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Cover is flawless in ‘The Philanderer’

POSTED ON February 1st  - POSTED IN Arts

Rachel Bochan (Grace Tranfield) and Bradford Cover (Leonard Charteris) star in Bernard Shaw’s “The Philanderer.”

“The Philanderer” By Bernard Shaw * Director: Gus Kaikkonen * Pearl Theatre Company 307 West 38th St. at 8th Avenue * Through Feb. 19

George Bernard Shaw was 37 in 1893 when he wrote “The Philanderer,” the first play he did on his own.

Supposedly due to strict censorship of the period, and the play’s somewhat sexual content, it wasn’t produced until 1902 or even 1905, depending on the source to which you refer.

Shaw had, before “The Philanderer,” made a single attempt at collaboration, “Widowers’ Houses,” which he wrote with a friend who was a published critic, William Archer, as he himself was.

Shaw had for some 20 years been writing mainly about music, which came naturally to him, since there was much of it in the “shabby, genteel poverty” of his childhood on Synge Street in Dublin.

His journalistic assignments appear to have come mainly, at least at the beginning, though Archer’s influence.

Shaw later rewrote “Widower’s Houses” on his own, and it stands as his first produced play, though it was given just two private performances. His third play, “Arms and the Man,” came along in 1904 and was successful enough to change the course of his life.

In between there was “The Philanderer,” which Shaw appears to have suggested stands as something of a self-portrait. Shaw seems to have seen himself as the rather rough-hewn Leonard Charteris, involved with two women, the sedate and modern Grace Tranfield, and the tempestuous Julia Craven, to whom he had been attached in somewhat earlier days.

Shaw did know women who might have served as models for Grace and Julia. One, Jenny Paterson, was a friend of his mother, while the other, Florence Farr, was an Abbey Theatre actress. What was precisely the nature of their relationship remains something of a mystery to this day, but actress Farr’s rage at discovering Shaw’s fondness for Paterson appears to have formed the basis for Act One of “The Philanderer.”

Under the skilled direction of Gus Kaikkonen, whose sixth Pearl production this is, “The Philanderer” ranks as just about the strongest show the group has done since moving to their new home on West 55th Street.

Actor Bradford Cover has been a resident company member of the Pearl since 1994, but it’s doubtful if he’s ever come across as successfully as he is playing Leonard Charteris. He gives a flawless performance, which centers and balances the play to perfection.

With J.R. Sullivan currently in his third season as artistic director, the Pearl appears to have achieved a comfortable and workable arrangement involving company members working alongside those chosen from the rich pool of New York actors for their suitability for a particular role.

In the case of the eight actors required for “The Philanderer,” five are members of the Pearl company and the rest were hired for the production, including Karron Graves as the willful Julia and Shalita Grant as her younger sister, Sylvia. Also new to the company is Chris Richards, playing a Page Boy and a Butler, and understudying Leonard Charteris.

The other four Pearl regulars in addition to Cover are all excellent. They are: Rachel Botchan as Grace Tranfield; Dominic Cuskern as her father, Joseph Cuthbertson; Dan Daily is Colonel Daniel Craven, father of Julia and Sylvia; and Chris Mixon is Dr. Percy Paramore.

It’s a pity that “The Philanderer” is performed so seldom and that it remains virtually unknown even to many GBS enthusiasts. It may be its author’s first completed play, but it’s full of life and energy, and the Pearl has done it richly and well.


Crowd approves of new band’s genre-blending

POSTED ON January 25th  - POSTED IN Arts

Conor McGuirk and Brian McArtin of Broken Banjo Strings.

When you go out to see live Irish music you run the risk of breaking a leg on the dance floor or straining a facial muscle from smiling too much or any number of precarious situations that go along with having too much fun. But if Broken Banjo Strings is the band you’re out to see, you’re in good hands. The trio, who recently had their very first official gig together, is comprised of a police dispatcher, an occupational therapy student and an EMT.  Live Irish music by emergency personnel – now you’re talking!

