By Earle Hitchner
CATHIE RYAN BAND. At the Towne Crier Cafe, 130 Rte. 22, Pawling, N.Y. Dec. 2.
New York resident singer Cathie Ryan led a three-piece band (Greg Anderson on guitar and bouzouki, Brendan Dolan on keyboards and flute, Hanneke Cassel on fiddle) in a generous concert of Irish traditional, original, and Christmas music.
Raised in an Irish household in Detroit, Ryan often referred back to her days as a girl in the Midwest. Songs she composed, such as "The Back Door," "I’m Going Back," and "Grandma’s Song," sought to capture the wistfulness or ambivalence felt by Irish immigrants and their American-born children.
At times, these songs teetered on the precipice of sentimentality, a danger for any Irish-American vocalist grappling with loyalty and a sense of belonging to two countries. But the sincerity inspiring the songs shone through in much of Ryan’s singing, clear, strong, and resilient.
"White Dress," a Dave Swarbrick-Ralph McTell song celebrating a commitment between lovers, was memorably sung by the late Sandy Denny with Fairport Convention in 1975. The lyrics convey the import of nuptial vows ("While life is in us, let’s love all we can / I’ll be your woman if you’ll be my man"), which may explain why this once-neglected Denny classic has become a wedding staple in recent years.
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In introducing the song, Ryan mentioned that a couple who were on a blind date at her previous Towne Crier Cafe concert had since become engaged, taking "White Dress" evidently to heart. With the pair sitting in the audience this night, the former lead vocalist of Cherish the Ladies invested the song with just the right mix of emotional and expectant physical bliss that follows a brief shiver of reality ("December despair").
The introduction Ryan gave to "Eveline," a song she wrote after reading the short story of the same title in James Joyce’s "The Dubliners," showed a refreshingly spiky side of her stage demeanor. After poignantly summarizing Joyce’s narrative of a lonely young Irish woman who seemingly passes up her one chance at true love out of devotion to a dysfunctional family, Ryan cracked, "That really pissed me off." Her lyrics conveyed resolve and hard-won hope rather than Joycean resignation, and she delivered the words with force.
It’s a challenge for any singer today to match the beauty of "Gol na dTrí Muire" ("The Weeping of the Three Marys") sung by Nóirín Ní Riain and the monks of Glenstal Abbey two decades ago, and Ryan wisely avoided any hint of imitation. She put her own stamp on this Irish religious song, singing it with distinctive grace and plucking a verse from "Caoineadh na Maighdine" ("The Blessed Virgin’s Keening") as her coda.
Wearing a bright red top to signal a more seasonal motif in the second half of the concert, Ryan gave rousing voice to such carols as "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "In Dulci Jubilo," and invited the audience to sing "Silent Night" with her.
The construction and pace of the concert were cannily crafted, with Irish traditional dance tunes appended to a number of songs. The backing trio of Anderson, Dolan, and Cassel acquitted themselves well, adding texture or heft to Ryan’s vocals and, in one instance, cutting loose on a medley of a hornpipe, strathspey, and Cape Breton reel.
Though her song introductions sometimes had the effect of telling the audience how to react (Henry James’s dictum "show, don’t tell," applies here), Cathie Ryan certainly knows how to communicate with her audience. And what she communicated through song were the enduring values of home, family, memory, and spirit, which never go out of season and were perfect for this one.