Christmas shows abound all over New York

Mick Moloney, Athena Tergis, Billy McComiskey, Brendan Dolan and Liz Hanley anchor the Irish Christmas team at the Irish Arts Center.
And if you stop to listen,
They're playing for you and I.
And their music sings along the strings.
Between the earth and the sky, between the earth and the sky
--Colum Sands

It is not only in the malls across America that Christmas is selling large, but on concert stages large and small. The Irish or Celtic Christmas shows seem to be growing by leaps and bounds every year as the Yuletide seems to be outpacing Paddy’s Day as the season to see live shows chock full of creativity and seasonal insights.

By rough estimation, some 100 scheduled shows in the Christmas spirit were on offer for thousands of music fans across the country this December. They would turn out to see shows that have evolved year by year as not only classic editions but also display great variety of music, song and dance and the touch of the poetic as well. 

Your intrepid correspondent sampled some of these hardy perennials over the past two weekends, marveling at the balance between professional performances and the charms of being at an Irish Christmas hooley.  Here are some of highlights.

The quote above comes from the chorus of the Colum Sands song by the Co. Down native celebrating the role of street musicians to lift our spirits, and it is effectively employed in the Irish Christmas and solstice celebration at the Irish Arts Center. 

It affirms the role of music to move us at any time and cause us to reflect as well which is a hallmark of most of these shows.

Each year Mick Moloney’s artistic minions take over the Irish Arts Center with aplomb and sensibility, with enough multicultural diversity to remind us we are in New York City after all, and that is a season for good will to all men and women. 

So an appearance by the marvelous Tamar Korn, a Jewish gal from California singing jazz with some scat for good measure a la Louie Armstrong, satiates a curious audience further fed by some primal Filipino chant by the enchanting Grace Nono all falls into place. 

The show was fortified by Moloney’s thoughtful production and varied set list, abetted by the nightly cast of solid musicians Athena Tergis, Billy McComiskey, Brendan Dolan, and Liz Hanley and the percussive patter of step dancer Niall O’Leary.

Hanley displayed her artistic flexibility on the fiddle (playing for Korn on some Chanukah music) vocally with her singing and even her acting as part of a comical bit of mummery courtesy of an Armagh Rhymer veteran Macdara Vallely, who lent his talents to the production. 

The Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra closed out the night with the Corkman Donie Carroll leading the audience in the Caribbean carol “Mary’s Boy Child.”

Just before the interval Moloney debriefed Irish Consul General Noel Kilkenny on Christmas customs in Clare and life in the Irish Civil Service in relaxing and revealing fashion.

You can always count on the supreme shepherdess, Joanie Madden, to rise to the occasion of
Christmas celebration with the annual Cherish the Ladies Christmas show.  People flock to it every year, and there were two sold out shows in Mahwah, New Jersey where they made their first appearance at the Berrie Center at Ramapo College. 

No group blends Christmas songs with hard core trad the way that Madden and the girls do as their popular Star of the East CD gives ample evidence.

Along with singer Deirdre Connolly, one of the original Cherish the Ladies almost 27 years ago who made the current tour to provide vocals, another special guest was singer Don Stiffe from Galway, a Madden favorite because of his “majestic” voice. 

Stiffe stood out with a rendition of “Silent Night –Christmas 1914,” another poignant song about the legendary World War I Christmas truce that brought bitter enemies to lay down their weapons for a few hours of mutual celebration and humanity literally in No Man’s Land between the trenches. (The song was written by Irish Voice columnist Cormac MacConnell.)

Cherish the Ladies shows, especially in New York, also feature great stepdancing, so local pros like Ciara Greene, John Jennings, Colleen Farrell Martin, Megan Lucey and special guest from the Midwest Michael Holland excelled all evening. 

Holland in particular gave evidence of championship form for a set piece called “The Hunt.”  Madden and company raised the rafters at the encore with her voice leading the way for the southern spiritual
“Rise up Shepherd and Follow” that she revised with fellow Cherish founder Mary Coogan.

