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Burren’s Back Room in Somerville, MA, is not to be missed

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Liz Hanley back at home in the Burren. (Photo by Tom Fitzgerald)
Liz Hanley back at home in the Burren. (Photo by Tom Fitzgerald)

Somerville, Massachusetts – The cultural scene around Davis Square appeals to the hipsters who know their music, and the haunts that present artists who are pretty much on the cutting edge of whatever scene they represent. 

When you are taking about Irish music, you know the Burren Pub owned and operated by Tommy McCarthy and his wife Louise Costello since 1996 will be in the mix. Their doors have been open to any trad musician known to mankind since then, either in the front bar room where nightly sessions were the norm or the spacious rectangular back room where the focus and sound can be presented more with a listening or participating audience.

Since October of 2011, that has especially been the case for the Burren Back Room Series jointly created by the McCarthys and WGBH’s Brian O’Donovan, the presenter and producer of the NPR outlet’s radio show A Celtic Sojourn for a score and more years. 

From afar I salivated at the periodic offerings at the Burren Back Room Series gleaned from the live selections aired on the Saturday afternoon show, or Facebook postings and photos uploaded by O’Donovan.  After all, groups like Teada, Dervish, De Danann and the Teatotallers and many more have turned up there since the series was hatched.

I looked for my chance to come and see for myself, and with a pairing last week of singer Liz Hanley and The Yanks on the double bill, the opportunity was too good to pass up.

There is a synergistic rationale underlying the mutually beneficial concert series at the Elm Street establishment (www.burren.com) named for the rugged rocky landscape of North Clare not far from the Miltown Malbay home of Tommy McCarthy’s father Tommy, a concertina and uilleann pipe player who helped add the finishing touches to the Burren Pub. 

WGBH reaches out to devotees of Celtic music through the weekly Celtic Sojourn radio show and seasonal productions, and stimulates an important interest in hearing the musicians featured there. The show encourages the listeners, many of who have no Irish connections, to go out to live performances.  

The Burren Pub has long established itself among Irish musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, and owners Tommy and Louise have a great sense and commitment about what will work at their pub.

They have the reputation as solid people who support the Irish music community, and those who make it and promote it.

The key elements to the series are its early start (7:30 p.m.) and finish times (9:30 p.m.) in the back room which opens earlier and offers reasonably priced food and drink along with an admission charge in the range of $20 or so. 

There is an opening act for variety sake and then the featured artists, presented in well-monitored sound each introduced by veteran fear a ti of the Boston Irish music scene, Clonakilty, West Cork native O’Donovan, who brings his radio studio knowledge, charm and voice on stage with him.  

The shows occur most often on Wednesdays, a day that often draws eager artists seeking a venue during road tours north, south, east and west where crowds of up to 100 patrons can knock a good dent in expenses incurred while traveling for their art.

This model won’t compete with bigger stage shows or venues, but it does offer more than the
alternative house concert scenarios artists face these days on the road because it is exists in a more animated pub setting without losing any of the respect or attention these artists deserve.

But, of course, what really makes this series tick is the recruitment of the right artists.  O’Donovan has the right touch to mix up and coming talents with established ones who have been treading the boards for a long time.

The demographic gets younger as well both among the musicians onstage, and holding down some of the seats in the audience who turn out to be supportive of one another in what is a very vibrant and young traditional music scene.

Indicative of that were last Wednesday’s artists, Liz Hanley (from nearby Milton) and the Yanks (Dylan Foley and Dan Gurney from upstate New York, Isaac Alderson from Chicago and Sean Earnest from Philadelphia). 

Hanley opened up with the four selections allotted to her and featured songs from her new CD The Ecstasy of St. Cecelia, including her very fine rendition of Sanctuary, the Vincent Woods song.

She was joined on stage by piper Joey Abarta (who has his own CD about to be released) and Sean Earnest.  When she left the stage the applause from the audience was more for her strong performance than her local roots.

The Yanks were in the midst of a tour supporting their self-titled new CD recorded last summer in the backstage area of the Blackthorn Pub outdoor pavilion in the Catskill town of East Durham during Catskills Irish Arts Week.

The foursome had often hooked up in late night early morning sessions at the Catskills crossroads over the years, where Foley and Gurney were fixtures from a very early age latching on to the senior musicians for musical mentoring of the first rank.

Alderson and Earnest carried the same keen interest and zest for the old music, so the quartet was formed to play with their own dynamic flair.

Like so many who came before them, the Yanks play the music because they love it.  When you follow your heart people respond to it, and there is no fear for the future of the music in their hands.

You can see for yourself when they have a Catskills launch on the Catskills Irish Arts Week Wednesday night concert in East Durham, and you can be sure they will return to the scene of their musical crimes down at the Blackthorn before the week winds down.

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