Music for St. Patrick's Day
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 14, 2002) – Interest in Irish music may have past the peak it experienced in the mid-1990s, but there’s still plenty of vital traditional and contemporary Irish music being made. Here’s just a sampling of some new recordings and re-releases of Irish classics.

Castles of Gold” (Green Linnet) is a two-CD set mixing stories and songs of Irish immigration to America. Narrated by “Angela’s Ashes” author Frank McCourt and TV star Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”) and featuring vocalist Pan Morigan, the stories were written by playwright Katerie Morin, whose family emigrated from County Mayo to Holyoke in the early 1900s. Morin draws from the recollections of her grandparents, aunts and uncles to recreate their experiences of leaving Ireland for America.

Backing up Morigan is an all-star cast of Irish and other musicians, including Cherish the Ladies’s Joannie Madden, fiddler Liz Carroll, uilleann piper Jerry O’Sullivan, accordionist John Whelan and mandolinist Larry Campbell of Bob Dylan’s band. One CD integrates stories and songs, while the other can be listened to straight through as a music-only CD.

Locally, Club Helsinki marks St. Patrick’s Day on Sunday with a similar blend of story and song, featuring Pittsfield storyteller Kevin O’Hara and traditional Irish ensemble All Hands Around, whose instrumentation include whistles, bodhran, concertina, dulcimer, guitar, fiddle, mandolin and bouzouki.

O’Hara – sort of the Berkshires’ answer to Frank McCourt -- will tell stories about growing up in Pittsfield in a poor, large family of Irish immigrants, and also relate tales of his eight-month, 1,700-mile “donkey pilgrimage” around the coast of Ireland, accompanied by his donkey, Missie. A psychiatric nurse by day, O’Hara recently performed his one-man show, “Stories from the Footbridge,” at the Main Street Stage in North Adams. For the past two decades his annual St. Patrick’s Day story has appeared on the op-ed page of the Eagle. O’Hara’s stories, suitable for the whole family, will start at 6; All Hands Around will perform at 8. Call 528-3394 for reservations.

It takes a particularly astute, compassionate vocalist to make the death-soaked tragedies that haunt so many traditional Irish ballads sound as inviting as Niamh Parsons does on In My Prime (Green Linnet). The young vocalist is accompanied on spare, acoustic arrangements by guitarist Graham Dunne, accordionist Josephine Marsh, fiddler Siobhan Peoples and mouth harpist Mick Kinsella, on a dozen traditional songs and a few contemporary ones in the traditional style. Particularly haunting is the title track, an a capella number in which Parsons is accompanied by her sister, Anne, on harmony and on which Parsons supplies an underlying vocal drone that is simply unearthly.

Formed 15 years ago as a touring supergroup of traditional Irish instrumentalists, Patrick Street has earned the right to its own greatest hits album, Compendium: The Best of Patrick Street (Green Linnet). In its early days, the group was at its most adventurous, as evidenced by a Telecaster guitar line snaking through a medley of traditional reels from the late-1980s. But with fiddler Kevin Burke, vocalist/mandolinist Andy Irvine, and accordionist Jackie Daly mainstays of the group, virtuosity has never been in question.

The Dublin-based quintet Providence plays traditional Irish songs and dance tunes in deliberately old-fashioned style on A Fig for a Kiss (Appleseed). Where some new groups speed up tempos and add elements from outside the Irish tradition, Providence favors a neo-traditional approach on this collection of instrumental and vocal numbers.

At the risk of insulting those who love the sound of the button accordion, what makes Johnny B. Connolly’s playing on Bridgetown (Green Linnet) so compelling is that you’re hardly aware that he’s playing the accordion. Not that Connolly tampers with the sound of the instrument through electronic or other means; simply that he has found a way to sing through his instrument in a plaintive, evocative manner. Connolly is joined on the mixture of mostly traditional jigs, reels, airs and hornpipes, as well as some French tunes, by an all-star cast of Irish musicians including fiddlers Kevin Burke and Skip Parente, guitarist Aidan Brennan and bouzouki player Jim Chapman. But this is Connolly’s effort throughout.

Tradition and modernity meet on Susan McKeown’s Lowlands (Green Linnet), on which the vocalist gingerly mixes contemporary atmospherics courtesy of electric guitars and occasional synthesized sounds with traditional flutes and percussion instruments on a selection of traditional songs. Always an affecting vocalist, McKeown and her ensemble effortlessly leaven the mix with subtle Chinese, Indian, flamenco and Balkan touches.

While most of the melodies are traditionally-based, the musicians in the acoustic ensemble Lunasa are constantly working with the groove to find new rhythms and textures on the fiddle-, flute- and pipe-driven songs on The Merry Sisters of Fate (Green Linnet). Innovative use of acoustic guitar and string bass, however, push the quintet into jam-band territory.