Day jobs aside, the members of the band – Brian McArtin, Katie Linnane and Conor McGuirk, are master musicians who love both traditional Irish music and American roots music, and blend the genres well. Their first gig at An Beal Bocht Café in the Bronx showcased their new sound, their young energy and their impressive musicianship.  Traditional jigs, reels, and airs were played right beside Richard Shindell songs, Counting Crows covers and old Appalachian tunes. It was a good mix of new and familiar, and the crowd definitely dug it.

I’ve heard that it’s tough starting a band, but Broken Banjo Strings makes it seem easy. It started when McArtin – a Yonkers musician who dove into the Irish music scene over 10 years ago – began running the popular Sunday evening session at the Rambling House in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx. Linnane, an accomplished fiddle player and instructor from Pearl River, N.Y., and McGuirk, an all-Ireland accordion and piano player from Queens, became regulars at the session. And given their musical chemistry it was a no-brainer for the three to take their show on the road. After seeing their first gig I give them kudos not only for their playing, but also for their passion and eclectic song choice. I recently read a quote from Irish traditional flute player, Desi Wilkinson. He said “play only tunes and songs you’re mad about.”  Well, Broken Banjo Strings play songs they’re mad about and they play them well, and that’s why I see great things ahead for the trio.

McArtin tells me that the group has plans to record an album in 2012, but for now I look forward to my next chance to see them live. That’s coming up on February 10th at An Bael Bocht Cafe, and on St. Patrick’s Day at The Rambling House.

If you’re looking for some good tunes this week, head to Tir na Nog in NYC for Morning Star on 1/27, Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar in NYC for the Mikey Finns on 1/28, and Rory Dolan’s in Yonkers to see the Narrowbacks on 1/29.

‘Let the People Sing’ tells Wolfe Tones’ story

POSTED ON January 18th  - POSTED IN Arts

Brian Warfield of the legendary Irish folk and ballad group, The Wolfe Tones , meets up with his fellow band members, Tommy Byrne, and Noel Nagle in Dublin Airport to embark on an international tour. At the Aer Lingus counter Warfield finds out his bag is too heavy to check, and when he opens the suitcase to lighten the load, he reveals a sea of green, white, and gold headbands – the signature garb worn by Wolfe Tones fans around the world. Too many to carry on the plane, he gladly forks one over to the Aer Lingus attendant. The men can’t help but laugh, and neither could I.

This is a glimpse into the life of the Wolfe Tones from a new documentary from Kenneally Films, “Let the People Sing: The Wolfe Tones Story.”

When you spend 48 years on the road telling stories of Ireland and its people through song, you inevitably rack up a few stories of your own. Finally, the Wolfe Tones story has been told through interviews and never-before-seen archive material in the film.

“Let the People Sing” provides a history of the band while spotlighting the group’s unbelievable accomplish-ments in the face of great controversy brought on by the political nature of many of their most popular songs. The interviews and commentary reveal the struggles and celebrations of the band, but the most powerful aspect of the film is the footage from their concerts around the world. Crowd shots spanning decades capture fans yelling out every single word of each ballad, swaying, jigging, clapping, and even holding hands with complete strangers for crying out loud. It’s an eye opener to the sheer power of the WolfeTones’ music.

Lucky for us New Yorkers, the Wolfe Tones come to town each St. Patrick’s Day season. And New Yorkers know that it’s not just the history of Ireland that the band is interested in sharing through their music. Many of their songs speak to the Irish American experience, especially the well loved song, The Streets of New York. Byrne, Nagle, and Warfield speak of their love for America and the Big Apple in the film, even calling the US a “second home.”

The Wolfe Tones’ New York City home this March will be at Connolly’s Klub 45 on the 10th, 15th, and 16th.  Go enjoy a burger, a beer, and a ballad. Hear the stories of Ireland and Irish America, buy yourself a tricolor head band and don’t be afraid to hold hands with a stranger!

For some tunes around town this week check out McLean Avenue duo with Padraig Allen at the Pig & Whistle in NYC on 1/19, Shilelagh Law at the Glenrowan in Yonkers on 1/20 and Black 47 at the Emelin Theatre in Mamaroneck on 1/21.

Legendary venue to begin 4th act in 2012

POSTED ON January 11th  - POSTED IN Arts

The original Towne Crier Café, which opened 40 years ago.

