By Earle Hitchner
FRANCES, SHAY, MICH’L, and MARTIN BLACK, JENNIFER and HAZEL WRIGLEY, at the Bottom Line, NYC, Aug. 16, 7:30 p.m. show.
It was a family affair as two sets of talented siblings demonstrated the musical advantages of strong blood ties during the early show at the Bottom Line.
Opening were the Wrigley twins from the Orkney Islands: Jennifer on fiddle, Hazel on guitar and piano. Possessed of an appealing stage manner and good sense of humor, the duo played strathspeys and polkas (from Orkney, proving Sliabh Luachra hasn’t completely cornered this type of dance tune) with brio and a slow air, "Mrs. Violet Hutson," with brooding beauty. The Wrigley sisters finished their short set with a medley of reels, "John MacNeil’s/Miss Shepherd’s/The Mason’s Apron," that gave free rein to their considerable ability on fiddle and guitar.
With the exception of the Keanes of Caherlistrane, Co. Galway, no other family in Ireland can boast of the vocal strength and skill of the Blacks of Dublin. Though famed sister Mary wasn’t with them this evening, Frances, Shay, Michael, and Martin performed with a throw-your-head-back joy that comes from glorious, soaring harmonies.
When Shay sings lead, Martin often sings bass, and vice versa, providing a sturdy, bottom-ended balance to the meticulously layered vocal mix. Shay’s robust voice led "Peat Bog Soldiers" and "Molly Na gCuach Ní Chuilleanaín," Michael applied his vibrato-edged tenor to the lead vocal on "The Broom of the Cowdenknowes" and "Wheel the Perambulator," Frances’s tremulous vocal style distinguished "Colcannon" and "All the Lies That You Told Me," a No. 1 hit for her in Ireland a few years back, and Martin’s darker, huskier voice expertly conveyed the lyrics of "The Auld Triangle" and Bob Franke’s "The Great Storm Is Over," where all four siblings sang with the fervor of a gospel choir.
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As instrumentalists, the Blacks are by no means virtuosos, and they don’t pretend to be. Shay on guitar and mandolin, Michael on guitar and banjo, Martin on guitar and fiddle, and Frances on bodhrán play well enough to carry the rhythm of the songs and the occasional tunes (e.g., the instrumental break of "Miss McLeod’s" reel within their arrangement of "What a Time").
As vocalists, however, the Blacks are simply extraordinary. When they sang the early show’s last song, "Sweet Liberty," penned a century ago by Portadown’s John Shields, it fittingly capped the bracing, liberating spirit of their entire performance, one of the finest I’ve seen this year. Few musical pleasures in life can equal four Irish voices such as these meshing tightly in song, a perfect match between sum and parts.