Whatever the impetus for covering this pop-rock song, I am grateful the group passed on Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” from 1979.
No admirer of Stewart’s “Rhythm of My Heart,” I am an admirer of Girsa’s rendition on their very impressive, self-titled debut album. Inventively framed by the jig “Calliope House,” composed by Dave Richardson of the Boys of the Lough (the title refers to piper George Balderose’s home in Pittsburgh), the song is sung by Emily McShane
with clear-stream conviction, accompanied expertly by Margaret Dudasik on fiddle, Blaithin Loughran and Pamela Geraghty on accordions, Deirdre Brennan on mandolin, Maeve Flanagan on whistle, and Emily herself on bodhran, with album producer Gabriel Donohue adding guitar. Girsa turns an FM-lite song into a ballad of much greater weight through the weight of their combined musicality, which is formidable, and the sprightly coda of Richardson’s jig adds only more depth. These gifted musicians in Girsa are also alchemists.
Half of the 16-track album is songs, and even some mild overfamiliarity in choices (e.g., “I Live Not Where I Love,” made popular by Mary Black, and Guy Clark’s “Immigrant Eyes”) cannot dampen the appeal of Girsa’s own versions. Brennan and Dudasik share vocals on those songs, with Geraghty and Emily McShane joining them on “Immigrant Eyes.” It is rare for any Irish traditional band to have two good singers. Girsa has four, giving them a vocal versatility that strengthens both lead melodic and harmonic lines.
The remaining album songs are John Joe Reidy’s “This Story I Tell You Is True,” sung by Geraghty; “Mary and the Soldier,” sung by Dudasik; “I Courted a Wee Girl,” sung by Brennan; “Fare Thee Well Lovely Mary,” sung by Geraghty; and “The Home I Left Behind,” sung by Emily McShane and featuring guests Lindsay and Sarah Buteux on concertina and fiddle, respectively. Those last four songs are traditional, and all five are performed with passion and precision.
A gauge of just how well Girsa distances itself from prior classic renditions of songs can be taken of “Mary and the Soldier,” made famous by Paul Brady on the album he recorded with Andy Irvine 33 years ago. Girsa’s blend of vocal, fiddle, accordion, and piano, plus Donohue’s bouzouki and guitar, provides its own distinctive flair independent of the version on “Andy Irvine/Paul Brady” in 1976.
Tunes performed by Girsa bear the stamp of their exacting but nurturing teachers, who include Rose Flanagan, Patty Furlong, Margie Mulvihill, Annmarie Acosta, Eileen Goodman, Mary Coogan, and Frankie McCormick. All have set a high standard for Girsa, founded four years ago, and the young girls (denoted by the Irish word “Girsa”) who are now young women have learned their lessons well.
Among the standout instrumental tracks are “The Box Set,” led by Loughran and Geraghty on accordion; “The Swedish Jig,” delicately bookended by Maeve Flanagan on fiddle and Emily McShane on piano and fiercely filled by those two with Loughran and Geraghty on accordions, Brennan on mandolin, and Bernadette Flanagan and Emily McShane on bodhran; “Paddy Ryan’s Dream / Blue Britches / Gan Ainm,” reels that open with Loughran’s blistering box playing and tuck in an interlude of drum-circle percussion with some hard-shoe stepdancing by Dudasik and Bernadette Flanagan; and Maeve Flanagan’s radiant fiddle solo on “The Lads of Laois / The First Month of Summer.”
That last pairing of reels was recorded by Joe Burke, Andy McGann, and Felix Dolan on their “A Tribute to Michael Coleman” album in 1966 and was also recorded by Maeve’s mother, fiddler Rose (nee Conway) Flanagan, with guitarist Mick Moloney on the 1985 Shanachie album “Cherish the Ladies.”
The fiddling of Girsa’s Kristen McShane bolsters three instrumental medleys: “St. Patrick’s Night / The Ashplant,” “Eleanor Plunkett / Polkas” with its well-executed tempo changes (even in the polkas), and “Ian’s Return to Ireland / Cul Aodha,” a John Whelan composition (not “trad” as indicated on the CD) followed by a trad tune.
The slow air “Bruach Na Carraige Bann,” played as a whistle solo by Maeve Flanagan, is paired with the reel “The Longford Tinker,” again played by Flanagan on whistle but with Emily McShane on bodhran and Donohue on guitar. It is another exemplary track.
Girsa has the ability, poise, taste, diversity, imagination, fire, and finesse to go as far as their commitment to staying together can take them. This sparkling, self-issued debut CD is proof. Their parents and instructors have given them something precious: not only
an enthusiasm but also a real passion for Irish music. You can hear it in the band’s singing and playing, and that same passion should help steer the octet through a tough economy for virtually all Irish and Irish-American trad ensembles now. Girsa deserves the chance to thrive.
You can catch them on stage from 5 to 8 p.m. on the Sundays of May 10 and 31 at Christy’s, 87 N. Middletown Rd., Pearl River, N.Y. (845-735-6588).
To purchase Girsa’s album or find out where else they will be performing, visit www.girsamusic.com. You can also contact Pat Geraghty about the band at 845-304-8152 or firstname.lastname@example.org.