By Earle Hitchner
In what is shaping up to be one of the most ambitious, comprehensive, and impressive Irish cultural events ever mounted in our nation’s capital, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will host "Island: Arts from Ireland" from May 13-28. This two-week Irish
festival of music, dance, drama, literature, film, and other visual arts will feature several American theatrical premières, a retrospective of Irish cinema, readings and symposia by established and emerging Irish writers, and Irish paintings from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.
The highly eclectic music and dance performances will, arguably, be the high-water marks of this Washington, D.C., festival. On May 13, a gala opening concert in the Kennedy Center’s Opera House will include Mary Black, Dónal Lunny and his band Coolfin, Sharon Shannon, Galician piper Carlos Nunez, bluegrass virtuoso Ricky Skaggs, alternative-country artist Steve Earle, and members of "Riverdance."
On May 14 in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, a concert called "The Northern Voice" will take place. Among the performers will be Armagh-born singer Tommy Makem, Belfast vocalist David Hammond, and native Kentucky singer, dulcimer player, and composer Jean Ritchie, plus guests Dónal Lunny and Tyrone-born guitarist Arty McGlynn.
On May 15 in the Terrace Theater, Mick Moloney, the Irish Echo’s Traditionalist of 1999, will lead a musical assemblage comprising the Green Fields of America (Liz Carroll, Jack Coen, Zan McLeod, Donny Golden, and others), Solas (house band of "Dancing on Dangerous
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Ground"), and what has been billed as the "living legends" of Irish traditional music in America: New York City-born fiddler Andy McGann, Boston-born button accordionist Joe Derrane, and Mayo-born, longtime Chicago resident uilleann piper Joe Shannon, a 1983 National Heritage Fellowship winner.
On May 16 in the Terrace Theater, De Dannan will be in concert. Among their guests will be the band’s former lead singer Eleanor Shanley, former member Máirtín O’Connor on button accordion, the Harlem Gospel Singers, and klezmer clarinetist and bluegrass mandolinist Andy Statman.
On May 17 in the same venue, Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Séamus Heaney and ex-Planxty uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn will combine talents in an evening titled "The Poet and the Piper." On May 19 in the Terrace Theater, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, under the musical direction of violinist Fionnuala Hunt, will perform the world première of a new work composed by Bill Whelan of "Riverdance" fame.
On May 23 and 24 in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jack Everly, and some soloists and dancers will give a "pops" concert entitled "Music of the Emerald Isle: A Celtic Celebration." And on May 28 in the Terrace Theater, Irish classical pianist Barry Douglas and Camerata Ireland, a chamber orchestra featuring musicians from Ireland and Northern Ireland, will perform together.
Though this 16-day "Island: Arts From Ireland" is more than three months away, it may be wise to inquire early about tickets. Call (800) 444-1324 or (202) 467-4600.
Raffertys, Rooney at Blarney Star
A marvelous musical duo whose "The Old Fireside Music" placed in the Irish Echo’s top 10 trad albums list for 1999, Mike (flute, uilleann pipes) and Mary (button accordion, flute, tin whistle) Rafferty will be in concert this Friday, Jan. 28, at the Blarney Star, 43 Murray St., lower Manhattan. Joining the father-daughter tandem will be N.J. fiddler Willie Kelly and guitarist Dónal Clancy. Sets are at 9 and 10:30 p.m. Details, (212) 732-2873.
Coming to the Blarney Star on Feb. 18 is Leitrim-born fiddler Brian Rooney, whose superb solo recording, "The Godfather," finished second in the Irish Echo’s top 10 trad albums list and has generated a great deal of excitement back in Ireland. Rooney will be accompanied by a guitarist, and other musical guests are expected. Like the Raffertys’ Jan. 28 appearance, this can truly be regarded as a must-see winter concert in the Big Apple.
Another confirmed date for Rooney is Feb. 20, when he’ll be performing at the Burren, 247 Elm St., Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. ( 776-6896).
On both sides of the Atlantic, the Irish traditional music community is still in shock over the death of John Morris Rankin, 40, the oldest of the performing, five-sibling Rankin Family from Mabou, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Reportedly, in trying to swerve around a pile of salt in a road near Margaree Harbor early on the morning of Jan. 16, Rankin lost control of his Toyota 4-Runner truck, which plunged off a 75-foot cliff into the frigid waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Three passengers — his 15-year-old son, Michael, and two teen-age companions — managed to escape.
In a family band often celebrated for their soaring vocal harmonies in Gaelic, John Morris Rankin was widely recognized as the most accomplished instrumentalist, playing keyboards, fiddle, guitar, bass, and percussion. He was also a fine composer, writing such tunes as "Michael Rankin’s Reel" and "Jack Daniel’s Reel" and such songs as "Eyes of Margaret" and "Blue-Eyed Suzie."
