chopsticks.
“I was inspired by a friend of ours years ago. Instead of having a fork or something he always used chopsticks. I was like that is so smart!” He has since adopted the practice himself.
Settling in to wait for our meal, the trio dove into what happened over the first two weekends of the Arizona Renaissance Festival. Hot on their minds were the various fans.
Renaissance festivals attract all types, and unless you’re a part of the main cast, it can be hard to figure out who’s a part of the whole show or just “playtrons.” That is part of the draw to such faires. It encourages everyone to join in the fun.
“People at the festival are a good crowd because they’re not crawling up on stage,” Jack said. “They’re all families, but it’s just much easier for us to not get mauled!” She said with a laugh.
As our drinks arrived, Walter and Jack launched into the condensed history of Tartanic. Born from a dance troupe called The Loch Dhu Dancers out of Houston, Tartanic was, for all intents and purposes, the next evolution of that group. The Loch Dhu Dancers were, as you might expect, primarily a dance troupe.
“We got gigs; we usually danced to canned music at international festivals and things like,” Walter said. Later, “we would hire live pipers and then as people got married or moved, or what have you, it sort of ran its course.”
Dancing with live musicians gave Walter and the remaining troupe members the opportunity to learn drumming and meet pipers. With these new connections and skills, the idea to form a pipe and drum band with live dancing was born in 2002.
Tartanic started small, performing initially in Texas. Their first out-of-state gig was to a small weekend Renaissance Festival in Missouri. From there they continued to expand their reach through international festivals and Renaissance faires.
“I think our first real CD came out in 2004,” Walter said. “We had a home-burned one until we had the money to get a real studio.”
More than a band
Both Walter and Jack pointed out that Tartanic is more than just a band; it is a full-on entertainment experience. The show they put on is more than just music, though that is the heart and soul of it. Adrian likened their production to something like a Broadway show and less like a band. And much like a traveling version of Les Misérables, Tartanic has rotating members who join them depending on where they are in the country.
“People think it’s a band,” Jack said. “But we’ve hired over 40 different pipers and 20 different drummers. It’s a performance group.”
The list of members is long but one, Will Thayer, “Willie McCrackin,” is a resident of Chandler. He first saw Tartanic out at the Arizona Renaissance Festival.
“He was about 18, and he decided that he wanted to play bagpipes, and now he plays with us. So it’s really sweet that he’s there. He’s such a darling,” Jack said.
Thayer is just one of the many talented pipers who play with Tartanic. Out at our local festival you will see him along with the other piper Ethan Crownover, and John E. Jaan on drums along with Walter.
It may come as a surprise but the type of music Tartanic plays is not traditional Scottish or Irish tunes. Walter pointed out that if you come expecting to hear your favorite march or Amazing Grace that’s not them. Rather, Tartanic draws inspiration from traditional Celtic tunes from Scotland and Ireland, as well as Breton and Galatian influences. They will also throw in some pop and rock tunes like Smoke on the Water and the Game of Thrones theme.
“iTunes…has us listed as ‘unclassifiable,” Walter said with a laugh. “We got a blend of everything from Middle Eastern to some pop to Turkish. We put swing beats behind a lot of stuff, so it’s a fusion of world music — Celtic fusion.”
Unless you’re an expert in world music, you’d probably can’t tell their music is not traditional. But the roots of much of their arrangements come from traditional source material. The musicians just throw in their own twists and blend in other sounds and rhythms into the songs.
Walter explained that while they write little original material their arrangements are their own creation.
“If you look at the liner notes in our CDs, you’ll have ‘Briefcase No. 1’ — that’s what everyone knows it as, that’s what we publish it as, but it in itself is a collection of three different tunes by three different composers, arranged and then performed and recorded by us. So it is more like every orchestra is a cover band, but every orchestra will own their playing of Beethoven,” he said.
Even so, many fans will come up asking for one of their “traditional CDs.” Jack will ask if the fan saw the show.
