This past December at the International Tap House on Euclid, a crowd of holiday revelers gradually ceased their chatter as four men in jeans and collared shirts gathered on a corner stage and belted out Scottish drinking songs, Celtic ballads and a few classics just for good measure.
Named the Wee Heavies after a Scottish beer, the group of fathers, friends and music lovers managed by their wives, the Wee Hotties, just released their second album. Titled “Times Long Gone,” it was produced by renowned Scottish musician Brian McNeill, a founding member of Battlefield Band.
The Wee Heavies’ most loyal fan base may be the 50- or 60-strong choir of St. Margaret of Scotland Church, a Catholic parish in St. Louis’ Shaw neighborhood where all four Heavies sing. It was a June 2014 choir trip to Scotland that brought the voices together, and eventually the families of Steve Neale, Peter Merideth, Jay Harkey and Aaron Schiltz.
With the choir hosting coffeehouse nights in the church basement to raise money for the trip, pastoral associate and music director Peter Hesed had a hunch that Neale, Merideth, Harkey and Schiltz would work really well together.
“There are similarities and complementary differences in their voices, so I asked them to do several songs,” Hesed said, recalling a scene in “The Music Man” where four neighbors greet one another in wildly different pitch registers and Harold Hill, the great musical con man, introduces to them the concept of the quartet and the four are inseparable after that.
Indeed, the ties that bind the church quartet that became the Wee Heavies (not Pieces of Cod, as someone jokingly suggested) run deeper than the blending of voices. The Heavies, with the help of their Hotties, have struck a harmonious chord as four families that are juggling children, careers, a spiritual life and a deep, shared love of music.
Hesed, the parish’s own “music man,” was a key player in recruiting the talents of the four families.
Neale, who is a Saint Louis native in his 10th year as the music director at Villa Duchesne High School, took piano lessons from Hesed in middle school.
The Harkeys also found their way to St. Margaret of Scotland Church through Hesed, who heard Jen Harkey sing at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, where she and her husband were section leaders. Hesed hired the couple for a gig and then invited them to sing permanently at the parish when he learned they were looking for a more family-friendly environment to raise their two daughters. Jay Harkey is the music director at Ursuline Academy high school, and his wife runs a private voice and piano studio called The Green Room.
Schiltz, who studied opera in college and was known around St. Louis as a highly qualified tenor, was asked by Hesed to sing Christmas Eve service with his wife Emily Schiltz in the fall of 2007. The couple and their two children soon made St. Margaret of Scotland Church their parish.
Merideth, an attorney who recently finished his first few weeks as a state representative in Jefferson City, grew up in the choir.
Following the church basement fundraisers, Schiltz urged the guys to throw together a “little Scottish set” for the International Institute’s annual Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park. Harkey and Neale arranged some things and the four singers recorded themselves on their phones. Although the wives worried whether the guys could fill their 20-minute slot, the group drew a huge crowd in the sweltering August heat.
Gradually taking on gigs as The Heavies in St. Louis and in Scotland, people started asking for a CD, which gave birth to their first self-titled album, “Times Long Gone.”
The Heavies then headlined their first show at The Focal Point in Maplewood in December 2015. Meanwhile, they settled into complementary roles – Schiltz as business manager, Harkey finding new Celtic music and trading arranging duties with Neale, Neale handling technical matters and graphics, and Merideth consulting on legal matters.
The Hotties signed on as official roadies, hauling merchandise to concerts, reorganizing their basements to store everything from T-shirts and CDs to koozies, and most importantly, greeting the group’s fans at performances.
Rowdy Souls Record An Album
The chance to record a professionally produced album under the direction of Scottish musician McNeill was something this busy group of creatives wanted to check off their bucket list.
The expense required some soul searching and some heavy lifting on the part of the Hotties, but as Emily Schiltz recalls: “Aaron long ago chose not to pursue voice professionally, but I told him, ‘When you’re 90, you’re never going to regret a professional album.’ So Jen and Aaron did what they do – business and research – and decided that crowdsourcing the album via Indiegogo was the best option.”
Harkey and Neale arranged most of the music, and Neale drew the cover art – an image of four coal miners covered in coal dust, drinking beer.
Most of the music on their “Times Long Gone” album comes from the British Isles, but it has a way of expressing the grit, sorrow and raw nerve that lives in American culture at this particular moment.
Neale, who has a background in contemporary, jazz a cappella music and film scoring, said he is drawn to a variety of music and cultures, but has always loved Scottish and Irish music.
“I can’t really explain why, but it hits me in a really deep spot,” he said.
Designing the CD cover, Neale found himself poring over images of some of the reoccurring motifs: coal miners, war and fighting, and … whales.
“We always sing about whaling, and all our graphic design is related to alcohol,” Neale said, chuckling.
All joking aside, it takes a group of “rowdy souls” to breathe life into an ancient, but soulful musical tradition, building meaningful relationships in tandem to four-part harmonies.
The Wee Heavies will perform on March 4, 11 a.m., at The Sheldon, and on June 28 at the World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End. For more information, tickets to performances or to listen to some of their music, visit theweeheavies.com.