The new quintet Cuig is in the vein of Lunasa. Though from Northumbria in northeastern England, the group plays a mix of Irish dance tunes and Scottish work songs on Prospect (Green Linnet). The versatile instrumentation includes cittern, dobro, electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, all played by leader Martin Matthews. The rest of the group fills in on fiddle, accordion, whistles, bass, percussion, keyboards, flutes and whistles. Cuig is at its most experimental with an Irish-Afropop fusion on the reel “Hunters House,” recalling the township jive/pop fusion of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” Add some Balkan influences on “The Peacock” and some Bill Monroe-penned bluegrass on a medley called “American Spire” and you’ve got traditional Irish music pushing the envelope.

Maggie Drennon’s eponymous album on Loose Goose will appeal to those who prefer a lot more oomph behind their traditional melodies. This is Irish music as power trio, with Drennon backed by bandmates Anders Johansson on electric guitar and Jared Pollack on drums on a collection of traditionals like “North Country Fair” and “Suil a Ruin” as well as some original and contemporary tunes. A few tunes feature Drennon, who has performed with Ceili’s Muse and SixMileBridge, on violin. The group’s version of “Wild Mountain Thyme” is the missing link between U2 and traditional Irish music. Maggie Drennon performs at the Parting Glass in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on March 23.

To list all the special guests who join the six “Ladies” of Cherish the Ladies on The Girls Won’t Leave the Boys Alone (Windham Hill), their latest effort of traditional songs and instrumentals, would take up all the space in this column, but they include stars of Irish and American folk like Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, the Clancy Brothers, Tom Chapin, Luka Bloom, John McCutcheon, Eric Weissberg and others. But the men don’t overwhelm Cherish the Ladies; if anything, they just provide enough contrast to highlight the virtuosic vocal and instrumental qualities that this leading female group of musicians brings to this highly accessible, baker’s dozen collection of Irish ballads and dance tunes.

The Detroit-born American daughter of Irish immigrants, Cathie Ryan
was brought up steeped in Irish music and culture. A former member of Cherish the Ladies, Ryan keeps one foot in traditional Anglo/Irish music and another tiptoeing into contemporary singer-songwriter music on Somewhere Along the Road (Shanachie), featuring original songs like “Rathlin Island (1847)” and “In My Tribe,” which compares Irish and Native American experiences, and covers by other contemporary Irish songwriters like Luka Bloom and Alan A. Bell. Ryan is a delicate vocalist and the mostly traditional ensemble arrangements serve her well on her third solo album.

Eric Schwartz

On That’s How It’s Gonna Be (Claritone), Boston-based singer-songwriter Eric Schwartz displays his talent as a versatile song stylist. The album kicks off with a swing novelty about elderly lesbians, and includes a twist about a cockroach called “I Just Killed Kafka” and “Psycho Ballet,” a waltz about Greenwich Village.

Schwartz has written a score for a musical adaptation of “Beowulf, performed at showcases at Falcon Ridge and Kerrville folk festivals, and placed songs on the syndicated “Dr. Demento” radio program. Schwartz is at the Railway Café at St. John’s Episcopal Church in North Adams on Saturday at 8 p.m. Call 664-6393 for reservations.

Shafaatullah Khan

Ever since the Beatles helped popularize Ravi Shankar, the distinctive sound of the Indian sitar improvising a raga over the steady pulse of the tabla has been a familiar one to Western audiences. When Shafaatullah Khan performs, however, he has the unique distinction of providing both the raga and the rhythms – he plays sitar and tabla simultaneously. A virtuoso of Indian classical music who can trace his lineage back to the great 16th century Mughal Emperor Aqkbar, Khan performs on Saturday at the Spencertown (N.Y.) Academy at 8. Call 518-392-3693 for reservations.

The defunct Rave Review concert series at Searles Castle in Great Barrington is being resurrected in new, stripped-down guise and with a new name. The “Robert Kelly Music Series” makes its debut tomorrow night at 8 with an encore performance by clarinetist Evan Christopher, who will be accompanied by pianist and artistic director Kelly in a tribute to seminal New Orleans jazz pioneer Sidney Bechet.

On Nightbird (Firenze), singer-songwriter Markus James of San Francisco takes the blues all the way back to its roots in West Africa, literally by going to Mali, where he recorded the collection of raw, haunting blues with an ensemble of Malian musicians including Hamma Sankare, the longtime calabash player in Ali Farka Toure’s band. The result is shot through with the texture of the njarka, the one-string violin, the talking drum, and the spirits of John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Ravi Shankar. James will be accompanied by Malian instrumentalist Sidibe when he performs next Thursday, March 21, at Club Helsinki.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 15, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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