February 1, 2023
Former local resident Damon Leibert, sporting his "professional leprechaun" gear, will be coming to Boston this month as part of the Irish Comedy Tour along with (L-R) Derek Richards, Derrick Keane and Mike Malone.
Damon Leibert, a former Boston-area resident now living in Maine, has quite the resumé: a fiddler in Irish bands that performed at beloved local venues like Tir Na nOg and The Skellig; the driving force behind the rebirth of Somerville’s Davis Square Theater as The Rockwell; commercial recording studio co-owner/operator for 13 years; in recent years, technical director of an historic Maine theater – and an oyster farmer.
Oh, and as he sometimes tells people who ask what he does for a living, he’s also in the exalted global fraternity of professional leprechauns (which can be said to include the Notre Dame and Boston Celtics mascots, and the Lucky Charms character).
It is in that role that Leibert will return later this month to his old stomping, and fiddling, grounds. He’ll be part of the Irish Comedy Tour, which stops at City Winery Boston on Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m., appearing with three Irish-born/Irish-descended comic performers: Derek Richards, whose credits include “The Bob & Tom Show,” SiriusXM and Amazon Prime, and who recently released his fourth album, “Double Down”; Derrick Keane, a musician and singer as well as a comedian, half of a winning duo in the All-Ireland Talent Competition (he also plays in the band Inchicore, the name of his birthplace – Leibert is a former member of the group); and Mike Malone, who’s appeared on Fox, Comedy Central, Showtime, and Hulu, and starred in a special, “Laugh After Death.”
Leibert will be in his green-suited, green-top-hatted glory, participating in the show’s musical segments – he’s able to move around while he plays, a la “Celtic Woman” violinist Máiréad Nesbitt (although the resemblance is somewhat limited) – and generally contributing to the overall vibe of Hibernian hilarity, but also incorporating some culture into the stereotype.
“The travel can be grueling, working a different city every day, but the fun stuff is easy,” says Leibert, who has been in the tour for 11 years. “One of the things that’s unusual about this road show is that comedians rarely tour together, so I’m with these four guys who each have their own particular style of wit and humor. But ultimately, they’re funny because they’re smart. The camaraderie is incredible: As much as we enjoy ourselves during the performances, we laugh even more off stage.”
The Irish Comedy Tour also is an opportunity for Leibert to spend time in and around Boston, where he lived for 20 years until moving to Maine with his wife in 2017. “For me, it’s a feeling of ‘I’ve come home’: traveling through South Station; stopping off at Mr. Dooley’s for a proper pint of Guinness; looking up old friends in Somerville. The city has changed a lot, but it’s always such a pleasure to see familiar places and familiar faces.”
Leibert’s two decades in the Boston area comprised his young adulthood, a time when he cultivated a new outlet for the traditional music that was a centerpiece of his childhood. With family roots in Nova Scotia as well as in New England, and a father who played accordion and concertina, Leibert took up fiddle at age four and within a few years was holding forth at social dances around the region. These and other experiences – including a sojourn in Galway – helped in shaping a style fusing the energetic, driving Cape Breton fiddle tradition with the lyricism of Ireland’s.
Exploring the Boston music scene, Leibert found other influences and sources of inspiration that encouraged him to expand on his trad fiddle background. One such wellspring was Tir na nOg in Somerville’s Union Square, home to a regular Irish session that attracted musicians who had wide-ranging backgrounds. One was guitarist and singer Robert Elliott, a Limerick native and the pub’s co-owner; he and Leibert hit it off, and began playing with two other session regulars, Drew Smith (bass) and Neal Cadogan (percussion). They called themselves the Johnny Come Latelies.
“Basically, I went to Tir na nOg and never left,” Leibert recalls. “We came up with a sound that we called tribal Irish roots rock. We would do a blast of tunes – Irish, New England, Cape Breton – and a folk or traditional song like ‘Spancil Hill’ or ‘Down by the Glenside,’ as well as material we wrote. The music had a folk/folk-rock side to it, certainly, but definitely a rock-n-roll pulse and energy: more up-tempo, off-beat, a punk edge to it.”