Two groups touring from Ireland had greater New York area shows last week that I attended and are worth mentioning not only because of the lovely music, but also the venues.

Sprinkled throughout the country are still some lovely movie theater/vaudeville halls that have been graciously, and thankfully, restored and make great show places. 

Up in Peekskill, the downtown Paramount Center hosted Danu led by box player Benny McCarthy featuring singer Muireann Nic Amblaoibh, Eamon Doorley, Donal Clancy, Martin O’Neill and Liam Flanagan.  Clancy showed some of the family flair (as Liam’s son) for recitation by reading Patrick Kavanagh’s Irish Christmas poem.

The colorful Wren Boys tradition was also well covered by husband and wife in one pairing, with Billy Mag Fhloinn emerging on stage dressed in Strawboy costume while he recited the “Wran Boy Song” popularized by the Clancys and Tommy Makem. 

His wife Muireann followed with her own superb version of Sigerson Clifford’s lovely commemoration of St. Stephen’s Day in his song “The Boys of Barr na Shraide,” which the Kerry maid sings as if it were made just for her.

A few years ago when Nic Ambloaoibh appeared as the guest vocalist in the Boston-based Christmas Celtic Sojourn she sang the “Kerry Christmas Carol” (which Hanley also did in this year’s Irish Arts Center show) which spoke of the symbolic candles in the windows of an Irish countryside offering welcome to a travel weary holy family who wouldn’t be denied access in any Irish home. 

In the Danu show (and accompanying Christmas CD, An Nollaig in Eirinn), she has another song like that, “Le Coinnle na nAingeal” (With the Candles of the Angels) that further extends the welcome to all passing by the window that they are welcome inside for Christmas hospitality.          

Down on the Jersey Shore, Teada founder Oisin MacDiarmada performed with a troupe of musical revelers for their annual Irish Christmas in America show at the spacious Strand Theater in Lakewood.  Along with harpist Grainne Hambly and box player/curmudgeon jokester Seamus Begley, the music was mighty throughout.

Gracing and sharing the stage with them were three special guests from Dingle in singers Elis Kennedy and Pauline Scanlon, with guitarist Donagh Hennessy known collectively as Lumiere.  
The ladies were in fine harmonic voice singing in tandem and sang one of my favorite songs from the North, “Craigie Hill,” which is not a Christmas song. 

Later on they did do a Christmas song extolling the virtues of a Kerry Christmas called “Welcome”
which once again shed light on the hospitality and wild nature of the Kerry Christmas that easily lasts the 12 days. Oisin added “ Dingle Bells” for good measure onto one of his musical forays.

Last but not least was the show given by local one-time child prodigy and full-fledged star performer
Eileen Ivers in Pearl River, New York making her first concert appearance in town. 
Ivers and her band, Immigrant Soul, garnered a standing ovation at the intermission as well as the finale, so enraptured was the audience with her annual holiday show.

Ivers’s music soared sweetly and swiftly, at times shifting moods and pace to suit the tunes and sentiments. She has a first-class band to work with in Buddy Connolly (accordion), Greg Anderson (guitar and bouzouki) and Leo Traversa on bass guitar.

With her parents John and Ann in the audience, she played her own air she wrote for them called “Bygone Days“ about their immigration from Mayo.  

Her band and act is all about versatility and outside influences peppering the performance.  Singer and percussionist Tommy McDonnell was comically spot on for “Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake,” engaging the audience to sing the chorus with hand held cue cards and in a rousing version of “Do You Hear What I Hear.”

Some of these shows are still touring into the end of next week so you might Google them to see if you can still catch a performance.

And on the second leg of its two week sojourn around New England is the 2011 version of Christmas Celtic Sojourn produced by Brian O’Donovan of WGBH radio.

There are two shows in Rockport, Massachusetts before setting into the home base at the Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston near the Commons for five shows Friday to Sunday.

Starring this year are Len Graham, Seamus Egan, Kieran O’Hare and Dancer Kevin Doyle, Halali and more artists.  More details at www.wgbh.com.

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