AARON CLEGG – lead vocals, wooden flute, whistles, saxophone
Aaron Clegg: At age 13, Aaron first went to a traditional Celtic music session with his musician father, and his life changed forever. He returned to that session in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for the next 15 years off and on, learning to play Celtic flute and tin whistle, singing Irish songs and sea chanties, and eventually taking classes and playing in sessions with many famous Irish musicians. Meanwhile, he played saxophone in high school and college jazz bands. Rounding out his versatility in instruments and genres, Aaron became part of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir for two years, performing at major concerts and sporting events and on national television. In 2013 he sang at the San Francisco Sea Music Festival. Aaron teaches private lessons in classical and wooden flute, tin whistle, saxophone, and voice technique, performs at weddings and memorials, and earns the balance of his living teaching at schools in the Santa Cruz area.
ELISE MACGREGOR FERRELL – fiddle, Great Highland Bagpipe
Elise’s musical family started teaching her piano and music theory ate age 5. She played flute in her middle school’s marching band, and fell in love with folk music at Yosemite’s first Strawberry Music Festival. (Yikes, how many years ago?) She learned stage band mechanics from spending a decade operating handheld cameras and directing real-time music videos for live-feed screens at the Concord Pavilion. A whimsical decision to take up fiddling doomed her to misspend countless early motherhood evenings learning hundreds of traditional Irish and Scottish tunes at Santa Cruz’s drop-in Celtic sessions, joining monthly old time jams, and occasionally fiddling for a bluegrass jam or barndance. Elise’s first inspiration for founding Charmas came from her favorite Celtic bands, The Old Blind Dogs and Molly’s Revenge. She was inspired to learn bagpiping by a lifetime of marching behind weekly summertime bagpipe parades, and nowadays competes with the Monterey Bay Pipe Band, marches with Canada’s Kincardine Scottish Pipe Band, and performs solo as a “Phantom Piper” for a historic lighthouse in Canada. You can find more information about her solo performances at SantaCruzBagpiper.
PHIL JOHNSTON – acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, lead vocals
Phil’s musical family started him on the piano at age 6 -which only lasted for a year, before the “great Folk scare” and the arrival of the Beatles inspired him to switch to guitar and never look back. Phil was 11 years old when he landed a lead singing role in a production of the Gian Carlo Menotti operetta, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Seven succeeding years of learning how to play the Blues and Psychedelic Rock music (with a particular focus on the music of Jimi Hendrix) may have helped Phil to earn a degree in Music Composition and Theory from the University of California Santa Cruz. “Between jobs” after college, he answered a want-ad for a guitarist/vocalist to join the Celtic-American folk group, Shanachie, and subsequently spent three years touring the U.S. and Europe, performing Celtic and American folk music. One highlight of this touring which Phil fondly recalls was representing the U.S. at the Dublin, Ireland Millennium Folk Festival in 1989. Nowadays, Phil uses his combined talents as a guitar player and vocalist to cross between genres and creatively explore the Celtic and American Roots music catalogs, developing ideas that bring fresh character to the Charmas musical family.
JIM POWELL – acoustic guitar, electric guitar, vocals
Jim started playing guitar at 14. His first job was taken solely to be able to buy a Fender Stratocaster and an amplifier – the guitar is now considered “vintage” – Jim is not sure how he feels about being the original owner of a vintage guitar. He discovered Celtic music by hearing Alisdair Fraser and the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers playing in the late 1980s. He played with that group for several years, before switching to smaller, local Celtic (and non-Celtic) groups. Over the years, he has accompanied fiddlers, pipers, flautists, accordionists and singers. He also plays bouzouki and mandolin.
DAN BLAKE – bass, vocals Dan’s musical adventure began at age 10 when his Scottish grandma gave him guitar lessons. He didn’t keep up the lessons, but grandma insisted he keep the guitar just in case he decided to pick it back up. That’s exactly what happened and he still owns and plays that old Yamaha guitar 45 years later! While still playing guitar, he found a love of all things bass along the way and has played in local bands for many years. He has also sung with the Santa Cruz Peace Choral and hopes to continue if time allows. He’s excited to continue his musical journey with Charmas. If you don’t see him on stage around town look for him in the audience watching others playing! His motto? Support live music!
Additional musicians who rotate in with Charmas:
RICHARD DWYER – lead vocals, low whistle, bodhran
At the tender age of 6 Richard started piano lessons and went on to spend 5 years studying music at the Royal College of Music in Dublin, Ireland. A long stint with an Irish Rock band ensued, but eventually life took a hand and Richard left the music scene, and the country. Quite a few years passed before he took an interest in music again, in of all places, his local church. Thanks to their St. Patrick’s day celebration and his nomination as the token Irishman, he began organizing their annual shindig and developed a love for Celtic music. He now plays whistle and bodhran, and is the lead singer in his own band Luckless Pedestrians, as well as the traditional bodhran drummer for Charmas.
