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Concert Review Peak skill in Peekskill

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

JOHN WHELAN BAND AND FRIENDS, Paramount Center for the Arts, Peekskill, N.Y. March 13.

Burned by the British in 1777, this Westchester city by the Hudson River had a different kind of fire blazing on a recent Saturday night. In a large, lavish old movie theater now used primarily as a concert venue, the John Whelan Band — supplemented by guests Jerry O’Sullivan on uilleann pipes and low whistle, John McGann on mandolin, and stepdancers Maureen Berry and Matty Olwell — performed with great expertise, engaging humor, and bursting-at-the-seams energy before an appreciative audience.

The two reels Whelan and company opened with, "January’s Journey/DD’s Car," were his own, and the combination of Whelan on button accordion, Jim Eagan on fiddle, Tom Wetmore on electric bass, Zan McLeod on acoustic guitar, O’Sullivan on pipes, and McGann on mandolin proved propulsive, catalyzing the two stepdancers to outdo themselves.

Another rousing Whelan tune, "Dancing to a Lot of Time," featured O’Sullivan on low whistle, and three jigs the seven-time All-Ireland box player wrote, "Brother John’s/Kinyon’s No. 1/Kinyon’s No. 2," were pumped out with precision and passion. The same was true of the traditional reels "Crooked Road to Dublin/Dinkey Dorian/Gan Ainm/Copperplate," where Baltimore’s Eagan shone on a solo.

Just 19 years old, this college freshman has replaced Liz Knowles in Whelan’s band. A former pupil of Brendan Mulvihill, Eagan is rapidly becoming a fiddler of national reputation, possessing strong bowing ability and sharply defined ornamentation. He is also a fine stepdancer, as he proved to the crowd’s delight alongside Berry and Olwell during a set of reels that included "Tam Lin."

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Former Touchstone guitarist McLeod turned in a bit of tongue-in-cheekiness on "The S–te That Killed Elvis," his guitar solo, a showcase of tight picking and sly note bending. O’Sullivan’s solo, a slow-air treatment of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" coupled with "Can You Dance ‘A Tobacco Hill’?" and "Stump-Tailed Dolly," further demonstrated why he’s one of the most accomplished uilleann pipers we have. And McGann’s brilliant mandolin solo similarly drew from America’s traditional music storehouse.

But the night belonged to Whelan, front and center. His "Riverboat Set" of polkas, "Alterio’s Waltz," the reels "Father Maroney’s/95 South/Granny Barnes," and especially "Louise," the beautiful tune he wrote for his wife, displayed an uncommon gift for composition and accordion playing together. Moreover, his adaptability and flexibility as a musician could be plainly seen when he had Mike Berry, Maureen’s father, come up from the audience to play Jew’s harp beside his accordion, the two giving a forceful rendition of the "Salley Gardens" reel.

For a pre-St. Patrick’s Day weekend concert, it was all anyone who loves Irish instrumental music could want — and then some.

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