From Slots to Celts

Cleveland fiddler Alana Musselman is a surprise hit in Vegas.

Taking Lives
Ri-Ra and Red Bull: Musselman occasionally swings - from chandeliers at her amped-up performances.
Ri-Ra and Red Bull: Musselman occasionally swings from chandeliers at her amped-up performances.
Not too long ago, world-class fiddler Alana Musselman was sitting on the floor of a converted cowshed at the Cleveland Irish Festival. She had just finished a demonstration with her band, Tap the Bow, and was lighting a cigarette when a reporter came up and asked to interview her. He was doing a story about the new faces of Irish music, and he thought Musselman would make an interesting profile. She was flattered. For an hour, she sat on the floor of the shed, talking amicably about life, love, and the Irish fiddle.

The next morning, she ran to get the paper, then almost gagged when she read the words. The entire first paragraph was a rumination on her jeans (ripped), her left nostril (pierced), and her cigarettes of choice (Camel Lights).

She hated the article; the reporter completely missed her passion for Irish music, and "Up until that point, my parents had no idea that I smoked," she says with a sigh. For the rest of the weekend, everyone referred to her as "the Camel girl."

But from cowsheds to big-city stages, Alana Musselman has never been a conventional sort of musician. Now the native Clevelander is playing traditional Irish music in a decidedly untraditional setting: Las Vegas. The 22-year-old is part of the trio Ri-Ra, one of the hottest gigs on the Vegas strip, which plays to sold-out audiences at the New York-New York Hotel and Casino. With its mix of Irish-rock fusion and traditional Irish ballads, Ri-Ra is beating out its more skin-tillating competition.

"It's just about the only thing that hasn't been done out here," Musselman says.

On a recent Tuesday, she waited backstage for the curtains to open, dressed in jeans and a plain-colored tank top. A stage outfit had been suggested by the costume department, but Musselman balked. "They offered up this pink sequined skirt," she says. "But it was more Dolly Parton than Britney Spears, so I decided not to wear it." Moments later, Ri-Ra bounded onto the stage, joined by an Irish dancer who tapped to the music from her perch atop a barstool. A male audience member was pulled onstage to join in, and the audience cheered with delight.

This is Ri-Ra on a tame night. Musselman herself has been known to dance on chairs, swing from chandeliers, and fiddle from atop the casino's version of the Brooklyn Bridge. So far, she hasn't broken anything.

Passion for music hasn't always come so naturally for Musselman. She started playing the viola at the Cleveland Institute of Music, but hated the monotony of her classes and the primness and propriety of classical music. She was ready to pack up her instrument when her mother brought home a brochure for Lakewood's Irish Music Academy. Young Alana instinctively took to it: She loved the beauty of the instruments, the informality of the performances, the creativity of it all. Soon, she was fiddling with the best of them. At 16, she competed against other young national fiddle champions in the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil Contest -- the Super Bowl of Irish music. She's won multiple Midwest Fleadh titles and landed a scholarship to play at Scoil Eigse in Ireland.

Back in Ohio, she and Tap the Bow made the requisite tour of the area's Irish pubs, but few venues yearned for young Irish fiddlers. Alana wanted to devote all her time to performing; even her bandmates couldn't keep up. So on a whim, Musselman moved to New York City in 2002, living in hostels and begging for jobs. "I gave myself one month to make it," she says. When that month passed with no results, "I decided to give myself another one."

And she frequented the right places. One day, while sitting at the famous Manhattan pub Paddy Reilly's, she struck up a conversation with one of the house-band members, guitar-mandolin player Darryl Conlon. She told him that she played the fiddle. He said, "Sure ya do." Then Musselman demonstrated exactly how she played the fiddle. Conlon was blown away. The two have been inseparable since. They performed at Paddy Reilly's for most of the next two years before a spokesperson for New York-New York approached Musselman with a Vegas offer.

"I laughed," she says. "Vegas, as you know, is not an Irish-music scene. Chicago is, New York is, to some degree Connecticut is, but definitely not Vegas."

She went for it anyway, recruiting Conlon and drummer Steve Holloway to come with her. The name Ri-Ra -- Gaelic for "chaos" -- seemed apt: What else, after all, would you call the decision to pack your bags, leave a steady gig in New York, and go to Las Vegas to live in a hotel room for three months, with no assurance of success?

But out of all the chaos came order -- and in Ri-Ra's case, rising success. The band plays four sets: first, a collection of rather tame renditions of popular Irish songs, then original music with a harder edge. (The show can be viewed via webcam at

A few weeks ago, a group of tourists approached Musselman in Vegas. They'd caught her show each of the previous six nights. "And here's the great part," she gushes: "The group was from Ireland! They kept saying, 'We can't believe we flew over 6,000 miles to go to Vegas and sit in an Irish bar and listen to Irish music.' They're like, 'What are we going to tell our friends?'"

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