Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Irish Have Been Coming Here for Years

As the previous posts on this blog suggest, I can often be found at the more hip and exclusive folk music venues around town. This was again the case on Sunday afternoon when I found my way into the rec room of the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, the Upper East Side equivalent of a senior citizens' center, to hear a touch of Celtic music.

Although I was a minority in the age demographic, everyone started having a grand time as soon as Munnelly, Flaherty and Masure took the stage. I had seen accordionist David Munnelly play with his full band this past summer at the Old Songs Festival, where his Friday night concert set was marred by some rather unfortunate sound problems, and the band's discontent with the situation became increasingly apparent over the course of the set. But he had stuck in my mind as a notably energetic and enthusiastic performer, and I was certainly ready to make the trek over to the forbidden land of the Upper East Side to see what he had up his sleeve with this new trio that includes Scottish vocalist Helen Flaherty and Belgian guitarist Philip Masure.

The band opened with a set of reels, and David Munnelly's leg slapped down the beat on the stage with great force--he lets it bang around loosely, like a limberjack's leg--and he would punctuate the tunes with the occasional loud yelp as well. (If you were not paying attention and you heard him do this, you might think that he had caught his nose in his accordion or something.) Then Helen Flaherty showed off her vocal skills on a classic Scottish ballad where the young lady's father kills her suitor and then tries to make recompense, but the daughter is having none of it. Munnelly greeted the applause at the end of this song with an appropriate "T'anks very much!" (I guess he hasn't gotten the memo yet.)

"Dr. Picard," given to a Belgian friend as a birthday gift, was the next tune, and Helen Flaherty started playing some bodhran on it. As she would describe at the end of the concert--when the audience was allowed to ask questions--her bodhran was Bavarian in origin. To me, it seemed much deeper than a typical bodhran, and she also spent a fair amount of time tuning it (sticking her head inside the drum to hear the change in tone), which I have not noticed before at Irish concerts.

Some other nice tunes in the set included a set that began with a Venezuelan dance (simply called "La Partita") and segued into an Irish tune and then a Flemish tune and then another Irish tune. Munnelly let loose a loud scream during that one! And then "Whenever," the title track from their CD, which might have been composed either by David or his brother. As David tells the story, he brought home the tapes from the recording session and started playing them, and his brother said, "Oh, you've recorded my tune!" And David said, "I didn't think so, but maybe I have." David also pointed out for us that CDs are "multi-functional": "You can buy a CD for people you like... or for people you hate!"

A New York composer cropped up at last when David announced, "We're going to really annoy you now by playing two Jewish tunes. The great thing about playing Irish music is that you can play more of other types of music because nobody really wants to hear Irish tunes." These were two Andy Statman tunes--Andy received applause from no one in the audience besides me, I am sad to report--and David had learned them during his time playing with legendary Irish band De Dannan. Philip Masure picked up the cittern for these tunes and for the final set of the afternoon. (During the final set of tunes, he even gracefully shifted capo position mid-set. I always appreciate feats of skill like that.)

David Munnelly introduced that final set by saying, "We're coming to the end of our performance," and then when the sounds of disappointment from the crowd were not as loud as expected, "I said, 'We're coming to the end of our performance here,'" and then finally, "Let's try that again! Say it like you mean it! Raaarh!" And so we did. The band answered a few questions after the performance.

I am pleased to note that they will be making a stop in my future home of Champaign, Illinois, on April 20th, playing at the Piper's Hut. I am pleased to note this because it indicates the presence of an Irish music series in the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area! Woo!

And finally, for completists, you can find the band's stage specifications and meal preferences here.

Feel Like They Own the Place

Since that afternoon concert clearly was not enough Irish music for me, I joined up with Rebecca and Dan who were going to a session at a pub on 30th Street called The Crooked Knife. (Rebecca was in the midst of a weekend of celebrations surrounding the successful defense of her dissertation. Dan threw quite the party for her on Friday night!) The session had been recommended by their friend Tim who is a guitarist that attends a number of different Irish sessions around the City.

Unfortunately, the band described on the pub's website--Heather Martin Bixler on fiddle, Jon Hicks on guitar and Brian Conway on fiddle--was not the band performing on Sunday night. Instead there was a female vocalist and guitarist and a lead tenor banjo player. Although I never caught their names, they proved ready to put on an enjoyable evening of tunes. The banjo fills and solos were particularly nice.

I mostly did not know the songs that they were playing--and I have no ear for recognizing Irish tunes when they are not being introduced. So the only song from the first set that I really knew was "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy," although several others sounded familiar. When they covered the Saw Doctors' "The Green and Red of Mayo" during their second set, I really started to feel it. And then the next song was a cover of Dougie Maclean's "Caledonia," which is a brilliant song. But the hour was getting late, so we couldn't stick around to see what was next in store for us but rather headed out into the New York night.

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