It’s not often that three of Chicago’s finest Irish traditional musicians play their first formal concert as a trio in Connecticut. But, as the saying goes, there is a time and a place for everything, and Newtown Meeting House last Thursday evening was that time and that place for fiddler Liz Carroll, tenor banjo and tenor guitar-player Pauline Conneely, and piper and flutist Sean Gavin. Everyone who was there can testify that it was a delightful privilege to see them share the stage.
The show started off with a set of reels, played by Mr Gavin on flute, Ms Carroll on fiddle, and Ms Conneely on banjo. The names might have been forgotten by the musicians, but the name of an Irish tune is nothing more than a convenient tag. They knew what they were playing, and it was fierce, lovely, and wild music.
The next set of tunes were three jigs: “The One That Was Lost,” “The Morning Lark,” and “McKinney’s,” the last of which is a composition of Ms Carroll’s.
Phil Cunningham, a Scottish mulch-instrumentalist and composer, wrote a waltz, “Flatwater Fran,” for one of his relatives who enjoys rowing. Not being a rower, I cannot say if it does or does not sound like oars in the water, but it is a lovely tune.
Mr Gavin switched to six-string guitar to back up Ms Conneely’s rendition on tenor guitar, a four-stringed instrument tuned like the tenor banjo, an octave under the mandolin or the fiddle. They followed the waltz with “The Reel of Rio,” composed by the great County Tipperary fiddler Seán Ryan. Ms Conneely dedicated the set “to my beautiful Aunt Bridget, my mum’s sister, who’s here tonight.”
Mr Gavin then switched to his other primary instrument, the uilleann pipes, the Irish bellows-driven bagpipe, for the next set, consisting of “The Kerry Jig,” learned from a recording of Leo Rowsome, an influential piper, pipe-maker, and teacher sometimes called “the King of the Pipers,” and the melody of a song the name of which no one could remember.
Mr Gavin asked if the audience would like another tune on the pipes, and all agreed they would.
“Thank you,” he said, “it might be hard to believe, but people don’t always say yes, believe it or not.”
His unique version of the popular jig “Cook in the Kitchen,” learnt from an early wax cylinder recording made by the piper Bernard Delany in Chicago, went well with Clare piper Willie Clancy’s “The Golden Ring.”
As well as being a fiddler of breathtaking skill and style, Liz Carroll is one of the most respected composers working in Irish traditional music today. She named the jig “The Giant’s Cave” for a site outside Tullamore, County Offaly and “Go Ahead Back Up” is named for an Abbott and Costello routine.
On the subject of compositions, Ms Carroll said that had she been working on an Irish equivalent of Sergei Prokofiev’s orchestral children’s story Peter and the Wolf. The tune for the wolf is a lovely minor-key hornpipe, which Ms Carroll played on unaccompanied fiddle, and the tune for the duck is a jig, for which Ms Conneely joined her on banjo. The set was dedicated to two young girls in the audience, Áine and Fiona, whom the band had met at the break.
“Are they still here?” Ms Carroll said. “Oh, they were put to bed. Just tell them that we thought of them.”
Ms Conneely next played “Paddy Shannon’s Barndance” and “The Honeymoon Reel” on the banjo, backed up by Mr Gavin on guitar. Afterward it was time for another set on the pipes, which Mr Gavin described as “the safest instrument in Irish music — there’s a seat belt, an air bag, and even a car horn.” He proved his point by drawing a cheerful honk from the regulators before playing the jigs “Fasten the Leg in Her” and “The Banks of Newfoundland.” The regulators are a set of additional pipes which allow the piper to accompany himself with chords; this is a unique feature which distinguishes the uilleann pipes among the many different sorts of bagpipe found from Egypt to the British Isles.
Toward the end of the concert the three musicians were joined by a guest, Kelsey Lutz, a fiddler from Ann Arbor, Mich., and a student of Mr Gavin’s father, the County Clare-born Mick Gavin. They played a set of reels popular in Chicago Irish music circles: “George White’s,” “The Bird in the Bush,” and “The Tinker’s Daughter.”
As always happens at the end of such a stunning performance, the audience demanded an encore. The band chose to end the show with another set of reels, starting with the well-known “Maudabawn Chapel,” composed by the County Cavan-born Ed Reavy, a plumber by trade who immigrated to Philadelphia at age 12. It was a lovely way to end a lovely evening.