|Sliabh Notes, Matt Cranitch, Donal Murphy and Tommy O’Sullivan.|
Newtown, Connecticut --It was indeed a picturesque New England town in Connecticut before that awful day in December when a deranged young man perpetrated a senseless killing spree that claimed the lives of 26 beautiful educators and children who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The world saw a different, harsher image of the bucolic town on the edge of suburbia just a few months ago than the one in my mind from a number of lovely visits to hear Irish music there hosted by the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society (STIMS) rooted in Fairfield County.
I am a firm believer that music plays a very important part in the healing process when sadness and grief strike the heart, so there wasn’t a question that I would venture to Newtown once again for a concert. Last Saturday provided that opportunity.
The timing couldn’t have been better on a personal basis as the Saturday also coincidentally turned out to be the occasion of a Month’s Mind Mass in nearby Darien, Connecticut for my older brother Kevin Stephen Keating, who passed away February 8 in Jupiter, Florida his winter home, having lost a battle with lung cancer.
After spending time with family reunited for the occasion from across the country my soul needed some uplifting, and an evening with one of my favorite music groups, Sliabh Notes, provided the perfect occasion.
It was three years ago when I last saw and heard Sliabh Notes, whose tours and opportunities to play together have become rarer due to other responsibilities and commitments. The trio consists of fiddler Matt Cranitch (Cork), accordion player Donal Murphy (West Limerick) and vocalist/guitarist Tommy O’Sullivan (Kerry).
It was in the very same venue, the Newtown Meeting House directly opposite the symbolic tall white flag pole in the middle of the road. The occasion then for them had extra special meaning as O’Sullivan was en route to his wedding in Texas to Saundra, with whom he now owns and runs the Courthouse Pub in Dingle, Co. Kerry, a musical mecca for Irish musicians in recent years.
Like many of the venues in the STIMS arsenal, the Newtown Meeting House seems a perfect fit for listening to music. Purpose built centuries ago (1720) for town meetings and prayer as a congregational church from colonial days, it now is a historically preserved building that still plays a useful role in the town and for artistic endeavors like this, and when STIMS features an act there it is usually a must-attend affair.
Touring musicians are subject to so many vagaries on the road that when they pull into town and set up in the Newtown Meeting House for a sound check and then a short walk to an equally charming Newtown Inn for a pre-concert repast, they know it won’t be an ordinary night on the hustings.
But is it is the acoustics and intimacy that the spare unadorned venue provides that helps create a special bond and excitement between artist and audience that is the real trump card here.
And so it was for Sliabh Notes, who convey all the joy and exhilaration that one expects from the music of Sliabh Luachra, that rushy marsh mountain region where West Limerick, Kerry and Cork all meet.
Known for spirited dance music predominated by polkas and slides and airs inspired by the aisling poets also associated with that part of Ireland are its hallmark, and Sliabh Notes one of its more successful practitioners.
Since their last visit three years ago the tragedy that struck the town in December touched the hearts of these artists as it did many others who performed here over the years, and they spoke several times of the need for the broken community to heal as they introduced tunes or songs like the slow air “Aisling Gheal” from the Cuil Aodha region of West Cork that Cranitch performed on fiddle. The silence in the room was respectful and reflective in light of recent events there.
Singer O’Sullivan implored everyone to give it their all “from the heart” in living life to the fullest without looking for a reason.
The touchstone of the Sliabh Luachra magic is the chemistry between fiddler Cranitch and box player Murphy producing gorgeous dance music that frankly is very hard to take sitting down.
My toes were not only tapping a rhythmic beat but dancing figures while resting comfortably in the cushioned pews.
It wouldn’t take much imagination to see bodies flying around the dance floor propelled by authentic music like “Jerry’s Beaver Hat” or “Denis Murphy’s Slide” that not only captures the spirit but the heart of the music as well.
Both Cranitch and Murphy manage to circulate freely outside the state of mind that is Sliabh Luachra, turning out jigs and reels with the best of them as well. Their excellent three reel set of tunes (“Providence,” “Man of the House” and “Speed the Plough”) would have delighted any of the set dancers in Clare in their timing and liveliness.
Seasoned and well–traveled musicians like Cranitch, Murphy and O’Sullivan have a firm handle on the large and small venues and everything in between, and their enthusiasm for a special place like Newtown and hosts like the STIMS Irish Music Society (www.shamrockirishmusic.org) is genuine.
Said Murphy towards the end of the night, “The atmosphere is electric, and we hope you are getting as much out of our playing here as we are. We love this part of the world and the people who make it happen.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.