Irish Rocker Thrives on Vicissitudes
By Yoon Yeong-mi
The dark wooden interior of the classy pub reverberates with the low-pitched sounds of talk and the clinking of beer mugs. Here to unwind and meet with old friends and colleagues over some brew and maybe a game of billiards or darts, few seem to even notice the small corner stage.
Yet, in just a few minutes, a man and his beat-up black acoustic guitar will fly into action, grabbing the attention of the pub's clientele and prompting a number of them to sing along.
Peter Yeates, 52, the veteran musician originally from Dublin, Ireland will have worked his magic again.
Although Yeates receives many invitations and accolades from around the world, the road to this point has not been a smooth or a straight one.
``I was really a commercial artist. I went to art school and worked for agencies. (Music) was kind of part time,'' says Yeates.
For the seasoned singer, performing and music amounted to a fun hobby. Receiving his first guitar as a Christmas present from his sister Elsie when he was 12 sparked his career.
``(My sister) was nine years older than me and she was a great mentor to me. She loves music. A few years later when I was in high school, a friend of mine asked if I knew how to play the guitar and to teach him a few chords. The next day, he learned three more on his own. I thought, `I can't have that' and bought a book and finally learned everything. We formed a rock and roll band and even made it to number six on the Irish charts,'' he reminisces.
But their success story ended when the harsh economic situation in Ireland in the '70s pushed Yeates to enter the ``real world'' by taking a job as a magazin illustrator in the states. A mere six months later, the magazine was bought out by a California consortium, forcing Yeates back on to the streets to look for work.``They took the magazine, but they didn't take anyone who worked for it,'' jokes Yeates. ``I went to work for Sears Roebuck and that was terrible. My God, that drove me back to Ireland, almost. Six months in Ireland, I realized why I left and came back to America.''
This time, Yeates completely immersed himself in his music and he arrived with high hopes of being a full-time musician by 1975. Yet, conditions still did not ease up.
``It was idealism and everything and I was going to be a star. I started in rock and roll, but when I came to America, I met millions of rock and roll players and nobody was making any money,'' says Yeates. ``So I got to thinking, `what can I do that no one else is doing?' and I got into Irish music in the 70's.''
While he may not have the name recognition of Irish musicians like Sinead O'Connor and the Cranberries, Yeates has fostered a strong following of his own. In addition to performing solo, he is a member of five different bands, including ``The Old Triangle,'' a group twice voted the top Irish folk act and dubbed the Gaelic version of Crosby, Stills and Nash; and the acclaimed. ``The Full Shilling,'' a celtic rock sextet headed by Skip Parente. He has even played with members of ``The Chieftains.''
With his folksy lyrics, catchy chords and natural exuberance, Yeates has been performing professionally for over twenty years in Ireland, North America and several European countries, as well as in Russia and Korea.
Playing around the world in festivals and as an opening act, Yeates has also become popular with his co-musicians and hosts. When he opened for the Kingston Trio, Bob Shane enthused, ``(Peter Yeates) is one of the best opening acts I have ever seen. He really primed the audience for us.''
``We were wondering how he would perform in a pub since his songs have a calming effect. But he's been great. He interacts with the audience, plays their requested favorites and people just love him,'' said a manager of O'Kims in Seoul.
Although Yeates will be paid to perform from 8:30 until 12:30 every day except Sunday at O'Kim's Irish Pub and Sports Bar until August 7, the humble, bespectacled musician says playing and singing feels like fun rather than work.
``I'm a people watcher so I like watching people while I'm performing. When I do get into a song, I close my eyes and get lost in the song. When you have a really good night, it's a really big rush. But I've been in the business for so long, I don't really think about it, I just do it,'' he laughs.
``Up until my mother died a few years ago, she was always asking me when I was going to get a real job,'' Yeates grins.
By joking and chatting with the crowd while on stage and maybe sharing a beer with them during his break, Yeates is having the time of his life and his joie de vivre is contagious.
At a patron's request for a Korean song, Yeates strums Kim Jong-hwan's signature tune ``For Love.'' Explaining that he ``almost has it,'' the master musician hums the melody and is joined by fans who know the words by heart.
At the height of the hoopla and laughter, Yeates breaks into Don Mclean's``American Pie'' to the delight of many, especially a group in front who delight the crowd by swaying their hips and joining in the chorus.
For the moment, even those seated in the far corners of the bar turn their heads and clap to the beat.
The fun-loving musician feels out the crowd and gets them to join in on``the second easiest sing-a-long in the world'': a salty song about a little boy and little girl who discover their physical differences, a song which is met with an appreciative roar from pub's regulars.
Yeates is at the top of his game.
Yet, despite the laughter and the gaiety, Yeates is also a realist ground by the years of hard work and even frustration.
``Being a soloist can be the greatest job in the world because if you have a great night, it's all yours. But if you have a bad night, that's all yours, too.''
``If you want to be a prima donna, you play Carnegie Hall. If you're going to play in a pub, people socialize and talk. You've got to know that sometimes you're going to be background and sometimes you've got a clap-a-long, a sing-a-long. What happens happens. One moment everyone will be dancing and singing and the next, everyone will just be drinking,'' he philosophizes.
Despite his easy-going style and devil-may-care attitude, Yeates is attuned to the mood of the crowd. He feels out what they want to hear and what songs are likely complement the atmosphere. Yeates goes on stage with no planned order of songs to sing. Yet, there is never a dull moment or a silent space because Yeates has a repertoire of about 200 songs, 800 more on the back burner and his joyful improvisations of unfamiliar music requests, in which he adds words and changes chords without missing a beat never fail to involve the audience in his efforts.
About a quarter of the songs he sings are his own compositions, many of which have been recorded by other artists.
``I'm really a lazy bugger,'' Yeates says with great humility. ``I do enough to get by. I write maybe three or four songs a year. But once when we were recording I needed some more songs and I wrote two that day.''
With harmonious chords and catchy, folksy tunes, Yeates's own creations are as popular as the well-known songs his audience requests. His most popular work, ``Honor Bright'' came from a combination of working on a new chord and listening to a news broadcast of an Irish call girl's murder.
Other songs evolve slowly as words creep in as he strums a few bars on his guitar. Sometimes, he experiments on stage and gauges the reaction of the crowd, composing a song without writing it down on paper.
But despite the venue, the experienced musician is there for the joy of music and performance.
``Perhaps the biggest rush I had was at the biggest Irish festival in the world held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin of all places. We played before (``The Chieftains'') and we were close to being the stars. There was a rush, definitel , at that one. Everyone played as we should and the crowd loved us. It was good,'' he remembers.
Perhaps the words of the title song of his latest album, ``Back in the Middle'' best reflect the struggles in his career. Playing the guitar to the background of uilean pipes and the bodhran, a native Irish percussion instrument, Yeates sings:
``Fifteen years we've been in arrears/ that's a long, long time at the back./ But you're coming on strong and you're where you belong/ and we ain't never goin' back./ Now look at you here, then look at you there/ you're half way 'round the world./ You're up on your feet and your future looks sweet/ and you're back in the middle my girl.''
While he may not be as famous as ``The Rolling Stones'' he had hoped to emulate as an idealistic young musician twenty years ago, Yeates has found his own niche and a strong following.
With a solo career and involvement in bands that play his own brand of celtic rock and contemporary folk, Yeates says, ``I'm still a rocker after all these years. I'm still a rocker at heart.''