Everyone is Irish once a year – or at least they like to think they are. This is what Corey Johnson ’88 has watched him play in the band Keep Britain Irish for over 15 years.
Many initial connections with band members were made at Hastings College, he said, including Jamie Evans ’89 and Steve Brosius ’92.
“My wife thinks there’s a degree of separation between everything at HC,” Johnson said.
This only scratches the surface of his Bronco network. Johnson’s parents and grandmother are all alumni, and his father (Dwayne “The Bear” Johnson ’57) led the Hastings College bands for 33 years. All three of Johnson’s siblings also went to HC, as did his niece and nephew. accidentally Robin Kooser ’76 was also Johnson’s high school choir director.
This story originally appeared on HC Today.
While Johnson has always considered himself primarily a vocalist, he also grew up playing other instruments, including trumpet, French horn and guitar. This strong musical foundation led him to participate in both choir and orchestras at HC, where he studied religion and sociology.
“One of the highlights of my choral career there was going and playing in Avery Fisher Hall in a mass choir doing Verdi’s ‘Messa da Requiem,'” he said. Avery Fisher Hall in New York is the home of the New York Philharmonic.
Music continues to play a strong role throughout Johnson’s life, even when he has an office job. After graduating, he moved to Denver, Colorado, where he worked at a youth shelter and then at Denver Human Services. During his 28 years at DHS, he performed at weddings and played in a band with his colleagues called the Uncivil Servants.
In 2008, Johnson reconnected with friends from college, including Evans and Brosius, who were holed up together in an unfinished basement. Among many different musical tastes, they found common ground in Irish pub music.
For Johnson, the blending of instruments and harmonies in Irish music is what drew him to the genre. These characteristics also give it a “singing” quality.
“It’s always great when you’re at a concert and you see people singing along with you,” he said.
The name — Keep Britain Irish — is something they came up with so long ago that the origins are almost forgotten. Instead of making a bold political statement, it aims to be tongue-in-cheek and aggressive.
“It’s more cheeky … the whole idea of the name was to be kind of provocative and ironic,” Johnson said. “Most of the time we just shorten it to KBI.”
The band members continued to play together and after some encouragement, KBI made their first public debut on March 17, 2008 – St. Saint Patrick.
Not surprisingly, the Irish-American holiday always draws the biggest crowds, Johnson said.
“It’s always been the best day of the year for us. It’s always when we have the biggest audience,” he said. “We played for the population of Denver St. Patty. It’s a high-energy day for us.”
KBI, which still has four of its original members, now includes Johnson, vocalist, mandolinist, harmonica player and penny whistler; Evans, vocalist and rhythm guitarist; Brosius, percussionist; Jake Stowdenmire, bassist; and Aaron Langton, guitarist.
The band has evolved over the years to include more than traditional Irish pub songs. The band’s set lists now feature an eclectic mix, including covers of Tom Petty, The Who, Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, Lukas Nelson and Chris Stapleton. Also in the mix are several original KBI songs that Johnson and another band member wrote.
Through the variety of genres, the bottom line is the band’s mission to “lead the party”.
“There are people who have their favorite traditional Irish songs, you see them singing along, you perform like a Flogging Molly song, Irish punk style, you see people singing along to that. You see people singing ‘Galway Girl’ by Steve Earle,” Johnson said. “We pick songs that people are familiar with…songs that people recognize instantly.”
The band has also slowed down its performance schedule over the years. Gone are the days of performing “St. Patty’s Run” from three to five shows the week of St. Patrick’s Day – “Our voices and our bodies fail.”
This past summer, KBI’s monthly schedule included an appearance at Jack Quinn’s Irish Pub in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
What keeps the band going after all these years is the simple bonding power of music and the energy of the crowds, Johnson said.
“Every time we get up there (on stage), it just reminds us why we love doing it,” he said.
These links are broadcast to the venues and communities in which they perform. This is another form of “HC connection” for Johnson.
“Another thing that has been great is the connections with other people from Hastings College. We have a lot of people from HC who come to our shows that we keep in touch with,” he said. “Music reveals something that is very unifying.”
Editors note: Follow along with KBI at reverbnation.com/keepbritainirish and facebook.com/Keep.Britain.Irish.