By Kristi Kates
Anyone who has spent any time at all vacationing Up North has likely at least heard of local performer Sean Ryan.
Ryan, who has spent the better part of the last two decades as a regular at Petoskeys Noggin Room in the Perry Hotel, is a big part of many folks summer memories - carefully walking down the stone steps to the subterranean Noggin Room; settling in at dark wood tables set with icy drinks and baskets of popcorn; laughter and singalongs floating through the air to compliment Ryans own Irish-inflected folk singing; good-natured banter and deft guitar work.
Its a story that started in Ireland, and ends - happily, thank you - in Petoskey.
Ryans family emigrated to the U.S. from County Cork, Ireland, when he was just 13 years old.
We lived in San Francisco at first, Ryan explains, we stayed there for two years, and then moved to Chicago.
Ryan attended high school in the Chicago suburbs, went on to attend Illinois State University, and after college, taught English in the Chicago area for a while.
Soon, though, arrived an opportunity to promote his music up in Michigan. Ryan moved North, began playing at Duffys (now Teddy Griffins Roadhouse) in Harbor Springs, and quickly became a popular draw. But the real turning point in his Northern Michigan career would be when he began playing at the Noggin Room in the early 90s.
I remember at the very beginning, when I first joined Staffords, walking in and seeing this little tiny room that seated maybe 50 people, Ryan remembers, I met with Dudley Marvin and Shawn Gray, and we came up with the idea of creating this wonderful, pub-like atmosphere. It took some work, and it took a while to catch on, but it turned out great.
Catching on is an understatement when talking about Ryans Noggin Room performances. He became a must-see, something of a local legend, and even drew other well-accomplished musicians to watch him play.
One evening, Jonathan Edwards (Minnesota folk singer famed for singles Sunshine and Shanty) walked into the Noggin Room and sat at the back, Ryan recollects, I decided to do a favorite song, The Last Thing on My Mind. Jonathan got up, walked over to the stage, and gave me the look - you know, that look that asks, is it okay if I sit in? And I looked back saying it was fine to approach. My son, Patrick, was performing with me that night, and Patrick looked over at him like, hey, whos this guy on my microphone?
Then, Jonathan chimed in with Patrick on a harmony, and Patrick about fell off of his stool. Patricks been listening to that kind of folk music all his life, so when he heard Jonathan sing, he immediately recognized his voice. That was a treat, Ryan laughs.
FATHER TO SON
A talented performer in his own right, Patrick Ryan, who Ryan explains is band director at Petoskey High School, works with the Steel Drum Band, and also started a jazz pep band at the school, has been singing and playing guitar for years, joining his father for live shows as frequently as his schedule will allow.
Patrick is very well founded in the older music, as well as his own picks, the Dave Matthews-John Mayer-type stuff, Ryan explains. He sings the newer songs, and I sing harmony for him, and he chimes in harmonies on the songs I sing. He likes performing the new songs with me because I add 12-string to his 6-string, and it adds so much to these newer songs and makes them our own.
Ryan says that he occasionally gets a bemused eye-roll or two from his son whenever the elder Ryan pulls out a particularly vintage - aka corny - folk song, but for the most part, the two performers get along very well, both as musicians and as father and son.
Its such a treat to actually be doing what I love, and sharing it with Patrick, Ryan says, hes not just my son, but also a great guy, a great teacher, and a great musician.
NOGGIN TO SANTE
Speaking of teaching, patrons of the Noggin Room might have noticed Ryans absence lately. There are a couple of reasons for that. While the younger Ryan is teaching music, the elder Ryan is currently teaching language arts and history as a teaching assistant at the Orion School in Boyne Falls. And hes taken a break from the Noggin Room to pursue another new musical venture.
So where is Sean Ryan now?
At the new Café Sante in Boyne City.
Well, Ive been 20 years at the Noggin Room, and we both thought it was time to freshen things up a little, he explains, Ive known the guys at Magnum Hospitality (owners of Café Sante as well as the Red Mesa Grill) since 1974 or so - we all talked about the brand new venture theyd be opening in Boyne City, and we thought the music would be a great addition.
While his regular gig may have moved a couple of towns over - hell be playing Thursdays and Fridays at Café Sante - Ryan explains that he didnt cut ties with the Noggin Room entirely.
Ill be returning in the summer, after Memorial Day, he says, playing Wednesdays at the Noggin Room.
But while hell always have fond memories of his times at Staffords and all the folks hes met there, hes equally enthused about the possibilities that his new Café Sante gig will bring.
I love that its fresh, he says, the management, the staff, the menu at Cafe Sante are all just unbelievable. Its a brand new atmosphere with a brand new sound system - its nice to go in there and hear other people performing, too. Its wired so well, there are no dead spots inside or outside, so its easy to play and chat with people during our shows.
And there should be plenty of those folks to chat with. Ryan is now performing to a remarkable range of people, some of whom first saw him perform when they were still in grade school.
Were in the third generation of people coming to see us now, he says, people are bringing in their grandchildren, remembering when they used to watch me sing in the summers years ago.
So just how many more summers does Ryan think hell be performing on the Northern Michigan circuit?
Well, this is home, he smiles, and Ive always said Ill keep playing until they pry that guitar out of my hands. Theres always music to be made.