Musicians Christy Martin and Aodh Og O’Tuama of Four Shillings Short met in 1995. Two years later, the husband-and-wife duo’s first tour lasted 3 months, playing 60 gigs in 30 states and racking up 30,000 miles. Believing they’d never make a living in the Bay Area as musicians, they stopped paying rent and hit the road, permanently.
Like troubadours and bards of old, they make their living playing concerts and taking advantage of the thousands of patrons all over the U.S. and Ireland who put them up. While they have no permanent address, thanks to two Bay Area sponsors, a room has been available for their use any time they like ever since giving up an address.
“After 20 plus years,” says Martin, “we’ve got [touring] down to a science.” They perform 150 gigs a year, but to complete a U.S. tour, it takes them two years to hit each stop east of the Rockies and two years for the west. They visit O’Tuama’s homeland of Ireland for three months every year, leading bus tours covering archaeology and culture, as well as music.
Now in their 23rd year of touring, O’Tuama says, they are taking it “a little bit easy to begin digitizing memorabilia and write new material.”
Their set list is composed of original tunes as well as songs thousands of years old. Between the two, they sing in English, Gaelic, French, Spanish and Sanskrit. Martin began playing the sitar at age 15, studying for a decade, including 5 years with Ravi Shankar, who lived in Encinitas near her San Diego home. “His family still lives in the house,” says Martin. She plays at least eight other stringed instruments, including the Andean charango, which was made originally from an armadillo’s back. O’Tuama handles Renaissance and Medieval woodwinds, tinwhistles, recorders and spoons. They share drumming duty on a doumbek and bodhran.
This Friday, they’ll be playing their Celtic/world/folk music, with banter and stories mixed in, at San Clemente Art Supply’s yoga and art studio. “This is our third time playing San Clemente Art Supply,” said O’Tuama. “Patti and Richard [Herdell, its owners] were visiting their son Ian in Springville.” After the Herdells saw Four Shillings Short play in a yurt on a land preserve up there, they offered their shop for a concert any time the pair were passing through. “It’s intimate,” said Martin about playing at the studio, “like a little house concert.” The Herdells host the troubadours each time.
Martin’s classical Indian music studies led her to help build an ashram in Pennsylvania, then, bizarrely, to earn a business degree from the University of Arizona. A software company in the Bay Area hired her, and that’s where she started a Celtic folk band. That band and O’Tuama’s ten-year-old Four Shillings Short both played the same gig in ’95. He made sure she added her phone number to the band’s mailing list. A week later they had their first date.
O’Tuama grew up in Cork, but landed in the Bay Area when Stanford University offered him a fellowship to study early music. Though he didn’t earn a graduate degree (he holds a degree in music from University College Cork), he took what he learned at Stanford and in growing up in a family of poets and musicians and started Four Shillings Short. The name comes from a James Joyce story in Dubliners. In each tale is a moment of epiphany. O’Tuama’s hit when he met Martin; she joined the group, but soon the series of band mates rotating in and out was over. The two have been masters of the road ever since.
Four Shillings Short at San Clemente Art Supply, 1531 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 369-6603; 4shillingsshort.com. Fri., 7 p.m. Suggested donation $10-15; kids free.