Mikko & Friends use shows to support nonprofits

Mikko & Friends includes (L to R) Michelle Wencl, Anne O’Flynn, Chuck Wencl, Mikko Cowdery and Doug Tatge. Contributed photo

Mikko & Friends includes (L to R) Michelle Wencl, Anne O’Flynn, Chuck Wencl, Mikko Cowdery and Doug Tatge. Contributed photo

“Magical stuff happens when a group of musicians get together for the betterment of the community,” said Mikko Cowdery, of Osakis. He should know. He has many years of experience under his belt, and if all goes as planned, there’ll be many more. “Whether it is a fundraiser for somebody in need, a rally to raise money for a parochial school, a United Way effort, or supporting a local arts association – it adds meaning and emotion and commitment and passion to the program. It rewards the musicians in ways that an ordinary paid gig never can.”

Mikko remembers his first public performance, when he was a wee boy. It had no Irish connections except for the nickname of the owner of the bar where he performed. “I was belting out Love Sick Blues while mowing my family’s lawn. My uncle heard me, took me to Irish Dempsy’s Bar in Long Prairie, sat me up on the bar and said, ‘Sing that song!’”

The “Friends” of Mikko and Friends could probably share similar stories since most of them have had lifetimes of music; and for them, lifetimes means more than a few decades.

Chuck Wencl, of Alexnadria, and Anne O’Flynn, of Elbow Lake, both in their mid-60s (both proud grandparents have joined Mikko on stage for many years.  In addition to her longstanding Mikko & Friends involvement, Anne plays accordion on a regular basis with Cassie & the Bobs, a Patsy Cline tribute band. She also plays with The Little Henry Band, The Gut Bucket Blues Band, and other groups.

Chuck is a noted music teacher throughout the region, performs in a local “big band” and sits in regularly with many area bands.  Chuck and his wife Mandy are the prime movers in promoting and producing the weekly summertime Court House Lawn Concerts in Alexandria.  Chuck also performs as a duet with their daughter Michelle who also sings and drums with “Friends.” The duet is called Sax Appeal and offers up torch songs and old jazz standards.  When March rolls around, Chuck takes out a somewhat different musical instrument and delights audiences with the Irish pennywhistle.

Doug Tatge, of Alexandria, who is 67, brings his vocal talents to Mikko and Friends for the first time this year.  He’s been in love with singing his whole life. Doug sings anywhere and everywhere. He’s a founding member of Sound Idea, with Tim Cochran, which performs regularly around the area. It could be said that Doug married Irish music since he married into an Irish family and has been passionately involved in Irish music ever since.

While all of these musicians are varying degrees of professional, including Mikko, he advocates for identity with a perhaps more obscure definition of amateur. “The word ‘amateur’ is often applied to something done by someone who isn’t very good at it. But in its finest sense and original meaning (from the Latin “amator”) it relates to something which is done out of love or passion. That is a quality we seek for our programs. That is the quality that makes Irish pub sessions such exceptional entertainment.”

The professional amateur Mikko & Friends Irish Music Shows date back to a St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser in 2004, performed with all volunteers at the Evansville Arts Center. “It was such a success that we moved it to the AAAA (Quad A) Theatre in Alexandria the following year, as a fundraiser for the Alex Area Arts Association. We drew excellent crowds, and within a couple of years, we had to do a matinee show and an evening show,” says Mikko.

Mikko and Friends performing on a pub-themed stage. Contributed photo

Mikko and Friends performing on a pub-themed stage. Contributed photo

One of the special moments of the AAAA Theatre experience happened several years ago. Mikko remembered.

“I had drafted Gail Johnson (of Fergus Falls) to play bagpipes on the show, and we had the stage all decked out like a pub. Gail asked me what I wanted her to do when she wasn’t playing her bagpipes, and I asked what she would do if she were in a regular pub in Ireland, when she wasn’t playing her bagpipes. She replied, ‘I guess I’d sit in front of the fire and knit.’  And so that’s what we had her do. And it brought many smiles to our audience to see that little bit of authenticity on the show.”

