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Parsons gets inside the song

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

NIAMH PARSONS, with GRAHAM DUNNE, Gaelic-American Club, 74 Beach Rd., Fairfield, Conn. May 9.

The finest Irish singers have a compelling technique in the full service of conveying the art and heart of a song. In short, they manage to inhabit the lyrics, taking them on like a second skin, and place vocal accents in just the right spots.

Dublin-born Niamh Parsons is such a singer. In the Carolan Room of this well-appointed, thriving Irish club, she got her sternest test when she dedicated “The Flower of Magherally O” to Gwen Sale, who did the artwork for her new album, “Heart’s Desire,” and died tragically the previous day in Chicago.

Parsons sang this County Down song with a lift and lilt, choosing to emphasize a sweeter, sunnier memory of both the woman in the lyrics and, by extension, Sale. It wasn’t easy, and Parsons needed to collect herself before launching into it, but she brought it off admirably.

A lean, laserlike focus typified almost every song Parsons sang. She transformed venerable warhorses like “My Lagan Love,” “The Water Is Wide,” “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and “The Rambling Irishman” (a song Galway’s Dolores Keane put an indelible stamp on 27 years ago with De Dannan) into fresh new material through sheer conviction and unforced empathy.

Parsons also invested more recently composed songs with the amber appeal of tradition. Briege Murphy’s song of deep-seated longing, “Clohinne Winds,” and two antiwar songs, Sarah Daniels’s “Bramblethorn” and Mark Knopfler’s “Done With Bonaparte,” were sung with brittle, world-weary insight.

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Most of the songs were ruminative or rueful, including her stunning, signature versions of “Tinkerman’s Daughter” and “Fear a Bhata,” but Parsons didn’t always wade in the deep end of the emotional song pool. Her upbeat, saucy delivery of “Two Sisters,” a comic traditional song of sibling rivalry, revealed an impish glee in the incremental treachery described in the lyrics. Niamh garnered a laugh when she acknowledged Anne Parsons-Dunne, her own sister, as a reference point for her interpretation.

Ennis-based guitar accompanist Graham Dunne stepped out for three solos: a pair of traditional jigs, including “The Humors of Ballyloughlin”; two jigs he wrote, “The Brown Bull of Cill na M=na/The Tipperary Temptress”; and the slow air melody to “Down by the Salley Gardens.” He displayed a sure-fingered command of the guitar, picking out notes crisply from racing clusters on the uptempo tunes and sustaining or bending notes to further evoke the haunting quality of the slow air.

Cheers to Breda O’Sullivan, the Gaelic-American Club member who organized this concert, and to Niamh Parsons, whose spare, radiant performance was all the more remarkable in light of her friend Gwen Sale’s sudden passing the day before.

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