On paper, the two Connecticut resident musicians seem an unlikely fit. Whelan is a seven-time All-Ireland champion weaned on the traditional music of London’s Irish immigrant community, while Brennan made his mark in Southern California’s countryish rock scene of Poco, ex-Byrds’ member Chris Hillman, and ex-Eagles’ members Bernie Leadon and Timothy B. Schmit.
This apparent apples-and-oranges partnership, however, was anything but. The duo’s performance was a tangy compote of skillful, instinctively spot-on playing, spiked by some welcome risk-taking and wit both verbal and musical.
They kicked off the concert with “The Killarney Boys of Pleasure/Jackie
Coleman’s/Bag of Spuds/Bird in the Bush,” all Irish traditional dance tunes. Whelan nimbly fingered the melodies on his box as Brennan laid down the rhythm on acoustic guitar, a collaboration that grew in tightness and effect with the following medley of Irish traditional jigs, including “Father O’Flynn.”
On a waltz he wrote, “Vals de Dolores,” John Brennan displayed a limber touch on guitar, picking out notes with precision and care that made this tune all the more moving. On “The Storm Warning,” a Robin Bullock composition that has a rhythm as roiling as its title implies, Brennan used a more percussive approach to match Whelan’s own propulsive playing. That same drive also infused the guitarist’s solo turn on another tune he wrote, “Down Side Up.”
Switching to bottleneck, Brennan gave an inkling of how his musical partnership with Whelan could develop even further. He provided a bluesy, down-in-the-delta guitar bridge between Whelan’s masterfully played slow air, “From the Heart,” and “Master Crowley’s” traditional reels.
Halfway through “From the Heart,” the bass hand strap on Whelan’s accordion suddenly snapped loose, but with barely a break he reached for another accordion at his feet and continued playing. What could have been an awkward moment of bad luck became instead a small triumph of pluck and resourcefulness, and at that point it was clear these two musicians could do no wrong.
Some verbal and instrumental humor crept into the jigs “Have a Drink on
Me/Widow Brady.” Whelan elicited a laugh by suggesting a causal relationship between the two tunes, and as he switched from a two-row box to a Cajun melodeon for the second jig, Brennan played a few bars of “Deck the Halls” that also tickled the audience.
The most intriguing, chance-taking medley of the evening was a slow, graceful rendition by Whelan of “The Water Is Wide” that shifted into a western swing tempo preceding a Kerry-style polka, “Maple Lane,” composed by Brennan. It all worked splendidly, a model of zest, not zigzag, as the two musicians negotiated the changes with great agility.
Whelan’s beautiful air “Louise” and his hard-charging reels “January’s
Journey/DD’s Car,” along with another Brennan original, “Square One,” complemented more familiar traditional fare (“The Bucks of Oranmore,” “Man of the House,” “Sporting Paddy”) in a performance that melted any thought of the recent heavy snowfall.
A newly established duo with long-established separate experience and talent, John Whelan and John Brennan showed an on-stage chemistry that should only become stronger in the future. Chalk up another memorable event for the sponsor, the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society, a growing force for quality concerts in Connecticut.
If you watch closely, you’ll see two familiar faces — and hear two familiar voices — in Martin Scorsese’s new movie, “Gangs of New York.”
Dublin-born Finbar Furey of the Furey Brothers has an on-camera singing role in the film, and Clare-born vocalist Maura O’Connell can be seen sauntering across a street while singing “The Unconstant Lover.”
Pity that Brendan Gleeson, who has a prominent supporting role in “Gangs of New York,” didn’t find a plot excuse to take out the fiddle. He’s a competent player and contributes to “The Jute Mill Song” on Karan Casey’s third solo album for Shanachie, “Distant Shore,” due out next month.
Another movie from 2002, the Sam Mendes-directed “Road to Perdition,” features scenes of Irish musicmaking and dancing mapped out by Chicago’s John Williams, winner of the All-Ireland senior concertina title in 1989. Williams is plainly visible toward the beginning of the movie, where he plays button accordion, and he contributes a couple of his own tunes to the film.
CHIEFTAINS AND CHARTS
Without question, the sudden death of harper Derek Bell was the low point for the Chieftains last year. But the band may gain some solace from finishing second (behind Baha Men) in Billboard magazine’s top world music artists chart for 2002.
Their “The Wide World Over” came in at No. 3 and “Down the Old Plank Road” at No. 8 in Billboard’s top world music albums chart. That latter recording also climbed to No. 21 in the top country albums chart and to No. 91 in the Billboard 200 pop chart. Both of these Chieftains’ releases in 2002 featured Bell, who should surface again musically on the second CD culled from the Nashville recording sessions for “Down the Old Plank Road.”
The next concert sponsored by the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society will feature uilleann piper Mattie Connolly, his daughter, Deirdre, former lead singer of Cherish the Ladies and a proficient tin whistle and flute player whose solo debut CD, “A Song in Turn,” brightened the year 2001, and guitarist D