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Chicago Irish musicians gather in Newtown

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Sean Gavin, Liz Carroll and Pauline Conneely at Newtown. (Photo by Melanie Madden)
Sean Gavin, Liz Carroll and Pauline Conneely at Newtown. (Photo by Melanie Madden)

In recent years we have seen Irish musicians collaborating outside their usual comfort zones, and it has led to some fascinating combinations that often times became touring models for those periods when their main gigs were inactive.  

You would have heard mention of the Teetotallers for example, Martin Hayes, Kevin Crawford and John Doyle, as a prominent example for artists who find occasional work together when not engaged in their regular tour gigs. 

It is more prominent when you are talking about the general scene with musicians based in Ireland because gigging in the U.S. ain’t what it used to be.  The number of high-profile and well-paying venues have diminished, so the concept is still a very intriguing and an organically important survival technique to make sure that Irish music doesn’t get stuck in a rut or further exposure is limited.  

These new collaborations are often simply about opportunism and a healthy mutual respect and regard for fellow artists where chance and circumstances may put you on a stage simultaneously.

Last Thursday night in Newtown, Connecticut, the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society (STIMS) once again pushed the envelope for three Chicago-based artists to share the stage together.   

The wonderful Newtown Meeting Hall which harkens back to Colonial times in this lower New England setting not only is a welcoming community center for social, cultural and spiritual purposes but a very suitable venue for the type of acoustic concerts organized by STIMS for more than a decade. 

And when one of their familiar musical guests, fiddler Liz Carroll, indicated she was passing through the New York area on route to the Swannanoa Gathering for Celtic Week along with banjoist Pauline Conneely and flute/piper Sean Gavin who were headed to the Catskills, it was a most opportune time to present the ad-hoc trio.

While all three make their home in the Chicago area it doesn’t necessarily afford them the chance to play together, so this was their first time on stage all together. 

The challenge, of course, is to build a common set list from their respective repertoire and also work in some of the popular tunes associated with the trad icons from the Chicago set from the tradition bearing musicians they were exposed to.

It was great to hear the names of such important musical mentors like Johnny McGreevy (RIP), Joe Shannon (RIP) and Kevin Henry being mentioned along with some of the tunes that have been staples in the Chicagoland session scene because of them. 

Continuity like that is important to any community that holds fast to the music of their forebears.
Knowing where the music comes from is an integral part of these three artists who also play their own parts now in passing it on to another generation through their own music.

Back in 2010 the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society offered Chicago native Carroll a generous grant to publish her book of 185 compositions entitled Collected, later launched at the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, so she dipped into those few tunes on the evening and then tested her Thursday night partners’ metal for some new compositions called “Jerome’s Reel” and “Orange Rouge.”

Her tunes not only feature her musicality but her fertile imagination when it comes to naming some of them, so it would handy to have one of the books for ready reference and insight (www.lizcarroll.com).  

And in backing up Carroll on her tunes, Conneely and Gavin often employed dual guitars which we are not used to seeing them play beyond their banjo, pipes and flute respectively.

The threesome had ample opportunity to do solo efforts as well in between their group selections which displayed a lovely, relaxed pace throughout the informal evening in Newtown thanks also in part to sound engineer John Brennan manning the board.  

No doubt things will become more frenetic for them as they move onto their summer camps surrounded by some of the top traditional musicians in North America and from abroad, so it was a welcome opportunity for a shared evening of tunes in Connecticut. 

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