Madden, Conway, McComiskey, and Dolan did not disappoint. Fresh off their debut album’s No. 1 ranking in the Irish Echo’s list of the top ten traditional recordings in 2009, the quartet mixed bonhomie and humor into a performance of riveting music before an estimated 300 people squeezed into the hall.
PONY started the concert with the first two medleys on their album: “Redican’s / The Gatehouse Maid / The Road to Garrison” reels and “Taylor’s / Chief O’Neill’s Favorite / The First Light of Day” hornpipes. Their playing moved at an exemplary pace, full of passion and heart. It was a vibrant, fresh take on a sound echoing the influences of many esteemed elders of New York’s trad scene.
It’s also a sound that sometimes strikes trad critics in Ireland as a hybrid compromise. What they don’t get is that the trad scene in New York is not a mirror reflection of the trad scene in Ireland. Transplanting any indigenous music in foreign soil alters the flavor in the same way that growing chardonnay grapes in Maconnais and Napa Valley will not produce identically tasting wine. The challenge is understanding and appreciating that difference rather than spuriously citing it as evidence of lesser authenticity.
Proud to be from Irish America and especially New York, Madden, Conway, McComiskey, and Dolan play trad music with infectious swing. Nowhere was that more obvious than in “Sean McGlynn’s Waltz,” named for the Tynagh, Galway, button accordionist (1937-83) who was McComiskey’s mentor and close friend. There was a limber, lighthearted, irresistible glide to PONY’s execution of this waltz, conjuring images of petticoats swaying and oxfords shuffling across bygone ballroom dance floors.
These four musicians know each other and each other’s style so well that confidence and comfort became almost palpable in their playing of the jigs “Happy Days / The Boys of Lough Gowna / The Knights of Saint Patrick,” the marches “The Old Cross / The Clans,” reels such as “Considine’s Grove / Trip to Durrow / Martin Wynne’s / Bere Island” and “Maud Millar / The Morning Mist / Lady Gordon,” and the slip jigs “Redican’s Mother / The Bridal / The Humors of Whiskey.” That last medley was preceded by Madden’s expert whistle playing on “Carolan’s Draught.”
Moreover, Madden’s solo whistle rendition of the air “Slan Le Maigh” was simply beautiful, Conway’s fiddle solo on “The High Level” hornpipe was stunning in its dexterity, and McComiskey offered a button accordion tribute to Joanie’s late father Joe that featured the tune “Christmas Eve” and deftly re-created some of Joe Madden’s distinctive accents.
Not enough is usually said about Brendan Dolan’s nimble piano work. It is solidly and reliably rhythmic, but it also reaches with assurance into concise, contrapuntal improvisation setting melody into further relief. Even in an unfamiliar tune, such as Madden’s original “Wave and Spade” that she played on whistle, Dolan quickly intuited the melodic structure in order to accompany it ably. He has an uncannily acute and reactive ear for the slightest shifts in dynamics, tempo, and what might be called group temperament, and consequently melody players are emboldened to be more venturesome because of his skill. No other pianist in Irish America sounds like Brendan Dolan, adhering to his father Felix’s commitment to complement, not capsize, while splicing in his own moment-to-moment flashes of inspiration. The piquancy of the PONY sound in no small way comes from him.
The last medley of reels by the quartet this night was “King of the Clans / Dan Breen’s / The Steeplechase,” another high achievement from their album. Then the chairs were stacked and set aside so that audience members who were champing at the bit to dance could do so. Button accordionist John Whelan and fiddler Rose Flanagan came up on stage to join the night’s music for set dancing.
Situated at the end of Venice Place, a street in a residential area of East Haven, Conn., the Irish-American Community Center is an impressive facility for Irish activities. It reflects the cultural pride and dedication of Irish Americans in the region–comparable to the cultural pride and dedication reflected in the superlative Irish-American quartet PONY.
Up the Banner? Up the Kingdom? Not this night.
Up the Bronx and Brooklyn!