“‘Well, did you think that was traditional? Yeah. Ok, then I have the CD for you.’ But if you’re looking for a traditional CD, that’s not traditional music,” she said.
On the other end of the spectrum is Celtic rock, and they are loathe to be lumped in with that as well. In the end, they fit the iTunes description “undefinable.”
‘Tartanic’s music is inspiring to all of them’
Tartanic fans are some of the most impassioned and, at times, wild followers seen anywhere. Renaissance Festivals offer an opportunity unlike any other where patrons can “get in” on the act. There is little separation from you and the stage, and many performers, like Tartanic, are accessible.
“You can reach out and touch these people, instead of, ‘Oh they’re up on stage acting I can’t touch these people.’ No, you can actually talk to Robin Hood. You can actually talk to the queen; you can run around in the dirt. You’re IN it. You’re a part of it,” Jack said.
The down side is that some fans end up crossing the line, which ends up becoming some memorable stories. Tartanic has had its fair share of stalkers, overzealous admirers and the crazy messages sent through social media.
“I had a wonderful stalker once,” Jack said with a grin. “He was 92. His name was Wally. He would send me money, just out of nowhere! He was like ‘I’m not going to use it, you might as well have some.’ I was like, ‘Wally!’”
Whenever Tartanic came to his local Renaissance Festival, Wally would be there, Jack said. He would see her and immediately make a beeline for her. He would write letters to her, and she would reply. Eventually he got dementia, but he still stayed in touch.
“He would tell me about his trees and his flowers. It was really sad when he started losing his mind because…He was the cutest thing. I loved Wally,” she said.
Some fans are not as harmless as Wally, Watson pointed out.
“People get really, really mad at us, (as if) we’re supposed to be theirs — especially the girls — we’re supposed to be there just for them,” she said.
She said that her character’s Facebook page got bombarded with unwelcoming messages and odd requests and eventually it was shut down.
However, some of the best fans are the kids.
“These little girls came on Saturday — children were all sitting on the edge of the stage, it’s like ‘Children of the Corn,’” Watson said with a chuckle. “All these girls kept popping up. Everywhere you looked they’d be sitting next to you — and they don’t just sit next to you, they sit practically on top of you. If you crossed your legs, they crossed their legs; if you touched your hair, they touch their hair. One of the little girls came back the next day and she ran up and gave me a hug. But they follow you around. It’s really sweet.”
There was one fan who had followed them pretty much from the group’s start. She was practically a super fan and kept in touch over the years. They got a Facebook message recently that said she was dying, but the message came too late.
“She was on her deathbed, and she’d really like to hear us play,” Walter said. “She was the first lady to ever get our tattoo — that was Nancy Christensen. She was a doll!”
The most devoted fans are, perhaps, the autistic children who come to their shows. Jack said that Tartanic is a sort of phenomena for the autistic community. One the first weekends of the Arizona Renaissance Festival, it happened again where a mother asked for one of their CDs.
“She said, ‘It did something to my son. He’s special needs.’ And I said, is he autistic? She says, yes! How did you know? I said it’s usually happened,” Jack said.
They don’t know what it is about their music but Jack said “they come out of their autism. It just snaps them out. But it’s just odd.”
Where to experience the bagpipe phenomena
Tartanic is one of the amazing acts out at the Arizona Renaissance Festival and a must-see while out there. They play multiple times a day, starting out on the Falconer’s Heath first thing in the morning. Patrons who enjoy the multi-course Pleasure Feast will get to feast their ears on Tartanic’s special brand of music and fun as well.
Tickets for the Arizona Renaissance Festival can be purchased online at royalfaires.com/arizona, at the box office on site or at Fry’s Food Stores. General admission is $24 for adults at the faire, $23 online, or $22 at Fry’s with discounts for children, seniors, and military with ID.
You can also catch them 7:30 p.m. on March 11 at the Irish Cultural Center in downtown Phoenix. For details visit azirish.org and click on the calendar of events.