Cathal Hayden Mairtin O Connor and Seamie O'Dowd. (Photos by Erin Baiano)
With its long tradition as an elite Ivy League school and proximity to the revitalized Center City of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts would be an enticing venue for any artist.

Its spacious proscenium auditorium, the Zellerbach Theatre seats almost a thousand people, offering an aesthetic and contemporary setting for an ensemble like Masters of Tradition organized for a recent coast-to-coast tour by the Clare fiddler Martin Hayes.

Keeping with the raison-être of the Bantry-based originator, the Masters of Tradition Festival held each year in August, the focus is on presenting traditional Irish music in an unadorned fashion where the audience can focus on the artistry and skill of the musicians in historic buildings in West Cork like Bantry House and St. Brendan’s Church.

The Zellerbach Theatre would be a significant place for this tour to appear, and from a first-time visit to the esteemed locale in mid-tour, the importance was born out.

The six-city tour for the Masters of Tradition included New York, Boston, Alexandria, Virginia, Olympia, Washington, Denver and Philadelphia and averaged 600 patrons for the seven-member complement first assembled for a two-night invitation to the Sydney Opera House.

The stellar cast included sean nos singer Iarla O’Lionaird, piper David Power, a trio of Mairtin O’Connor, Cathal Hayden and Seamie O' Dowd and the long time partners Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill.  Hayes and Cahill would be highly recognized performers in all the other venues besides Philly for their long-time duet touring that would be recognized as one of the more successful Irish acts on the road.

The Zellerbach would be a challenge for the Masters of Tradition troupe in the sense that the audience makeup would be similar to many performing arts centers with season ticket subscribers looking for new and interesting entertainment or music options, and therefore not totally familiar with traditional Irish music.

The first half of the show featured singer O’Lionaird’s Irish language songs and piper Power’s haunting uilleann piping performed with a chanter dating back 150 years, and once in the hands of the iconic Willie Clancy, followed by a riveting set by Hayes and Cahill and later Power.

Martin Hayes with piper David Power and singer Iarla O'Lionaird with Masters of Tradition.
The crowd politely applauded each selection, but the blistering last set of the first half brought thunderous applause and a standing ovation at the interval and a pivotal point had been reached for the musicians.

The second half opened with Iarla singing a song, “Shule Aroon,” from the canon of his Great-Aunt Bess Cronin, a noted singer from West Cork. And his final song in the encore was “Mo Ghile Mear,” (My Gallant Darling), the symbolic ode to Bonny Prince Charlie, and in between Gaelic selections that have marked him as one of Ireland’s pre-eminence singers.

The recent release of his CD Foxlight shows the form of a talented artist who can easily move from the old world into a more contemporary one, taking the Irish language along for a much-needed ride in the process.

The trio of O’Connor, Hayden and O’Dowd were prominently featured in the second half, proving that they were no “fossils of folk” sharing some of the music from their brand new recording Going Places, their second CD together as one of Ireland’s more dynamic contemporary trad groups. 

At times blazing fast and savage, but never out of control and in their deft hands, the music and notes are very capably shared with one another as they feed off each other’s playing on accordion, fiddle and guitar and vocals.

They play with great clarity no matter what the speed, and also with great subtlety and feeling for the music, especially when accompanying O’Dowd’s voice in a song like “Believe Me Sligo.”

This magnificent seven bore out the underlying treatise that Hayes operates under in that traditional music is the equal of any other form, and can strike and capture the hearts of music fans anywhere and at any time.  

And on this night like the others on the tour, the imaginative Hayes set out to take the audience on a journey that trad music has taken over the past two centuries in a brilliant stage show that will continue to draw interest and appeal into the future when venues like this are available and ready to offer entertainment like this.

Hayes is one of the busiest people in Irish music these days, moving smartly and innovatively from one collaboration to another in sharp contrast to performing with one band or individual until the air runs out of the tires. 

In this economic climate it pays to be light on your feet and flexible, and it is a trend you are seeing more and more among Irish musicians. 

In fact, Martin’s next stateside engagements will be with flute player Kevin Crawford and guitarist/vocalist John Doyle in a superstar tour traveling over in May under the name the Teetotallers, another compelling trio to watch out for.

We’ll share more on them down the road, but you can keep track of their whereabouts at, including Joe’s Pub on Sunday, June 3.

If you are tempted to experience the five day Masters of Tradition in Bantry, it will be August 15-19.
Among those joining Martin and Dennis will be Clare kinfolk in Seamus Connolly and the Tulla Ceili Band (where Martin’s father P. Joe Hayes was a founding member and long-time leader) along with Moya Brennan.

Keep an eye on for further details.