'Mad for the music' - from sessions in the Catskills to Paul Brady in Manhattan


The Irish often label folks who spend an inordinate amount of time playing or following the music as “being mad for the music” or “pure mad” when it comes to attending events built around it, especially in traditional music.

If my own experience is any evidence I suppose it is certainly true, and seemingly if this past weekend was an indicator (as well as the odometer on my car) there was a lot of madness in the air and on the horizon.

On Friday night up in Fairfield, Connecticut, the Gaelic American Club hosted touring musicians Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh and Breandan Begley from Ireland for a concert in their lovely function room.

They are on a U.S. tour (sponsored by Culture Ireland) continuing on a marvelous musical partnership between two very experienced musicians from different parts of the country that sprung up several years ago as part of a Music Network tour of Ireland.

Dubliner O’Raghallaigh (who has since moved to the end of the Dingle Peninsula) plays the fiddle and the hardanger fiddle in a most inventive and creative way, never trapped into a style that doesn’t suit him or his musical partner(s).

The older Begley from the West Kerry Gaelthacht plays the accordion as well as sings with a gentle mellifluous voice that belies his “giant” stature while drawing deep from the well of the Irish language and music of his region. The tour is launching their new CD called A Moment of Madness which captures perfectly the musical conversation the duet produces when they sit down alongside each other to play.

The title harkens back to over a decade ago when Begley quit teaching to do music full time, spurred on by the expression “a moment of madness is worth an hour of logic” he told the audience.

The magic of their musical duet is that it seems so unpredictable and open to experimentation and variation depending on their whim and the moment and place.

It has a quirkiness that complements these artists who have worked in plenty of other groupings and forums, and realize that this is a special relationship that seems to be entertaining. If this is madness, then let there be more of it. For more information on them visit www.stateofchassis.com.

On Saturday, the spirit moved me back to the Catskills and the East Durham resort called Gavin’s Golden Hill where the Northeast Tionol was underway this past weekend.

With over 50 pipers signed on for classes (and another 20 or so for fiddle) with a highly respected faculty selected by the Northeast Pipers Association, this has become one of the more important traditional music happenings on the East Coast beyond what the numbers might suggest.

The Tionol (pronounced chunnoll) serves as a convention and support group for the pipers who also know how to enjoy themselves and produce mighty fine music all weekend long. It also pays homage to those who persevere playing the very complex uilleann pipes or make and repair them as well as teach them.

If it seems an obsession or madness, then it must be doing something right given the healthier state of piping today. We were reminded of that when Gabriel McKeon, the CEO of the robust Na Piobari Uilleann on Henrietta Street in Dublin, spoke on Sunday about its history and that of piping in Ireland.

A Dub and one of the last students of the great teacher and promoter of the uilleann pipes Leo Rowsome, he has played his own seminal role in fostering the increase in pipe making and playing through NPU.

McKeon, along with Monaghan piper Tiarnan O’Duinnchinn, was invited over from Ireland for the weekend and played a solo set in the Saturday evening concert, as did O’Duinnchinn to close out the concert.

Actually Cillian Vallely, who was also teaching and performing, joined the Monaghan piper for the final encore as the two of them are products of the Armagh Pipers Club organized by Vallely’s parents Brian and Eithne.

Others pipers teaching and appearing in the concert were Kara Doyle, Benedict Koehler and Eamonn Dillon (up from Florida and originally from Belfast).

Interspersed in the concert were a couple of sets by non-pipers with two Catskill area musicians, flute player Mike McHale (Roscommon) dueting with Monsignor Charlie Coen (Galway) on concertina getting a warm welcome from many of the out of town visitors who don’t get to see them perform that often.

The fiddle tutors on the weekend were Patrick Ourceau (Paris) and Rose Flanagan (New York), who paired up nicely for the second set, displaying a tight blending of the Galway/Clare and Sligo style for which they are know respectively.

Thankfully for the Catskills, this obsession has become the norm whenever traditional musicians have gathered up there, and hopefully that will remain the case for a long time yet and for more Tionols in the fall.

On Sunday night, the tone and venue took on a more contemporary look but with just as maddening a crowd who turned up for a promising double-bill of Clare songstress Maura O’Connell and Tyrone singer/songwriter Paul Brady at the Times Square music emporium B.B. King’s in Manhattan.

Early in their careers, both made forays into the traditional arena and created signature pieces and songs that still are played over and over as classics. But their solo careers have moved well beyond those days and reflect the music that earns them a living and allows for more choices and personal expression.

The club was pretty full with standing room at the bar, and the crowd cheered on the legendary performers whose careers have spanned over three decades. The audience was familiar with much of their songs or keen to hear new material, so they were warmly received all night and poignantly when they appeared together to sing “Anach Chuain” from O’Connell’s latest CD Naked, a compilation of capella songs sung with other artists.

Brady took the opportunity to welcome a couple of special guests on stage, with accordion player James Keane up first (whom Brady credits with introducing him to traditional music in Dublin in the early days).

Next came Sarah Siskind, with whom he collaborated with at the inaugural Irish Arts Center series a couple of years ago and who toured with him this summer when he released his latest CD, Hooba Dooba.

It was a strong attractive bill and it was great to see such a turnout on a Sunday evening. Perhaps it is more evidence of music soothing the soul through the hard economic times.

There are times when madness has more serious connotations, and that is area explored this coming weekend led by singer Susan McKeown. The upcoming concert on Saturday, October 30 at 8 p.m. at Symphony Space in Manhattan (Peter Jay Sharp Theatre) features the release of Dublin native and Lower East side resident McKeown’s new CD Singing in the Dark.

Once again it reveals an artist who requires thoughtful engagement to fully appreciate her performance. Never an ordinary singer, McKeown delights in complexity and a genuine commitment to her material with enough inventiveness to win her audience over if they make the effort.

So now she is ambitiously taking them on a journey to the dark side that artists have been writing and singing about without necessarily calling any special attention to the underlying issues of mental health that may have influenced its creation.

It is subject matter that she has a certain familiarity with in her family, but also has delved into in a larger way to plumb the depths to see what she could share with an audience. This CD is a product of that exploration. It dovetails with a daylong conference at NYU Glucksman Ireland House (“Singing in the Dark: Irishness, Creativity, Madness”) leading up to the concert.

Joining McKeown on stage are musicians Lindsey Horner, Shahzad Ismailiy, Isabelle O’Connell, Eamon O’Leary, Allison Miller, Lorin Sklambert, Sonelius Smith, Jason Sypher, Doug Weiselman and Ryan McGiver (some of them appear on the CD as well) plus Paul Holdengraber and Kay Redfield Jamison. If the live performance is as riveting and varied as the CD, McKeown will have succeeded in taking a topic ignored generally and shedding some light in an entertaining fashion.

The Irish Arts Center is hosting the concert. Call 212-864-5400 or visit www.susanmckeown.com.

In a much lighter vein, madness more commonly known as craic is always on display at a Cherish the Ladies show and for folks near Chatham, New Jersey they will have the chance to see them perform at the Sanctuary Concerts at the Presbyterian Church (240 Southern Boulevard (973-376-4946 or  boxoffice@sanctuaryconcerts.org) on Saturday, October 30 at 8 p.m.

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