The valiant steed is on its second engine and fourth transmission, but it keeps carrying Christy Martin and Aodh Og O Tuama around the country to play their proudly eccentric blend of Celtic, folk and world music.
Known on stage as Four Shillings Short, Martin and O Tuama met at a concert in Palo Alto in 1995 and knew after a week that they'd get married. They've been making music and living a vagabond life together ever since, and they still consider this region the closest thing they have to a home base.
The pair are now back "home" after two years of performing around the country, with upcoming gigs lined up at the Bus Barn Theatre and other Peninsula spots. Then in March, it's off to the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest and of course Ireland. Aodh Og (pronounced a-yog) O Tuama is a native of Cork; Irish is his first language, and his English is lilting.
What's it like to be almost constantly on the road? "It's like a fantasy life," Martin says. They photograph bison in Yellowstone and goats in Glendalough, explore backroads and castles. And they almost always stay with friends.
At the moment, the two are in a resplendent 1895 Palo Alto Victorian with antique radios and surprising staircases. The kitchen feels like a grand wood-paneled ship, with broad windows letting in a swath of sun. Behind the dining room, steps appear out of nowhere, spiraling into the basement.
Martin and O Tuama used to live in a small cottage on this large plot of Homer Avenue land — until the dot-com boom boosted their rent from $1,000 to $1,500 in one day. It seemed like a good time to hit the road. The couple's friends in the big Victorian offered to let them stay rent-free whenever they were in town, and the offer still holds today. In return, Martin and O Tuama make the meals. They say their Indian dishes make it a good deal.
They're also perpetually cooking up a salmagundi of global sounds, which means many ingredients. O Tuama estimates that they bring 25 instruments on stage at each gig.
On this warm afternoon, Martin and O Tuama bounce back and forth between the dining room and the bedroom they stay in, happily bringing out instrument after instrument to show to visitors. There are wooden whistles and tinwhistles, low-F and low-D whistles. Martin crouches low on the floor to play a hammered dulcimer, and in a box O Tuama finds a triangle he carried around for 25 years before playing.
Four Shillings Short's repertoire is often Indian-flavored — the musicians' 2003 CD is called "From Ragas to Riches." Martin holds up an elegant sitar, pointing out its 20 strings in two layers. She's been playing Indian music since she was 15 and once lived in an ashram.
In the liner notes of the pair's most recent release, the 2007 "Attitude and Gratitude," they say Celtic and Indian music have many similarities, including the drone heard in several instruments, and the "feeling and emotion expressed in well-developed melodies."
When Martin and O Tuama have time between concerts, they like to make gratis presentations at schools, supplementing weakened music programs by speaking and performing. Many of these children have never seen anyone play the wooden spoons.
Lately, Martin and O Tuama have introduced more spoken poetry into their concerts. One new song they play on bowed psaltery is based on the poem "A Slave's Lament" by Robert Burns, about the slaves being brought to America.
Four Shillings Short once mailed out postcards and booked gigs on pay phones. Now Martin and O Tuama have 30,000 people on their e-mail list.
"It's hard keeping up with technology," Martin says.
O Tuama chimes in, a trifle bemused: "All we want is to play music. And have a bicycle ride."
Four Shillings Short is playing a 7:30 p.m. show on Tuesday, Feb. 10, at the Bus Barn Theatre, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos. The cover is $10. Go to www.busbarn.org or call (650) 941-0551.
On Saturday, March 14, the band plays at a St. Patrick's dinner and concert held from 6 to 9 p.m. at St. Albert the Great Catholic Church, 1095 Channing Ave., Palo Alto. Reservations are requested; call (650) 321-6179.
For information on other upcoming gigs, go to www.fourshillingsshort.com or call (650) 274-1100.