Along with spending a day at the Galway Races and sailing to the Caribbean aboard an Irish music cruise, a trip to see live music at the Towne Crier Café has been on my bucket list for quite some time now. So I was feeling a bit blue when I heard that the venue in Pawling, N.Y., would close its doors after their line-up of February shows. Then I read the happy news that founder and owner, Phil Ciganer, plans to continue his mission of presenting live music in the Hudson Valley in a new location in 2012. Yes! I had not missed the boat on this one.

The decision to relocate came about as a result of an expired lease and the building going on the market. The Towne Crier Café moved twice after Ciganer opened it in 1972, the second time 23 years ago. Irish artists continued to flock to the venue through the changes.  The Hothouse Flowers, Cherish the Ladies, Solas, Eileen Ivers, Paul Brady & Andy Irvine, and Lunasa have all graced the stage at the Towne Crier, and when I asked Ciganer what his favorite Celtic music memory at the club is, he simply said: “They have all been really special.”

I must admit that I feel a little strange writing about a venue I’ve never been to, but when I recommend that Irish Echo readers stay tuned to hear more about the new location of this venue, trust me on this one. The Bothy Band has played there, and so have the Clancy Brothers.  Seriously, the Bothy Band and the Clancy Brothers! Phil Ciganer is definitely doing something right.

Besides, I tend to go there in my imagination each time I listen to one of my favorite recordings of live Irish music, “The Clancy Tradition Live at the Towne Crier Café.”  The 1998 album features very fine and lively music, but just as present as the Clancy Tradition is the joy of the audience. Each time I hear it I can picture myself front row in a cozy café swaying and singing along in the company of true music lovers who know how to have a good time.

I’ll keep you posted on Ciganer’s future plans for the café, and since I don’t have the time or money to take off to Galway or the Caribbean I look forward to grabbing hold of my next chance to see live Irish Music at the Towne Crier Café, no matter where it’s located.

In the meantime, check out Mary Courtney followed by Broken Banjo Strings at An Beal Bocht in Riverdale on 1/13, and on 1/14 you’ll have to choose between Jameson’s Revenge at Ulysses in NYC, the Cunningham Brothers at Byrne and Hanrahan in Yonkers, and Cathie Ryan at the Walkabout Clearwater Coffeehouse in White Plains. That’s the Sound Around this week!

Irish music usually means very happy venue

POSTED ON January 4th  - POSTED IN Arts

Liz Noonan, left, pictured with Colleen Taylor and Tara Cuzzi, the student hosts of WFUV’s “Ceol na nGael.

This year I made a New Year’s resolution that will be hard to break. I normally set myself up for failure by resolving to stay home more, save money, and behave myself, so I’m taking a different approach this year. In 2012, I resolve to continue to step it out, follow my ears to find the best music the city has to offer, and spread the word to Irish Echo readers about all the fun there is to be had.

I’ve been deeply involved in the Irish music scene in the tri-state area since I began working at WFUV radio in 2001. WFUV is a member-supported public radio station that broadcasts from Fordham University in the Bronx. As a Fordham sophomore, I was given the job of co-hosting the Sunday Irish music program, “Ceol na nGael.”  For a girl who grew up listening to the show and falling madly in love with Irish music, this was a dream come true.

I spent my undergraduate years at Fordham studying hard, listening to countless albums from artists whose work is rooted in the music of Ireland, and squeezing in a trip or two (or two hundred) to the nearby McLean Avenue area to hear live Irish music.  I would drag my tired bones into work on Sunday mornings brimming with excitement over the music I enjoyed the night before. WFUV gave me the chance to share that excitement with tens of thousands of listeners who tuned into 90.7 FM from noon-4pm each Sunday.  It was the time of my life, and still is. Over a decade later, I continue to spend my Sundays at WFUV as the producer of the program.

I have learned a lot during my time at Fordham and WFUV, about media and radio, my heritage and my community. I’ve learned that I’m very lucky to be living in New York City, a place that is rich with all kinds of Irish music, and I’ve learned that anywhere there is live Irish music it is usually a very happy place.  Still so many musicians go unrecognized, and so many music lovers don’t know where to go for their fix of Irish music. So I’m setting out to tell you about all the mighty music happening in the tri-state area.

