Douglas County public defender Tom Riley wakes up every weekday morning, puts on a suit and tie, and heads to his Downtown Omaha office where he’s greeted by depositions and a packed schedule full of impending court hearings. But after 5 o’clock, it’s a whole different story.
Riley has been playing traditional Irish folk music with his band, The Turfmen, since the ‘80s. When founder Peter Brennan unexpectedly decided to leave, the remaining members weren’t quite ready to lay down the mandolin. Instead, they changed the band name to Dicey Riley and kept going. There’s not one but two Rileys in the band. Tom Riley’s eldest son, guitarist Brendan Riley, has been playing with them since 2000.
In addition to Brendan Riley (vocals and guitar) and Tom Riley (vocals, guitar, banjo, mandolin), the band includes John Herman (vocals, accordion, guitar) and Brian Lugar (vocals, bass).
“I was surprised how much Brendan already knew when he started playing with us. It must have been through osmosis,” Tom Riley laughs.
For being in his late 20s, the younger Riley has a solid grasp on the meaning of tradition and realizes the importance of a strong bond with his father, which makes playing in Dicey Riley even more satisfying.
“The best part of playing Irish music is the tradition. Some of the songs are literally hundreds of years old,” he says. “The stories of the Irish experience are written so well by the poets and songwriters. Also, I get personal satisfaction that I get to play music with my father. It’s a wonderful bonding experience, and I am lucky to spend as much time with him as I do.”
“The best part of playing Irish music is the tradition. Some of the songs are literally hundreds of years old.” – Brendan Riley, guitarist
Growing up in Chicopee, Mass., Tom Riley was always surrounded by Irish traditions and folk music. He attended college in Vermont and then moved to Omaha to attend Creighton Law School in 1972. Still, he’s never lost touch with his musical roots.
“My uncle’s parents were from Ireland. Music was always kind of a dominant thing in our lives. We used to have lots of backyard parties, and we always had friends that knew how to play instruments,” he recalls. “There were radio shows every Saturday and Sunday that played Irish music. We would listen to those. Honestly, I can’t remember not hearing it.”
Despite the band’s name change, Dicey Riley’s regular Wednesday night gigs at Brazen Head Irish Pub and special appearances at The Dubliner have not suffered. In fact, the audiences are growing larger.
“I don’t think that the name change has affected the band too much. We are still recognized as The Turfmen because it’s mostly the same band members,” Brendan says. “We also routinely play the same places, so the people who have seen us before Dicey Riley are getting the same tunes. We have begun covering a wider array of tunes due to requests. Folk music is getting popular again.”
“Brendan has us covering newer bands such-as Flogging Molly, which appeals to a younger crowd,” Tom adds. “But I have to admit, after a long day at work, it’s tough getting down to The Dubliner on a Friday night to play until 2 a.m. Once we get going, I’m okay though.”
Dicey Riley’s annual St. Patrick’s Day show at The Dubliner is something the guys look forward to every year, even though it can get a little rowdy and maybe even a little disgusting.
“St. Patrick’s Day is enjoyable because it’s the day that everyone is Irish and the culture is in full force, even if it is more an American-Irish tradition,” Brendan explains. “It can get a little rough when people drink too much, but for the most part it’s usually a fun time. I saw a guy [drink] an Irish Car Bomb last year. He swallowed it down, and it immediately came back up. Then, he filled up his pint glass and drank it back down again. Absolutely revolting. I thought I was going to puke!”