First out on stage were Moloney, harmony singers Susan McKeown and John Roberts, uilleann pipes, whistle, and flute player Jerry O’Sullivan, button accordionist Billy McComiskey, pianist Donna Long, and a string quartet led by Dana Lyn on viola with Athena Tergis and Liz Hanley on violins and Alex Waterman on cello. The song they performed was “Mother Malone,” a staple of vaudeville’s McNulty Family from 1936, and several stepdancers from the Niall O’Leary School of Irish Dance came out to perform.
The next song was another covered by the McNulty Family, “Along the Rocky Road to Dublin,” and following it was a John O’Brien and Al Dubin song, “‘Twas Only an Irishman’s Dream.” They, too, featured an expertly complementary string quartet arrangement from Dana Lyn, whose talent as an Irish traditional and Oberlin-trained classical musician is now converging with breathtaking strength. (I’ll be reviewing her 2009 all-classical CD with tenor guitar and mandolin player Rob Moose in an upcoming “Ceol” column.)
Those three songs got the night off to a potent start in a concert that was both entertaining and edifying. Between songs Moloney spoke eloquently about their history and composers, often with large images projected on a back screen. He even tucked in a funny, fairly contemporary Irish-Jewish song, “Shirley Levine,” sung just by him with Athena Tergis backing on fiddle.
Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks added their distinctive vintage-jazz touch on brass, woodwinds, and strings, with Dana Lyn on fiddle, to an even earlier period song, Harrigan and Braham’s “The Mulligan Guards,” as well as to two songs expressing antithetical viewpoints on WWI, “When You Come Back and You Will Come Back” and “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” The first was written by George M. Cohan in 1917, and the second was composed by Alfred Bryan and Al Piantadosi in 1915. That two-year difference between songs marked the difference between American isolationism and militarism spurred by the sinking of the Lusitania off the Cork coast.
“If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews,” a song written in 1912 by Jean Schwartz and William Jerome (real surname: Flannery), concluded the concert’s first half, and a few good-humored giggles bubbled up from the audience at the line “Without the Pats and Isadores, we’d have no big department stores.”
The second half of the concert opened with Leonia, N.J., cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro accompanied by pianist Joyce Rosenzweig. The wife of Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra flutist Scott Spencer, who was one of the recording engineers for the 2004 CD “Live at Mona’s,” Kerith spoke briefly about her own Jewish-Irish lineage and then deftly sang three songs in Yiddish, the last featuring Dana Lyn on fiddle, an instrument popular in both musical traditions.
Also in the second half, the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, founded nine years ago by Moloney, performed a medley of barndances and a reel with genial spirit, and they were eventually joined by some stepdancers.
Dana Lyn’s string quartet meshed skillfully again with Moloney, McKeown, Roberts, McComiskey, O’Sullivan, and Long on the wistful “The Old Bog Road” and “Maloney Puts His Name Above the Door,” a 1930 hit for the Waterford-born Flanagan Brothers in America.
A spotlight treat was Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks’ stirring rendition of Irving Berlin’s 1911 composition “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Just as memorable were the bouncy Irish war anthem “Faugh a Ballagh” and the joyful, jaunty song “There’s a Typical Tipperary Over Here,” both propelled by Giordano’s Nighthawks.
The encore became a virtual audience sing-along, “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” It was a fun, fitting close to a concert replete with wit, fascinating cultural history, and outstanding musicianship, all neatly integrated for optimal enjoyment.
This now makes two consecutive annual autumn concerts organized by Mick Moloney that have sold out Symphony Space. (The previous one, “Irish Musicians for the Mercy Centre,” was a special benefit performance held on Oct. 12, 2008.) That’s an extraordinary achievement during a long, deep recession.
Kudos to Mick Moloney and the Irish Arts Center, which produced the Oct. 24 concert, for an inspired evening of music and speculation about “what would this great Yankee nation really really ever do / if it wasn’t for a Levy, a Monahan, or Donohue.”