Hat’s off to WFUV and the Irish Echo for giving me the opportunity to give some well-deserved exposure to the bands and artists who are passionate about the music of Ireland, and cheers to the artists who bring the music into our lives. My experience has shown me what a great source of joy it is to so many people.

I want to be your fun hunter, your session seeker, your concert connector, and your Irish album advisor. If you’re on board, check in with me weekly here at the Irish Echo and reconsider your New Year’s resolution!


Columnist praises artists, readers, editors

POSTED ON December 28th  - POSTED IN Arts

Earle Hitchner with his feline muse, Mazek.

This is my last “Ceol” column for the Irish Echo and the last time I’ll be writing for it.

Before I came to the Irish Echo, I had established for a different Irish-American newspaper what was probably the first-ever, full-page, weekly column on Irish traditional music. That column, “Sounds Irish,” ran from the summer of 1989 to the fall of 1991. I must have done something right, because the column I launched still appears there but under a different title with a different writer, who is a friend and trad enthusiast I admire.

I began at the Irish Echo in December 1991, and I end with this last issue of December 2011. It has been a full, fruitful, memorable 20 years of chronicling my deep passion for the best in Irish traditional music for discerning, devoted readers – you.

I thank Tom Connelly, former editor in chief of the Irish Echo, for welcoming me to its pages in December 1991 and for allowing me to jump from weekly reviews and articles to a weekly, full-page, frequently multi-page column called “Ceol.” I hope it proved worthy of his trust in me. I also thank Eileen Murphy, former arts editor and art director of the Irish Echo, for her deft handling of my weekly submissions over the past two decades. Both Tom and Eileen intuitively understood what I was trying to achieve in my writing about Irish traditional music and gave me the freedom to do so. I am in their debt.

About 1,100 reviews, profiles, articles, and “Ceol” columns have appeared under my byline or with my tag in the Irish Echo. I am particularly proud of the past few years when I felt I was writing at my peak for this newspaper. Only a small handful of the 1,100 pieces would I revise or refine retroactively. Such second-guessing is the occupational hazard of journalism, defined by Matthew Arnold as “literature in a hurry.”

It’s impossible for me to recount in this last column all the previous Irish Echo columns and other pieces that made a dramatic difference in my life. But if I were pressed to identify the most significant of all, it would be my cumulative and especially early writing about button accordionist Joe Derrane. I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and interviewing many brilliant musicians, Irish or otherwise, but only twice in my life have I met in the flesh a bona fide musical genius: Joe Derrane and jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins. The humility displayed by these two titans about their art provided me with a profound insight into what drives a great musician to excel and then to exceed his or her own expectation. Their musical standard is the highest of all: self-imposed.

I suspect that many years from now, my chief if not sole legacy as a music writer will be how I convinced Joe Derrane to return to the button accordion and Irish traditional music after a 35-year gap. It started innocently enough in the fall of 1993 with my brief phone call to him in Randolph, Mass., which set up my next phone call lasting more than four hours. Halfway through that long interview, I was convinced–without ever seeing then 63-year-old retiree Joe Derrane play the button accordion–that he still had the fire inside to perform on the D/C# box again. The next day, I called Mike Denney, director of the Washington, D.C., Irish Folk Festival, to ask him to invite Joe Derrane to perform there in 1994. Mike said he would on one condition: that I take full responsibility for Joe that day. I was happy to oblige, and on May 29, 1994, 64-year-old Joe Derrane, after a few months of intense woodshedding, began the most miraculous second act of any musician’s life I can think of. It remains my proudest moment in music.

Between 1991 and 2011 in the Irish Echo, I wrote glowingly about seven Irish traditional performers who during that period received the United States’ highest honor for a traditional or folk artist: the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. They are Jack Coen (1991), Liz Carroll (1994), Donny Golden (1995), Mick Moloney (1999), Kevin Burke (2002), Joe Derrane (2004), and Mike Rafferty (2010). At the invitation of First Lady Hillary Clinton and NEA Chair Jane Alexander, I attended the awards ceremony for Golden in the White House, and at the invitations of NEA Chairs Dana Gioia and Rocco Landesman, I attended the awards ceremonies for Derrane and Rafferty in the U.S. Library of Congress. Seeing how emotional then 74-year-old Joe Derrane and 83-year-old Mike Rafferty became during the ceremonies will never leave my memory. And I will miss my annual badgering of the NEA to honor more Irish traditional artists in the future, such as the eminently deserving Seamus Connolly and Billy McComiskey.