The JCLs released a live CD and played at other Irish pubs, including The Skellig in Waltham, and at events like the Irish Connections Festival at the Irish Cultural Centre in Canton. At a certain point, the band went beyond the Irish pub circuit and appeared at clubs and music festivals in New England and elsewhere.
Leibert, meanwhile, continued to enlarge his musical map through various friendships and collaborations: Dave Mattacks, a long-time member of Fairport Convention, one of the seminal bands in the British Isles folk revival; blues, gospel and R&B-influenced singer-songwriter Christian McNeill; Americana/folk-rock performer Bow Thayer, who worked with Levon Helm of The Band (Leibert guested on their album, “Spend It All”); mandolinist Jimmy Ryan; and Jerry Holland, the Brockton-born fiddler who became one of the leading Cape Breton musicians of his time.
“I always played in the context of a gig,” he says. “People knew that, at the very least, I wouldn’t make them sound worse, and that I could rise to the occasion.”
He also got to know Keane, which resulted in him joining Inchicore and, ultimately, earning an audition for the Irish Comedy Tour, which started in 2005: “They thought it would be great to have another performer involved, and the upshot was that I would be a leprechaun: short, cantankerous, and playing fiddle.” He had a trial run in the show toward the end of its 2012 tour, and came on for the full slate the following year.
Concurrently, Leibert moved into other ventures, sparked by an interest in technology nurtured since childhood (he was a licensed FCC radio operator at 13) and previous involvement in community theater: a screen-printing company he founded with JCL bandmate Cadogan; work as a live sound engineer; and a contracting company dealing in pro audio and visual equipment. In 2015, he was tapped as manager of what was then the Davis Square Theater (and previously Jimmy Tingle’s Off Broadway) – and wound up overseeing its resurrection.
“It was not a project I’d been looking to do, but there I was. We made a plan not only to renovate the place but also to rebrand it, so as to avoid confusion with the Somerville Theater,” says Leibert of The Rockwell, a 175-seat black box-type facility that hosts more than 500 performances annually.
Such experience earned him a job offer as technical director at the Lincoln Theater in Damariscotta, Me., about 45 miles east of Lewiston. The theater’s origins date back to 1875, when it was known as Lincoln Hall and was the venue for, among other things, dancing classes, dog shows, bell-ringing, poetry readings, road shows, minstrel shows, stock company productions, and turkey shoots. Nowadays, the Lincoln runs more than 500 events a year, including first-run art films, HD opera and theater broadcasts, inhouse-produced plays and concerts, and education discussions.
It seemed too good to pass up: His wife’s family was from the area, and Leibert was ready for a life that didn’t involve working some 100 hours a week.
“Since we moved to Maine, my blood pressure is a lot better,” he says, “and I have more time for hobbies.”
Among those pastimes is oyster farming, which was not too much of a leap for Leibert, whose family had grown vegetables and raised livestock. Still, he adds, aqua farming is more complicated: “You have to be careful about introducing toxins to the water, because that can decimate the industry. I took a class in oyster farming, with marine biologists and all kinds of other experts.”
Leibert admits, however, that – other than for the Irish Comedy Tour – he’s not doing much fiddling these days. “When I moved here, I had no reason to play; there were no gigs for me. And I never spent much time on my own music.” Which means a quick ramp-up when the tour is underway.
“Essentially, I’m taking out the fiddle to play in a 1,000-seat theater after a year, with no rehearsal. But you know, it’s really like riding a bicycle – it’s just that I wasn’t expecting to be on the bicycle, and I have no idea where it’s going.”
Leibert notes, incidentally, that last year he and the Irish Comedy Tour gang were inducted as honorary members of the Harvard Lampoon Society, joining a diversity of luminaries that includes Hugh Hefner, Jay Leno, Ezra Pound, Sarah Silverman, Kurt Vonnegut, John Wayne, Kesha, and Winston Churchill.
“I’m not sure,” he muses, “where to put this on my resumé.”
Tickets for the Irish Comedy Tour and other information available at citywinery.com/boston.