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Music Review Musical fun at Symphony Space

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

JOHNNY CUNNINGHAM and SUSAN MCKEOWN, ALY BAIN and PHIL CUNNINGHAM. At Symphony Space, NYC. March 31.

Scots piano accordionist Phil Cunningham was testing out some jokes in anticipation for the next night’s "A Prairie Home Companion" special on humor at Manhattan’s Town Hall. "Did you hear about the highlander who loved his wife so much that he almost told her?" The other jokes, more elaborate and risqué, are better left out of a family newspaper.

Any evening of music featuring Phil and his fiddling brother, Johnny, who were the instrumental heart of famed Scots band Silly Wizard, invariably contains a high degree of hilarity. But leaving a crowd in hysterics is always balanced by leaving them in deeper appreciation of talent and tunemaking.

Opening this World Music Institute-sponsored concert were Boys of the Lough fiddler Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, who’ve collaborated on a pair of fine duet albums, 1994’s "The Pearl" and 1997’s "The Ruby," and they were in excellent form. J. Scott Skinner’s strathspey "The Laird of Drumblair" was crisp and taut in their hands, and the waltzes they performed had an effortless, engaging sway. Shetland and Scots mainland instrumentalists of Bain and Cunningham’s caliber are also masters of slow airs and laments, and the two put their stamp on Cunningham’s "Sarah’s Song" and "Gentle Light That Wakes Me."

Johnny Cunningham and Dublin-born singer Susan McKeown, along with Dublin guitarist Aidan Brennan, opened the second half of the concert, and, given the tunes-only first half, it seemed logical that their set would be almost entirely songs. "Moorlough Shore" and a pair of Cunningham originals, "Two Is the Beginning of the End" and the tango-flavored "Crocodile Tears," plucked from the Mabou Mines stage production of "Peter and Wendy," were skillfully sung by McKeown. Her rendition of "Blue Moon," a 1934 chestnut written by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, wasn’t. It’s just not the kind of song surprise she, Cunningham, and Brennan can pull off without slipping into Celtic lounge lizardry.

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The concert’s acme came when Phil and Johnny Cunningham performed together again as a duo. Despite the obvious lack of rehearsal and occasional drift in their playing, there were ample moments summoning the spirit of their involvement in Silly Wizard. Hearing Bobby MacLeod’s "Jean’s Reel" once more was a reminder of how exhilarating these two siblings were in that group. The Rovers, Silly Wizard diehards who met through an Internet chat room, were in front in force, cheering the two on with every familiar tune from that defunct band’s well-traveled repertoire.

A slice of sweet nostalgia was well served through the Cunningham jam, but there was something more there. Most Scots bands today have yet to decode the intricate musical DNA of Silly Wizard’s combined virtuosity and showmanship. Along with Ossian (when they were Tony Cuffe, John Martin, Iain MacDonald, and Billy and the late George Jackson), the Tannahill Weavers (when they had highland piper Alan MacLeod), the Battlefield Band (when they had Brian McNeill and either Duncan MacGillivray or Dougie Pincock), and Kentigern (with their glorious lead singer, Sylvia Barnes), Silly Wizard forged a legacy of traditional music revivalism in Scotland analogous to what Planxty and the Bothy Band did for traditional music in Ireland around the same period.

Unless some deep-pocketed promoter comes along with reunion in mind, it’s doubtful we’ll soon see — or hear — their like again.

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