It was clear that those songs tapped into the frustration and anger simmering in the audience from the past nine years of political paralysis, continual war, rampant greed, and spreading privation in America. The sharp-edged singing of Casey and Doyle gave voice to the frequently mute described in those songs, stripping away the cant of can’t. Other songs sung this night, such as the traditional “The King’s Shilling” and Doyle’s own composition “Farewell to All That” (about Irishmen fighting on the British side in WWI on the premise and promise of Home Rule), similarly refused to pander through pablum or platitude. In contrast to the Irish music presented far too often now during PBS-TV pledge drives, this concert refused to blow dry-ice smoke or Lethean mist into the audience’s eyes.
And still, Casey and Doyle’s performance was full of extraordinary tenderness.
“Exiles Return,” a Doyle song that is also the title of a new duet album by Casey and him, plaintively states that “though we bid farewell in sorrow / We may meet again in distant lands / And drink a health in joy for parting / For the exile will return again.” On harmony vocal and on guitar, Doyle expertly shaded Casey’s incandescent lead singing.
Casey’s vocal on “The Bay of Biscay,” a song learned by Doyle from the late Nora Cleary, was as poignant as Casey’s singing of Jean Ritchie’s “One, I Love” on her solo debut in 1997, “Songlines.” In fact, a similar line exists in both songs: “The rocks they will melt unto the sun” in “The Bay of Biscay” and “When the rocks melt with the sun” in “One, I Love.” The ache of love, whether thwarted by fate or discouraged by others, permeates both songs.
Casey’s unaccompanied rendition of “Out of the Window,” a precursor of “She Moved Through the Fair,” shimmered with emotion that was enhanced by a slight vibrato in her voice. She has reached a stage in her singing where she knows her own unique ability inside and out, and can explore its outer perimeter with complete confidence and conviction.
The call-and-response structure of “The False Lady,” a song ending in bloodshed over an ostensible misunderstanding between potential lovers, was deftly handled by Casey and Doyle, who infused it with sly spirit.
Learned by Casey from “The Hungry Years” album by the late Frank Harte, “Sailing Off to the Yankee Land” is an admonitory, tough-minded song about Famine-impelled leave-taking, which Casey and Doyle deliver with banked fervor. And the acid-humored double-entendres in “Madam I’m a Darlin'” were nimbly brought to life.
The witty exchanges and asides between Casey and Doyle on stage added to the impact of their musical symbiosis. Casey poked a little fun at Doyle when she called him the “Grammy Award nominee” and “Traditional Musician of the Year” (yes, it refers to Doyle’s Irish Echo accolade) among his long list of recent accomplishments, and Doyle poked a little fun at Casey after she sang one of her angry songs. “Maybe we should have a wrestling match up here,” he quipped, to which Casey laughingly responded, “Grrrrr.”
For an encore, Casey asked the audience if they had any requests, and the words were barely out of her mouth when someone from the rear of the theater shouted out, “The Newry Highwayman.” This song from the 1996 debut album by Solas reminded everyone present of just how special these two founding members were in that U.S.-based Irish traditional band. Casey was with Solas for their first three albums, while Doyle was on the first four.
The final song of the night was “Here’s a Health,” a song of parting and fellowship shared, appropriately enough, with Shannon and Matt Heaton, the husband-and-wife duo from Medford, Mass., who opened for Casey and Doyle. Shannon on vocal, flute, and low whistle and Matt on guitar and bouzouki gave a short, tasty set at the outset of the concert.
But the evening belonged to Karan Casey and John Doyle, whose guitar picking was nothing short of sensational on some traditional tunes. The rarest of musical matches, they were at ease with each other and egging each other on. Casey and Doyle’s performance was a blend of mutual assurance and constant challenge, alternating between delicacy and daring.
Their individual strengths are unsurpassed. Their combined strengths are downright frightening in both power and appeal.
The duo promise to tour again before the year ends. When they do, pounce.
Kudos to the Feb. 12 concert sponsor, the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society, which invariably brings the best in Irish traditional music to Connecticut.