The world of traditional Irish music certainly contains many wondrous stories and accomplishments for many who kept the tradition alive. Perhaps none are as fascinating as that of a young accordion player who grew up in Ruan, County Clare in the last quarter of the 20th Century and went on to become one of the most recognized and well-traveled musicians to hail from the Emerald Isle performing in five continents and over 20 countries in her illustrious career. We are talking about the petite box player Sharon Shannon who has lived large on so many grand performance stages throughout the world and on Irish Television shows at home.
And last week she chilled out a bit in Boston for three nights after facing the mega-audiences of the Dublin Irish Festival the weekend before and those of the huge Edmonton Folk Festival in Western Canada this past weekend. And your humble correspondent caught one of the shows at the popular Somerville, Massachusetts redoubt for Irish music, The Burren Pub.
Sharon Shannon first came to America to perform as a young 14-year shy youngster from the Banner Country with her siblings Garry, Majella and Mary as part of a traditional music ensemble called The Disirt Tola Ceili Band under the direction of Gearoid O’hAlmhurain. They were welcomed in Boston and New York by the Clare and Comhaltas stalwarts like the late Jack Whelan from Miltown Malbay who arranged gigs for them and housed them and looked after them as if they were their own family.
The young Sharon was drawn to the music and it was all she cared about, anxious to put school behind her in those days and play anywhere and everywhere that people were willing to pay a few bob for the jigs and the reels that her own family were known for. Sharon’s alternative educational route would be to follow to where the music would take her.
After high school she headed first for Doolin, which in the late 1980s was a popular gathering spot for musicians from all over Ireland and Europe and not just those from the traditional tribe either but rather an eclectic mix of musicos from the contemporary and world scene. When she moved up to Galway City and joined the Waterboys and eventually linked up with Donal Lunny her world was widening even more with broadening travel as well and her repertoire became international.
When she went out on her own, she was further able to pick and choose who she would collaborate with as her pattern of cross-fertilization was becoming her calling card in the field of Irish music. Through it all she kept things fairly simple when it came to music, if she heard it and liked it and could play it and please audiences around the world, then she could make a good living at the music which is all she ever wanted to do.
Sharon Shannon was a more frequent visitor to Boston than to New York, particularly for the Stonehill Irish Festivals which raised funds to build the Canton-based New England Irish Cultural Centre where she performed last Friday night for several hundred people. She remembered visiting the Burren Pub with the owners Tommy and Louise McCarthy, now her neighbors in Salt Hill, Galway much of the year just before it was to open and they would realize their dream of a pub dedicated to traditional Irish music. She has returned a number of times declaring it last week in mid-concert as “her favorite place to play in America” thanks to the genuine hospitality and treatment for Irish musicians as Tommy and Louise look out for their musical brethren and sisterhood.
Traveling along with her these days on tour is a scaled down crew with the more familiar guitar accompanist Jim Murray from West Cork who has played with her over the years and many other notable Irish trad musicians and relative new comer Alan Conner on keyboards and electric guitar. The youthful Dubliner is a savage musician whose keyboard fireworks stoked the button accordion magic Shannon provided in dynamic fashion all night and at times found a more subtle way to enhance Shannon’s musical choices. The scintillating trio produced a big sound in the small backroom that was easily more enjoyable than at a large impersonal festival setting and it led to four sellouts at the Burren.
The visit to the Burren Pub on Wednesday and Thursday of last week was built into the Burren Back Room Series with two separate seatings each night to allow for more tickets to be sold and the demand met given the hundred seats that the room comfortably allows for these intimate showcases. Emcee Brian O’Donovan wears two hats here as a producer of the live show and also the presenter for segments that will later appear on his Celtic Sojourn radio program heard weekly on WGBH (89.7 FM) and online at www.wgbh.org.
For those not lucky enough to garner a seat at the Burren, the shows could be viewed via Concert Window (www.concertwindow.com) the new online channel meant to share live music with a broader audience and offer unlimited worldwide exposure to an artist or venue. There is a mutual appreciation for Burren Owner Tommy McCarthy for this new promotional technology and also for Concert Window founder Dan Gurney who is also a musician who went to Harvard for teaming up in this fashion to place a brighter spotlight on this sanctuary for Irish music.
Even a 14 year old child could hardly envision what adventures and changes she would experience over the last three decades.