— This Bay Area native has picked up boatloads of Olde English and Irish songs from the docks of San Francisco, and hangs around with our local folk musicians far too often to be considered sane. He also enjoys doing stupidly healthy things, like bicycling through snow or heat, and running to his local pub 16 miles away. Boredom sometimes inspires him to organize house concerts and music events, while at other times he can be glimpsed singing loudly in his car.
MATT JOHNSON – tenor banjo, pennywhistle
Matt’s diverse musical background began with playing trumpet and baritone horn in his high school’s symphonic, marching, and jazz bands. He claims to have learned to play old time banjo from a dubious relative in Aptolachia (south of Sokewell and Capittola), but, then again, he also claims to know someone who is his own grandpa. We do have proof that Matt took up playing pennywhistle, guitar, and banjo during the 1980’s, and that he became a regular fixture at Santa Cruz’s legendary Britannia Arms Irish sessions. Matt spent a subsequent decade playing rock and blues by night, while running his business, T&M Concrete, during the daytime. As soon as he returned to playing in local Celtic sessions, he got swept up by Charmas like sheet music in a sea breeze. Today, the old-spice scented minstrel looks back upon his nearly 30 years of picking strings, and playfully admits that he might finally be “getting serious” about music. His lingering childhood dream is to someday play Celtic tuba for Charmas.
RUSS BENNETT – bodhran
Russ played drum set as a teenager, and at 20 years old, he went to work overseas, playing concerts and entertaining military personnel. During a long career of operating a construction-based business in the SF Bay Area, he studied various styles of percussion with experts John Santos, Michael Spiro, Brian Rice, and Jim Griener. A decision to move to Santa Cruz got him involved with Cabrillo College’s Latin Jazz Ensemble, and inspired him to specialize in playing hand drums. Russ plays the Brazilian Pandiero, Middle Eastern Darbuka (for belly dancers), Tar, Conga, Cajon, Bongo, as well as full drum set. Russ fell in love with Celtic music and started playing the Bodhran Irish frame drum. He has studied Celtic percussion with David Brewer and some the very best teachers from Ireland such as Colm Phelan and Eamon Murray.
DEVIN LARA – kit drum
Born in County Santa Cruz, and working as a plumber by day and a musician by night, Devin spent a decade playing guitar/bass for bands whose styles ranged from stoner metal and jazz, to blues, heavier metal and everything else in between. Stale coolers filled with warm, cheap beer in San Francisco’s late-night clubs might not have motivated Devin’s switch to drums, but he has since developed a passion for percussion that swerved dramatically when he joined Charmas. It seems that the Stars have always wished for Devin to play Celtic music, because (we kid you not) he was born on St. Patrick’s Day! And this consummate “band guy” is so musically-driven that he would drum for Charmas every night of the week, if we would let him.
JOSH REILLY – vocals, octave mandolin, acoustic guitar
Josh usually changes the subject when asked about his musical background. Best to broach the subject after a shot of 12 year old single malt, especially if you are buying. He does know something about Irish history and music, earning him the nickname of “The Professor.” His guitar style was developed playing in “various garage bands,” and studying with Santa Cruz’s own Celtic guitar master, Bill Coulter. Josh counts John Doyle, Joe Pass and Jesse Ed Davis among his heroes. When he is not holding down the guitar/mandolin chair with The Wise Fools of Gotham, or sitting in with Charmas, he plays with a local jazz trio, and stays busy at his day job, Executive Safety Factotum with the County of Santa Cruz
Artists We Like, Who Have Influenced Our Music…Archie Fisher, The Chieftains, The Clancy Brothers, Great Big Sea, Lunasa, the Makem Brothers, Michael McGoldrick, Molly’s Revenge, Old Blind Dogs, The Pogues, The Proclaimers, Solas, Stan Rogers, Steeleye Span
What does our band name, “Charmas” mean?
Back in 2013, when our fledgling band was trying to think of a good name (besides The Jammy Dodgers, which was already taken, or Elise’s suggestion, The Dodgy Jammers), drummer Russ dug up the gaelic word “charmas” on the Internet. He sent our band a paragraph copied from some website, defining “charmas” as meaning about twenty related things, including family, love, and being charmed or lucky. No one in the band (not even Russ) saved the paragraph on our computers. Later, we asked Russ to send us the definition again, and he could not find it! We went to the Internet ourselves, and could not find any definition more specific than “charmed,” and even that definition seemed nebulous. Nevertheless, the name “Charmas” stuck, and since then it has taken on a very specific meaning for us…
“Charmas” (analogous to serendipity) is a force of nature, employing auspicious timing and astonishing coincidences, which lures compatible musicians to find each other and form a cohesive group, evolving over time, and yet still feeling to them like a second family.
One example of charmas at work: Guitarist Jim Powell was strolling through the Scotts Valley farmer’s market one morning, when he overheard some Celtic musicians playing Irish session music. The melodies carried his memory back to playing session music himself, during a former decade, when he had lived in Modesto, and in Santa Cruz. A warm fuzzy followed him home, and inspired him to wonder if it was time for him to get back into playing Celtic music. So, the following week, he logged onto Craig’s list…coincidentally during the exact same week that Charmas ran their first ever backup-guitarist-want ad…and now Jim belongs to Charmas “family.”