Published Wednesday, November 4, 2009, 3:08 PM
Back in 2008 a midtown pub garnered more than its share of notoriety for banning the singing of “Danny Boy,” the melancholy song penned to the Londonderry Air.
I don’t know if that PR stunt warranted a new chapter in a revised version of Malachy McCourt’s tome “Danny Boy: The Beloved Ballad,” but it certainly cast light on a song that has long created many a row for the emotional pangs and Irish angst it sets in motion whenever someone sings it, especially around St. Patrick’s Day.
Hearing it last Saturday evening as the closing encore by songstress Cathie Ryan at the Irish Arts Center, however, was a thing of beauty and in the right place at the right time, its simple eloquence and sentiment can steal your heart away.
Coming at the end of a two night stand at the familiar Hell’s Kitchen home for the Irish since the mid-1970s with aspirations for growing bigger, the Cathie Ryan Band did their bid to help bring that about and to help encourage its regular educational activities.
Back in those days, and for many years after, the center was a “Danny-Boy free-zone” also, mostly in strong reaction to those who thought it was the be-all and end-all of Irish music, to be sung anywhere and everywhere around St. Patrick’s Day for the once a year Irish crowd. The nascent Irish Arts Center was planting seeds that would be nurturing the Irish arts year round without attaching itself to an anthem that was as much a sobriety test as it was a song that touched the heart and soul in more liquid environs.
But in the voice of gifted singer like Ryan who received personal encouragement to sing the lonesome ballad one night at a Waldorf Astoria banquet by Liam Neeson, it takes on a new meaning devoid of mawkish sentimentality.
You could hear a pin drop in the center’s Donaghy Theatre while the audience hung on every familiar note and verse though taken by surprise at the selection for her closing number.
The irony of hearing “Danny Boy” sung in the present day Irish Arts Center was a fleeting notion that gave way to a more prevailing impression that the evening had made on me.
I have seen and heard Ryan perform in a number of places and with varying accompanying casts over the year, but I don’t think that I ever heard her sing better or more soulfully, and I think the setting had something to do with that.
The quiet hush in the room was a testament to the spell she was weaving this Halloween night whether or not it was witches brew steaming from her little thermos bottle on stage. Even though it has been five years since her last recording, her material still has great power.
Especially for those who are hearing Ryan for the first time, her crystal clear singing offers just a touch of heartbreak for the common touch.
Like any good folk singer, she has a knack for knowing what songs are honest for her and she is very capable of producing her own songs when she has something to convey as well. She moved easily from songs like John Spillane’s “Wildflowers,” the country song “Rough and Rocky,” the Irish lullaby “Dance the Baby,” Rick Kemp’s “Somewhere Along the Road” and Alan Bell’s “Here’s to You.”
The latter song was one of those parting glass songs that lend itself to audience participation, and they willingly complied with a strong vocal presence and familiarity with the melody and lyric.
Ryan included a couple of her own songs, one being a happy love song, “Carrick-a-Rede,” about the rope bridge up north, and “Grandma’s Song,” reminiscing about her paternal grandmother Cathleen for whom she was named.
Growing up in Detroit in an Irish household with roots in Kerry and Tipperary, Ryan was fortunate to spend many summers at home in Ireland soaking up what she could from her grandparents. It was the era before television became such an intrusive presence.
Ryan learned a lot of songs in this atmosphere, and the value of the singing tradition and the spoken word to share with others in the room in intimate surroundings were lessons that stayed with her and aided her career.
And while she has played many a stage larger than this 99-seat gem, it would be hard to make a stronger connection with an audience.
Now living in Ireland and touring several times a year in America, it is imperative to have a good reliable band to accompany her on the road here, and the current crew of Matt Mancuso (from Brooklyn) on fiddle, Patsy O’Brien (from Cork by way of Connecticut) on guitar and backup vocals and Brian Melick (Albany) on percussion suits Ryan to a T.
It is a cracking band with their own chemistry as very well demonstrated when they rendered a version of the “Star of the County Down” sung by O’Brien in a bluesy-style that one might have expected from Van Morrison had he not gone in a more traditional route with the Chieftains.
The weekend shows were arranged by Irish Arts Center board member Jim Houlihan, a long-time friend of Ryan’s who wanted to show some support for the Irish Arts Center and its need to find another space that could fulfill its larger ambitions for Irish culture.
Ryan’s performance showed us why it is important that there are venues like this for today’s artists, and why audiences are important for artists in today’s climate where recordings no longer provide a living.
Perhaps we are returning to a time where the best performances are for people who want to share the same time and space and be culturally enriched at the same time. The Irish Arts Center has grown into that kind of place now that can even “rehabilitate” Danny Boy with the right feeling.
It is something to keep in mind as they explore their options for a bigger place to operate.