The Rankin Family, who shortened their name eventually to just the Rankins, disbanded last year after a decade together professionally. Released on Rounder in late April 1999, their final recording was "Uprooted," reflecting a more pop-rock, country-tinged direction taken by the band over the course of their last few albums.
"Parlour Medley," one of the cuts on "Uprooted," is distinguished by the customarily sterling fiddle and piano playing of John Morris, who arranged the entire track, including his own tune, "Freddie’s Reel."
Another album track highlighting his instrumental ability is "Greenberg Medley," three jigs on which he also does a bit of Cape Breton-style stepdancing.
John Morris Rankin is survived by his wife, Sally, his son, Michael, and his 13-year-old daughter, Molly. His funeral took place last Thursday at St. Mary’s Church on Mabou. He will be remembered as a quiet, unassuming musician whose piano and fiddle playing was as good as anyone’s on Cape Breton Island, which is to say he was one of the best in all of Celtic music.
Casey gives birth
Waterford-born singer Karan Casey, who left Solas last year to pursue a solo career, is now a proud mother, having given birth to a girl on Dec. 21. Named Muireann, the infant weighed in at a healthy 8 pounds 15 ounces. The baby will be with Casey when she tours the U.S. this May and June with guitarist Robbie Overson and Nomos concertinist Niall Vallely, whose excellent solo album, "Beyond Words," placed 14th in the top 20 trad albums list for 1999.
East Coast tour dates will fall roughly between May 10 and 20. Already inked in are May 12, Somerville Theater, Somerville, Mass.; May 13, Cohoes Music Hall, Cohoes, N.Y., and May 17, University of Hartford, Hartford, Conn. On May 19-20, they will also be performing at the Anchorage Celtic Festival in Alaska.
A resident of Cork City, Casey expects to enter the studio for her second solo album sometime this year. Her first solo recording, "Songlines," came out on Shanachie in 1997. In addition to the three studio CDs, one abbreviated concert CD, and one concert video she did with Solas, Casey appears on "Africans in America" with Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Bernice Johnson Reagon, Michael McGoldrick’s "Fused," and Paul Winter’s "Celtic Solstice," nominated for a Grammy this year as "best New Age album."
Technically, because the recording is by "Paul Winter and Friends," the latter are also covered by the nomination. That means Casey, Jerry O’Sullivan, Joanie Madden, Zan McLeod, Davy Spillane, and Eileen Ivers could also receive Grammys if "Celtic Solstice" wins. Soprano sax player Winter often triumphs in this category, so the chances are good.
CCÉ Hall of Fame inductions
Mike Preston, a flutist who once played with the Tulla Céilí Band, and the late Ed Reavy Sr., named Composer of the Century by the Irish Echo recently, will both be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Mid-Atlantic Region of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. The ceremony, along with a céilí, will take place Friday, Feb. 18, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. at the Irish American Center, 297 Willis Ave., Mineola, N.Y.
The Celtic Fiddle Festival, comprising Kevin Burke (his "Kevin Burke in Concert" finished 13th in the top 20 trad albums list), Johnny Cunningham, and Christian Lemaitre, backed by Breton guitarist Soig Siberil, will be on tour this Feb.-March. Dates include Feb. 18, Iron Horse, Northampton, Mass.; Feb. 19, Sanders Theater, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; Feb. 23, Barns at Wolf Trap, Vienna, Va., and Feb. 24, Bickford Theater, Morristown, N.J. On Saturday, Feb. 26, at 8 p.m., they’ll be in Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St., NYC ( 840-2824,
With the No. 1 trad album of last year, Lúnasa will embark on a U.S. tour in February and March. Dates include Feb. 13, Troy Music Hall, Troy, N.Y.; Feb. 16, Fitzgerald’s, Chicago; Feb. 19, Whitney Memorial Chapel, Hackettstown, N.J., and Feb. 23, Tin Angel, Philadelphia.
Altan, who have recorded but not yet released their third album for Virgin, will be touring heavily from late January to early April. Dates include Jan. 28, Irish American Heritage, Chicago; March 10, Stockton College, Pomona, N.J.; March 13, Albany AOH Irish American
Center, Albany; March 21, Lake Placid Center for the Arts, Lake Placid, N.Y.; March 22, Whitaker Center for the Arts, Harrisburg, Pa,
Also, April 1, N.J. Performing Arts Center, Newark, and April 2, Sanders Theater, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. On March 26, the band will appear
on "Mountain Stage," a nationally syndicated radio show broadcasting from Charleston, W.Va.