A strong case can be made that Austin’s best new band of 2019 was Ulla. The collective featuring mostly Ireland natives began playing Sundays at the Saxon Pub a little over a year ago, focusing on traditional songs from their homeland. When music venues closed in March amid the coronavirus pandemic, Ulla was among the first Austin acts to take its residency online, following up a special St. Patrick’s Day gig with a weekly livestream at 5:30 p.m. Sunday.
Ulla’s talent is staggering. At the core are three Irish musicians: Andrea Magee, a multi-instrumentalist and spectacular singer who moved here a few years ago as part of the duo Beat Root Revival; Pat Byrne, who arrived last year and has taken the Austin scene by storm after winning Ireland’s version of NBC’s "The Voice" many years ago; and Stephen Carolan, guitarist in Byrne’s band but also a deeply affecting singer in his own right.
Longtime Austin guitarist and producer Rich Brotherton, who spent 25 years in Robert Earl Keen’s band, is the straw that stirs the drink. Brotherton spent a summer in his early 20s living in Ireland and joining open sessions with traditional players in storied pubs, learning the roots of this music straight from the source. The band’s Irish members occasionally would note with a laugh at Saxon Pub gigs that Brotherton knows more traditional Irish songs than the rest of them combined.
Though the Saxon has been their home base (they’ve played occasional gigs elsewhere, including C-Boy’s and the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar), the band actually owes its existence to Donn’s Depot, where many of its members had become regulars on Monday nights for Austin pianist Chris Gage’s weekly residency. Gage first became friends with Magee and her Beat Root Revival bandmate Ben Jones, often having them sit in for a song or two.
When Byrne and Carolan moved to town in January 2019, they soon became Donn’s devotees and frequent Gage guests as well. Once Brotherton (who’d produced an album for Byrne) started showing up, all the pieces were in place. Brotherton recalls a night when both Magee and Byrne had sung Irish songs with Gage, "and one of them said to the other, ‘Do you ever miss singing these old Irish things?’"
Magee mentioned that she thought she could arrange something at the Saxon for them to do just that. "We had maybe one rehearsal," Brotherton recalls, "and as soon as we opened our mouths, these harmonies came out that were just like, ‘Whoa, this is something pretty cool.’" To round out the lineup, they added upright bassist Kris Wade, who’d also recently become part of Byrne’s band. Several fiddlers took turns joining them early on, before Stephan Paetzold settled in as a regular sixth member.
Last fall brought the release of a self-titled six-song EP, plus a move from their initial 10:30 p.m. Sunday residency at the Saxon to a prime 5:30 p.m. slot. They’ve stuck with 5:30 for their livestream shows, in part because it’s early enough that friends and family back in Ireland (which is six hours ahead of Central Time) can tune in along with a growing fan base in Austin.
The tricky part with livestreaming was how to present their music as a group without being in the same physical space.
For the St. Patrick’s Day gig, they all gathered — along with special guest Ed Miller, a Scotland expat who’s played St. Patty’s Day shows with Brotherton for decades — at the home of Magee, who’d already begun doing livestreams with her boyfriend Dave Scher (guitarist in Eric Johnson’s band).
But by the following week, the new norms of social distancing meant that everybody gathering in one place was no longer feasible. The time lag with livestreams made playing as an ensemble difficult, so they tried a Zoom-like platform where all of them appeared onscreen at the same time, with each taking turns playing songs.
Finally they settled an what they call a "tag-team livestream" via Facebook that has served them well for the past month. All of the shows air on the band’s page (facebook.com/ullairishmusic), with four sets of 20-25 minutes each. They mix up the order each time. Last week, Brotherton kicked it off, Carolan followed, Magee played third and Byrne took the anchor leg. They accept donations via Venmo (ullamusic) and PayPal (paypal.me/rlbrotherton).
Though traditional Irish music is Ulla’s focus, they play it pretty loose with the boundaries. Brotherton often will toss in Englishman Richard Thompson’s "Time to Bring Some Changes," while Carolan likes to draw upon Scotsman Mike Scott’s folk-rock band the Waterboys. Byrne sometimes digs out "Lakes of Pontchartrain," a song from the U.S. Civil War era popularized by Irish singer Paul Brady. And Magee frequently pulls from the catalog of legendary British outfit Fairport Convention.
They also dig deeper into the Irish musical canon for tunes that stretch back decades, sometimes centuries. This is where Paetzold’s fiddling often moves to the fore; on the band’s EP, he leads the way on an arrangement of traditional reels dubbed "Fr. Kelly Set."
Because the online format generally is better served for singer-songwriters than instrumentalists, it’s not yet been feasible for Paetzold to take part in Ulla’s livestreams. But the nature of pandemic sheltering standards has led to a fascinating development in recent weeks. Brotherton asked his daughter, Maddy, if she’d like to sit in on fiddle, and the results have been magical. "It’s thrilling me to no end," he says. "I’m just as delighted as I could be."
Magee, in turn, has brought on Scher as a guitar accompanist, ratcheting up the band’s already considerable talent level. Carolan, who’s also begun playing solo livestreams at 5 p.m. Monday, teams with bassist Wade for his Ulla sets. Byrne plays on his own for the Ulla shows, but his 5 p.m. Wednesday solo livestream sets often have included cameos from his girlfriend, Samantha Della Fave, who’s turned out to be quite a compelling duet partner.
Each week, Ulla fine-tunes the livestream presentation a little bit. "Like everything with this (the pandemic), suddenly the whole country is on a technological learning curve," Brotherton says. The major upside has been that Magee, Byrne and Carolan can play for friends and family members back home. "The technology makes the world a part of the available audience," Brotherton observed.
That’s a strong incentive to keep the livestream shows going whenever the band returns to its residency at the Saxon. Brotherton envisions streaming the show from the Saxon stage, a model that’s already been in use for years by the venue’s Monday night mainstay, Bob Schneider.
"It could well become a part of bars" in post-pandemic times, Brotherton agrees. "The Saxon could have a thing in place where the band could drop their iPhone into a little holder, plug into the sound board, launch their livestream and play their show. It wouldn’t surprise me if it becomes a more pervasive part of a gig, especially a residency like this."