Keehan, a Staple of the Music Sessions at the Plough and the Stars Pub on Clement Street for More Than 40 Years and at the United Irish Cultural Center in the Outer Sunset, Collaborates With Family and Friends on His New CD Release, ‘Great Highway’
By Alyson Wong
You can tell a lot about a person from their hands and how they speak. Vince Keehan – or Vincey, as he’s warmly called by friends and family – is one such person.
Callous-tipped fingers are the first tell-tale sign of the musician’s lifelong dedication to the craft of playing stringed instruments, like the mandolin and guitar. And the lilt of a warm and jaunty Irish accent interwoven with disarming slang gives away his rich Celtic heritage and broad life perspective.
The Irish folk musician has journeyed far in both distance and experiences since his start on a farm 67 years ago in the rural village of Beagh, County Galway in Ireland to release his new upcoming solo album, “Great Highway,” that debuts live at the historic independent Balboa Theater in the Outer Richmond on Oct. 7.
The album title was inspired by a favorite place where Keehan and his wife Missy love to walk their dog, Whiskey (who is featured with him on the CD cover, artwork and the promotional poster for the album).
Produced by Kyle Alden, the album’s track list boasts 14 original songs composed by Keehan and will be available on all streaming platforms the same day. The musician will later go on to launch his album in Ireland, with a scheduled performance at the Lady Gregory Hotel in Gort, County Galway on Nov. 2.
Keehan grew up among the lively rhythms of dance and music. His parents, Michael and Margaret Keehan, were very fond of set dancing, a form of Irish folk dancing. His five siblings played the tin whistle, fiddle and concertina. These formative experiences stayed with him until he saw a poster advertising a $400 Martin guitar for sale in his neighborhood laundromat when he moved to the East Coast at age 26. He convinced his roommate to loan him the money to purchase one, despite Keehan having never taken a lesson or owning a musical instrument. Keehan proclaimed, “I’m going to be a musician.” About 40 years later, Keehan made it a point to use the same Martin guitar to record “Great Highway.”
In search of more temperate weather, Keehan packed his bags and moved cross-country to San Francisco a year later. He now happily calls the Sunset District home with his wife Missy and continues to run a successful business manufacturing wooden windows and custom doors, while accumulating instruments and pub gigs along the way. As a regular figure in the Irish music scene of San Francisco, Keehan performed cover songs and jammed with other musicians at Clement Street’s Irish pub, The Plough and The Stars for 40 years. He can still be found with his signature neck bandana playing at various gigs and festivals as part of The Gas Men, a band that was formed 25 years ago. The group had nine members at its largest size and, at times, also included other non-men members, despite the name.
The Gas Men – Vince Keehan, Kenny Somerville, Cormac Gannon, Vinnie Cronin, Barry O’Connell and Kyle Alden – are a gang of close-knit Irish immigrant musicians who banded together over a shared love of music and a desire to keep the craic, an Irish term for fun and merriment. They toured in Alaska, New Orleans and Argentina and have had their songs played on the radio and television. One of their previous albums in their discography is titled “Clement Street.” The band frequently performs at the United Irish Cultural Center in the Outer Sunset.
The seeds for “Great Highway” were planted 30 years ago when an Irish traveling musician, Johnny Hoban, nudged Keehan with the question, “Why don’t you write your own stuff?” The thought never occurred to him, but Keehan was spurred to write his first song the very next day and has been writing ever since.
At the advice of Hoban, he wrote about “stuff he knew about, that he heard about, or that someone told him about, and that he could relate to.” It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that Keehan finally sat down and decided it was time to record the songs he had been writing over the years.
Recognizing the hard work it takes to compose, mix, master, engineer and record one original song puts into perspective how remarkable the feat of making a fully independent album is. Many band members, friends and family members are credited in the “Great Highway” CD booklet, which reveals how many hands and ears touched this work. Violinist Dana Lyn, of Grammy-winning Broadway musical “Hadestown,” notably contributes her touch on the strings for a few tracks, and Keehan’s children, Michael and Rosie, also lend their vocals and instrumentation.
The tone of the tracks ranges from jubilant and reflective to warmly authentic, covering a range of themes and topics. The songs balance both the cherished love for a time that once was while still remaining anchored in and enriched by the present. Each song tells a story filled with lessons, joys and impressions woven together with the spunky spirit that only Irish folk music can evoke.
“The Classic” opens the album with a signature jig rhythm characteristic of the Irish bodhran drum and captures what it must have been like to be swept up in the country music of The Classic Ballroom, a dance hall which Keehan often frequented on Sunday nights as a kid. He moves on to recount searching times with verses about solace and the healing beauty of nature in “The Lovely Woodlands of Clare” which is a tribute to his sister Mary Noonan who lost her only daughter, Eimear Noonan, to a tragic accident at the age of 21. The album never veers to the melancholic however and continues to spin other yarns such as that of the life of Connemara boxer, Sean Mannion, in the album’s longest track, “Rosmuc Hero,” which includes a unique combination of velvety saxophone riffs. “Slow Train” sways with the tempo of a cowboy on horseback as a nod to the weekly ritual gathering that he and neighborhood kids would make around the village’s only TV to watch the American western, “The Virginian.”
“The great thing about playing music is that you can do it all through your life,” shares Keehan, who was always content with playing music for the pure love of it – jamming with friends, learning and covering classics. He was never worried about making the charts or a living through his music, but rather he hoped to “play music, be a reasonably good musician, and do something that had some meaning to me and to my family and the people that I played music with.”
“There are so many other guys as old as I am and older out there playing every weekend for the love of music. They’re not well known, or totally unknown. I would like to think that the older people that are still playing wouldn’t be forgotten about.”
Through “Great Highway,” he recounts a life filled with craic, hope and admiration with tunes that will live on in the hearts of his friends, family and fans.
Tickets for Vince Keehan’s “Great Highway” album release live event at the Balboa Theater on Oct. 7 are SOLD OUT. The album will be available on all streaming platforms on Oct. 7. CDs will also be available on Bandcamp, which can be found at the album website: https://vkmusic.net/.
Well done. Congrats
Best wishes to you on your new album.
Looking forward to hearing it at the launch in Gort on Nov 2nd.
Go néiri an Tá leath.
Mary & Andrew Coen
Great to see you and Andrew,we had a brilliant weekend.
Best wishes to you on your new album.
Looking forward to hearing it at the launch in Gort in Nov
Go néiri an Tá leath.
Mary & Andrew Coen
Would love to purchase the physical cd. Can’t seem to find anywhere to order it.