You might be wondering if these Irish musicians have ever had a chance to tour the Emerald Isle and the answer is “yes!” “In 2009,”explained Mikko with a storyteller’s preface, “we took the core group from our show, called it the Skilly & Duff Pub Band, and won first place in the Celtic Music competition at the Irish Fair of Minnesota. We were then invited to stay with a very influential fellow in Ireland, one Tony Sheedy, who put us up for a couple weeks and guided us around Ireland, steeping us in the music and culture of his beautiful homeland. We went on from there to play many festivals, fairs, community events, and continued to put on the annual Irish shows.”

Mikko and Friends have been featured at the annual Celtic Faire in Aberdeen, S.D., and the Fargo-Moorhead Celtic Faire, held each year at the Hjemkomst Center. Mikko also gets a chance to share his stories and poems when he serves as the emcee on the Heritage Stage.

This year Mikko and ten “Friends” (including the Corner Booth String Band from Fergus Falls) will raise funds for the Fergus Falls art center (A Center For the Arts) on March 17 and another for the Alexandria Area Arts Association on March 18.

One of Mikko’s friends, Ken Hamrum of Fergus Falls, with his harp. Contributed photo

One of Mikko’s friends, Ken Hamrum of Fergus Falls, with his harp. Contributed photo

Included in the 10 “Friends” is Ken Hamrum of Fergus Falls, what the group fondly calls “their lobby attraction.” Ken is an attorney by profession.  He’s a musician by avocation and plays everything from tuba to trombone in community bands. When attendees walk into the lobby of a venue and see this large man plucking away on an even larger Celtic harp, it starts the evening with the perfect musical feeling of joy and celebration.

The Corner Booth String Band includes five musicians – all old enough to be AARP members.  They are all very dedicated musicians and have been involved in various styles of traditional music much of their adult lives. For the past six years they have hosted a monthly Celtic music jam session in Fergus Falls, and have an excellent repertoire of Ceilidh (pronounced Kaylee which means, aptly enough, “party”) Irish dance music. This group includes Doug and Betsy Wells, Bob and Gail Johnson, and Deb Wallwork, all of Fergus Falls. Doug plays Irish tenor banjo, mandolin, and bodhran (Irish drum). Betsy plays double-bass and concertina. Bob plays guitar and harmonica, and Gail plays guitar and bagpipes. Deb rounds out the group with fiddle.

While the “Friends” are mostly senior citizens, they enjoy having young people play with them.

“We have kids as often as we can,” explained Mikko, “but that depends on their availability. We had a 13-year-old accordion player lined up for this year, but it just didn’t work out. We’ve had children singers, instrumentalists, and dancers – but, sorry to say, none this year.”

Mikko has no idea of how much his merry band of Irish musicians might have raised over the years.  And while he sometimes pays professional musicians who would miss a paying gig to do a fundraiser, his own efforts are 100 percent donated. His reward is in capturing and sharing a kind of rare magic and celebrating the human spirit; and sharing a bit O’ blarney, such as the following ditty that Mikko will deliver at the drop of a tam O’shanter:

‘Twas early in November,

as distinctly I remember, 

I was walkin’ down the street

in drunken pride

When me knees went all aflutter

and I landed in the gutter,

and a pig came up

and lay down by me side.

As I lay there in the gutter

thinkin’ thoughts I could not utter,

a damsel passin’ by did slowly say

‘You can tell how far you’re sinkin’ by how bad your friends are stinkin’’

– and at that the pig

got up and walked away”   

Mikko and Friends will appear at the Fergus Falls Center for the Arts on March 17 at 7:30 p.m and at the AAAA Theatre in Alexandria on March 18 at 7 p.m. For ticket information, see the ad on Page 16A.