Category: Archive

Trad Beat: San Solas, a powerful performance by Casey

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

KARAN CASEY, NIALL VALLELY, and DONAL CLANCY. At the Towne Crier Cafe, 62 Rte. 22, Pawling, N.Y.. Aug. 26.

In her first New York concert since departing Solas, Waterford-born Karan Casey sang with a force and grace that clearly point to a blossoming career as a soloist. Blessed with one of the most distinctive and spellbinding voices in Irish music today, she was in great form, mixing songs she recorded on her 1997 solo album, "Songlines," with those she recorded on three Solas albums, and adding in the provocative jazz standard "Strange Fruit."

With Armagh-born Niall Vallely, leader of the Cork-based band Nomos, on concertina and low whistle and Waterford’s Donal Clancy, son of Liam Clancy, on acoustic guitar, Casey delivered delicately shaded yet fully impassioned renditions of "She Is Like a Swallow" and Jean Ritchie’s "One, I Love." Singularly beautiful, too, was her unaccompanied version of "The Snows They Melt the Soonest," learned from Anne Briggs and Dick Gaughan.

Among Casey’s many attributes as a vocalist is her admirably defiant pluck in undertaking material of barbed political import and strong social conscience. Songs such as Woody Guthrie’s "Pastures of Plenty" and Leon Rosselson’s "The World Turned Upside Down" were both infused with the fire of her own convictions. Another refreshingly unblinkered song she sang was Ewan MacColl’s "Ballad of Accounting," highlighted by a stirring, jazz-like interlude from Vallely on concertina and Clancy on guitar.

These two instrumentalists were not just accompanists this night. Vallely has to be put in the same category of concertina virtuosity as Clare’s famed Noel Hill. With stunning dexterity, Vallely performed the bagpipe tunes of "The High Drive/The Clumsy Lover" and his own "Emmett’s Hedgehog" jig. The enticing Continental flavor he imparted to his composition "Ludwig’s" led right into the traditional "Dogs Among the Bushes," played with densely packed ornamental touches that were breathtaking. And his take on "The Star of Munster" was concertina playing at its acme.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

A member of the Eileen Ivers Band, Donal Clancy showed his guitar skill in a fingerpicking solo on a Breton tune. Besides his excellent playing with Vallely on tunes, he distinguished himself during the songs, responding nimbly to shifts in Casey’s vocal dynamics.

In a concert replete with outstanding performances, Casey’s stark, unaccompanied solo on "Strange Fruit" stood out, hushing the audience to pin-drop silence. In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded Lewis Allan’s song, protesting the lynching of blacks in the South, for Commodore after her own label, Columbia, troubled by its graphically honest imagery ("bulging eyes," "twisted mouth," "scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh"), refused it.

Since Lady Day’s landmark recording, many fine vocalists — Josh White, Carmen McCr’ — have covered the song. Inspired by its resonance for civil rights in America and Northern Ireland, Casey sang about this "strange and bitter crop" in a way evoking that past intensity. Her limber high-to-low note singing brilliantly conveyed the anguish of this jazz classic’s subject and indicated there’s much more of her unique talent that remains to be explored. Following her on those explorations should prove fascinating.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese