I want Irish Echo readers to get the news first about this unprecedented, one-off performance so they can make reservations quickly. This is no time to procrastinate — the Towne Crier Cafe can seat a maximum of 140 people and will undoubtedly sell out in a heartbeat after the official publicity for this performance starts to spread next month.
New York City-born Billy Collins regularly draws standing-room-only crowds to his poetry readings. TCC owner Phil Ciganer and Cathie Ryan, who spoke to me by phone during her current Christmas tour with Teada, confirmed this special collaboration of voice and verse in what they’re calling a “poetry and harmony” concert.
It will be the first time ever that Billy Collins, a two-time U.S. Poet Laureate (2001 and 2003) and current New York State Poet Laureate (2004-2006), will be singing in public with Cathie Ryan, backed by her longtime tour partners, Sara Milonovich on fiddle and vocals and Greg Anderson on guitar an bouzouki.
Ryan and Collins, who also plays piano, are good friends from New York’s Westchester County, where they occasionally get together and informally sing a few Hank Williams’ and Everly Brothers’ songs, among others. You can expect their repertoire to feature some of those songs as well as Irish and original music, and Collins will be reciting his verse as an integral part of the performance.
Anyone who has heard him read his poems on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” or in the “Billy Collins Live” Random House audio CD recorded at his April appearance at Manhattan’s Symphony Space, where Bill Murray introduced him, knows how charismatic and prepossessing the poet is before a live audience.
Born in New York City, Irish American Billy Collins, now 64, attended Catholic parochial schools, received his bachelor’s degree from Holy Cross College, and earned a Ph.D. in romantic poetry from the University of California at Riverside. Collins is a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College/City University of New York in the Bronx, where he and I are members of the Advisory Board for the CUNY Institute for Irish-American Studies. He has also been a writer-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College and conducted summer poetry workshops at University College Galway in Ireland.
His verse has been honored with the inaugural Mark Twain Award for humor in poetry from the Poetry Foundation, the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, the Bess Hokin Prize, the Frederick Bock Prize, and the Levinson Prize. Collins’s published collections have consistently broken records for stateside poetry sales, now tabulated well into six figures. Fans of Billy Collins’s poetry include John Updike, Annie Proulx, and Richard Howard.
What has always impressed me about Billy Collins’s verse is the knowledge of and taste for diverse music reflected in it. We share a love of jazz — not the current FM confection of “smooth jazz” players but swing or bop lions like Eric Dolphy, Horace Silver, and balladeer Johnny Hartman. So when I read “Man Listening to Disc,” a poem in his 2001 collection “Sailing Alone Around the Room,” I recognized the 1954 album his verse was about because I have the 1987 CD remaster.
In his poem, Collins, listening to the CD through earphones as he walks along Manhattan’s 44th Street, cites by name Rollins, Monk, bassist Tommy Potter, and drummer Arthur Taylor, and writes this of their playing: “The music is loud yet so confidential / I cannot help feeling even more / like the center of the universe / than usual as I walk along to a rapid / little version of ‘The Way You Look Tonight.'”
That is a spot-on critique in verse of that track. The quartet’s tight yet free-blowing session does make you feel “like the center of the universe.”
Ten years ago, when I first read “Cheers,” a poem in his “The Art of Drowning” collection, I smiled in appreciation at this reference: “Jackie Wilson again, the man no act would follow, not James Brown, not the Temptations, one of whom explained it was because he left a hole in the stage.”
That, too, is a spot-on description. Wilson, who had a No. 1 R&B hit with “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” in 1966, was a Detroit-born vocalist nicknamed “Mr. Excitement” because of his highly charged singing and movements on stage.
In “Fool Me Good,” a poem in his brand-new Random House collection “The Trouble with Poetry,” Collins wrote this: “I am listening to a blues singer named Precious Bryant singing a song called ‘Fool Me Good.’ If you don’t love me, baby, she sings, would you please try to fool me good?”
That is a tantalizingly obscure reference to a gifted, Georgia-born, gospel blues vocalist of Baptist faith who was plucked from obscurity in 1969 when folklorist George Mitchell recorded her. Bryant once said, “I love the blues because it tells the truth.”
So does Billy Collins, whose poetry is often described as “accessible” but he prefers the adjective “hospitable.” Collins has come a long way since he first saw his verse in print in such publications as Oink and Flying Faucet.
If you’ve never been to the Towne Crier Cafe, you’re in for a treat — literally. Mary Ciganer, the owner’s wife, is a patissier of four-star skill who whips up desserts to die for. Besides, the long line of musicians who have performed at TCC, now in its 33rd year, speaks for itself: Wynton Marsalis, Bill Monroe, Richard Thompson, Alison Krauss, Doc Watson, Bela Fleck, Altan, De Dannan, and the Bothy Band, on the only U.S. tour this legendary Irish supergroup ever did, in 1976.
The concert by Billy Collins and the trio headed by Cathie Ryan, whose most recent solo CD, “The Farthest Wave,” is her best, will take place at 8 p.m. on Sun., March 5, at the Towne Crier Cafe, 130 Rt. 22, Pawling, southern Dutchess County, N.Y. For reservations, call 845-855-1300. Also visit www.townecrier.com. Don’t shilly-shally on this one.
If you’re wondering what to stuff into those Christmas stockings hung by the chimney with care, consider these three new albums from Ireland.
In 2002 Lasairfhiona Ni Chonaola, born in Galway City but raised in Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands, released her solo debut, “An Raicin Alainn.” It was the Irish Echo’s No. 2 trad album of 2003 and simply one of the most impressive recordings of Irish singing in many years. Her follow-up, “Flame of Wine,” which she produced in Spiddal with “Riverdance” original fiddler Maire Breatnach, is now available at www.flameofwine.com and www.aransinger.com.
Manchester-born Angelina Carberry is a refreshingly un-flashy tenor banjoist now living in Knocknacarra, Co. Galway, who played on two superb recordings over the past four years, “Memories From the Holla” in 2001 and “Angelina Carberry & Martin Quinn” in 2003. Her new solo CD, “An Traidisiun Beo,” features Quinn, Peter Carberry, John Blake, Laoise Kelly, and Martin Gavin. It’s available at www.reeltrad.com.
Recorded in Ballybofey, Co. Donegal, “Clan Ranald” is a new album from button accordionist Mairtin Tourish and bouzouki player Luke Ward. Mairtin is related to Altan fiddler Ciaran Tourish, who guests on one track, and has clearly been influenced in style by Altan box player Dermot Byrne. The CD is available from Ossian USA at www.ossianusa.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and 603-783-4383.
Van Morrison sure seems to be label-hopping in recent years. His last album, “Magic Time,” was on Geffen/Exile/Polydor, and prior labels or imprints include Blue Note (conventionally jazz) and Pointblank (customarily blues). Scheduled for release in March 2006, his new CD, “Pay the Devil,” was recorded in Ireland and is on Lost Highway, a country/alt-country label based in Nashville.
In some ways, the album is an extension of “You Win Again,” the 2000 CD he made with Linda Gail Lewis, brother of Jerry Lee Lewis, and “Crazy Love,” the riveting live track he did with the late Ray Charles for the latter’s multi-platinum “Genius Loves Company.” Ray Charles’s 1962 classic “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” is the obvious model for Morrison’s new release comprising mainly C&W songs, including Curly Williams’s “Half as Much,” which Charles covered on his album.