By Earle Hitchner
DE DANNAN, Symphony Space, NYC., May 18.
Frankie Gavin and Alec Finn, founding members of De Dannan, have been the only constants in the band since its inception 25 years ago. Yet they have always managed to attract fine instrumental talent to supplement their distinctive fiddle-bouzouki blend. The current lineup is no exception. Colm Murphy on bodhrán and ex-Four Men and a Dog member Brian McGrath on banjo and keyboards are first-rate musicians, fleshing out what may be the first non-accordion roster for the group in memory.
This night, going without a button accordion didn’t last long. From Barna, former band member Máirtín O’Connor came out to play two hornpipes he had recorded with De Dannan 13 years ago, "The Rights of Man/The Pride of Petravore." Those, in turn, were followed by a couple of reels, including "The Ships Are Sailing," and the medley often displayed the tight, clean intensity that Gavin, Finn, and O’Connor together were known for in the 1980s.
"Carolan’s Concerto" was also given a piquant, note-dense reading by De Dannan with O’Connor, while McGrath distinguished himself on tenor banjo during "Connie From Constantinople," an Eastern European tune performed with rousing vitality by the band. "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba in Galway," a nervy Irish traditional setting of Handel’s composition, sounded as fresh as when De Dannan recorded it in 1983.
The concert peaked, however, with the guest performances of gospel vocalists Ivan Le Parr and Ingrid Arthur, and klezmer clarinetist and mandolinist Andy Statman. Le Parr and Arthur were absolutely sensational in their singing of the gospel standard "I’m So Glad," bluesily backed on electric guitar by Finn. Statman played mandolin with intricate detail on "Flatbush Waltz," his own tune, then switched to clarinet on "A Shepherd’s Dream/Onga Bucharesti." During those latter Jewish reels, he improvised with a swinging zeal that would have earned an admiring smile from Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Buddy DeFranco. It was a knockout performance by Statman with De Dannan.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of either Andrew Murray, De Dannan’s current singer, or Dolores Keane, their original singer and guest this night. From Inishbofin, Murray has a voice of very limited, lower range, and he was shockingly flat in his singing of Robert Burns’s "I Wish My Love Was a Red, Red Rose," his first song of the night. None of his subsequent vocals, including "Éireann Mo Ghrá Mo Chroí" or his part in a four-singer "Wild Mountain Thyme," fared any better.
The expected vocal brilliance of Caherlistrane’s Dolores Keane was also largely absent this night. One of Ireland’s greatest singers, she had trouble hitting or steered away from most high notes, relying on a more secure middle register. Pluck and professionalism carried her through such crowd favorites as "Teddy O’Neill," "Far Away in Australia," and "Galway Bay."
Unsettling and irritating were some self-indulgent remarks made by Gavin, who, at one juncture, tossed out two unfunny quips laced with the "f" word. Each was a startling lapse in judgment and taste.
Even so, sweet nostalgia ran strong this evening. For the most part, De Dannan acquitted themselves well musically, proving they can still rekindle the fire of their illustrious past.