Category: Archive

Five acts featured in one night

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

In New York City last month was the 52nd annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) Conference, where the people who book those subscription series come to scout a wide variety of talent on display in one general location. In past years I’ve attended a few APAP showcases of Irish traditional acts in Manhattan pubs, and I was not always impressed with the results. I felt a little uneasy at seeing gifted, established bands playing for their supper, in a sense, and was dismayed by the cavalier attitude of a few APAP attendees who preferred to check out their Blackberry messages instead of the musicians performing ten feet in front of them.
That’s why I was relieved and reassured by what I saw and heard at a five-act showcase sponsored by Culture Ireland, an Irish government entity promoting Irish arts worldwide, on Jan. 12 inside the cozy Donaghy Theatre at Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center. Distractions of pub chat, glass clinks, and cell-phone jingles and glows were gone. The audience was intent on being attentive, and the five Irish traditional acts on stage responded with performances ranging from good to outstanding.
Part of the APAP Conference, this “Best of Irish: Culture Ireland’s Showcase of the New Wave of Traditional Irish Music” opened with Guidewires, an all-instrumental quintet comprising three musicians from Clare — Padraig Rynne on concertina, Tola Custy on fiddle, and Karol Lynch on bouzouki — as well as Antrim’s Paul McSherry on guitar and Brittany’s Sylvain Barou on flute and electric keyboard. All five are highly skilled, and delivered crisp music commensurate with their abilities. But their sound conveyed echoes of Lunasa, so calling Guidewires “the freshest sound in Irish music” seems premature at this point.
The hype spilled over into the introduction of the next act, singer Mary McPartlan, who was described as the “Bessie Smith of Irish folk music.” This allusion to Smith (1894-1937), one of America’s greatest and most influential blues singers, is nonsense. Anyone who ever heard Smith sing “Empty Bed Blues” or “Gulf Coast Blues” would know this, so why saddle McPartlan with a silly, onerous comparison?
Nevertheless, Leitrim-born, Galway resident Mary McPartlan sang Shane MacGowan’s “Rainy Night in Soho” and the traditional “Barbara Allen,” and “Slieve Gallion Braes” with conviction. The musicians ably backing her included Mary Staunton on button accordion and harmony, Aidan Brennan on guitar, and Brendan Dolan on keyboards and (surprise) harmony vocals.
Next up was Fidil, now expanded from the duo of Gaoth Dobhair fiddler Ciaran O Maonaigh and Dunkineely fiddler Aidan O’Donnell to include a third Donegal fiddler, Ardara’s Damien McGeehan. With no accompaniment by design, this young trio relied on well-placed, expertly executed counterpoint, pizzicato, drones, seesaw bowing, and other touches to vary and deepen their all-fiddle sound, and the overall effect was a maturity and invention beyond their years. Jigs, Germans (Donegal barndances), and reels came off with virtuosic aplomb and subtle wit. Fidil was one of two acts shining above the others this night.
That other evening highlight was “The Frost Is All Over,” an integrated music, spoken word, and archival film/photo stage presentation that was a captivating, living tribute to the living tradition of Irish music. It featured Clare-born button accordionist Tony MacMahon, Waterford uilleann pipes, whistle, and fiddle player David Power, and actor Eamonn Hunt, who recited Dublin author Dermot Bolger’s commissioned words. A film glimpse of a young Seamus Connolly playing fiddle in a post-competition session of the Kilfenora and Tulla ceili bands was an unexpected pleasure amid many others shown on screen. Power’s live playing was expert, and Hunt’s trained-thespian recitations of Bolger’s writing were also an asset.
But nothing compared this entire night to the live playing of Miltown Malbay native Tony MacMahon. His brilliantly soulful performance was utterly transfixing and served as a powerful reminder that he remains one of the greatest button accordionists in the history of Irish traditional music. His outspokenness in defense of preserving what he perceives as the core values of that musical tradition, particularly in the debate sparked by the 1995 RTE/BBC Northern Ireland series “A River of Sound,” had estranged some in the past, but that is no reason to marginalize either MacMahon or his music today. MacMahon and his magnificent box playing cry anew for an attention they have earned many times over. If I were an APAP member, I’d hire him in a heartbeat, and I hope some of the Irish traditional music summer schools in the U.S. will do likewise.
The fifth and final act of the evening was Slide, a band founded in 2000 and propelled by the fiddling of former Danu member Daire Bracken. His hyperkinetic moves on stage made Eileen Ivers’s famous hopping around in “Riverdance” look downright docile. Bracken is an excellent fiddler even when he stands still, and other Slide members, notably concertinist Aogan Lynch, complemented his ferocity with proficiency.
Kudos to Culture Ireland’s Chief Executive Eugene Downes, to Paul Flynn, head of traditional arts for Ireland’s Arts Council, and to Aidan Connolly, executive director of the Irish Arts Center, for helping to make this well-run showcase happen.

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