Death depleted me several times during my two decades at the Irish Echo, which gave me the consoling space to write about the loss of my father, my mother, my nephew Jason, Seamus Connolly’s wife Sandy Walter, Joe Derrane’s wife Anne, Joe Madden, Mike Rafferty, and Johnny Cunningham. The last line in Mary Oliver’s poem “When Death Comes” floods back to me: “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” None of those I cited did. I miss them all.

The strongest reaction I’ve ever received to any single “Ceol” column, however, was the sudden surge of messages sent to my personal e-mail address after I wrote “The Wild, the Innocent, and the Sig Phi Shuffle” column for the June 29, 2011, issue. In it I focused on recently deceased Clarence Clemons, a cornerstone of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and described his impact on my college friends and me in my hometown of Philadelphia. I was gratified but also a little startled that a highly personal take on rock, rhythm-and-blues, and soul in my trad column would strike a resounding chord in so many. Certainly, reconnecting with people I remember and who still remember me from Philly was an unexpected dividend. La Salle University, my alma mater there, even listed the column on its website, where it sparked further e-mails to me.

In my 20 years at the Irish Echo, I never wrote “down” to you, my readers. I have too much respect for you to deliver diluted content, and I abhor staid or slipshod prose. “Sloppy writing is the sign of a sloppy mind,” my high-school freshman English teacher drilled into me.

A number of journalists write according to how they’re paid, giving less effort for less money. I can’t do that. The reason is simple: my professional reputation rests on all my professional writing.

If “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” as Walter Pater asserted, then all writing about music should constantly aspire towards capturing some of that “condition” in prose style. One of the biggest failings in music journalists, apart from muddleheaded metaphors and mutilated grammar, is their inability or refusal to impart music through the actual choice and arrangement of words used to describe or critique it. Music contains meter, tone, and tempo, and so does writing at its most effective and persuasive. Why divorce them? Dull diction, sagging syntax, and clanking clichés hardly mirror the beauty of well-wrought music.

The best compliment I ever received about “Ceol” came from one of you: “When you write about Irish music, Earle, I can hear it.”

Though flattered, I was still aware that on occasion I missed the mark. When I did, one of you rightly informed me.

People become newspaper music critics for two basic reasons: (1) to share their love for music with as many people as they can, and (2) to do a better job than most of the journalists already covering music. Both goals are laudable. But what matters in the end is whether readers agree the critics attained them.

I was blessed with exemplary readers at the Irish Echo. Knowing you were out there scrutinizing my work motivated me to maintain my own self-imposed standard. Whenever I hit the target I intended, I was pleased in the hope you were too. Whenever I stumbled, I would wince because I thought you would too. From 1991 to 2011, I served only one master at the Irish Echo: you.

Always insist on the best possible writing about Irish traditional music, the luster of which too often has been dimmed by trite or tortured prose. Like jazz, Irish traditional music deserves coverage commensurate with its splendor. Don’t settle for anything less–ever.

As for my own immediate future, I plan to immerse myself in my dissertation so that I can finish it, receive my doctorate, and attempt to teach again at a university or college. I know what I’m up against: an estimated half of all recent doctorate holders in the humanities can’t find jobs in academia. They’ve been dubbed the lost generation of scholars. But I love to teach on the college level, and the evaluations I’ve received as an instructor at Penn, Drew, CUNY Lehman College, and elsewhere confirm I’m good at it. I bring to the classroom the same dedication and dynamism that I brought to my “Ceol” column. With luck, I hope I’ll get an offer to teach in college again this fall.

My writing about music and other subjects for periodicals will not end with this ending “Ceol” column. Once I obtain my doctorate, I also hope to write a book or two, drawing from my liner essays for 67 albums, scholarly lectures and articles, contributions to music reference books, and more newspaper, magazine, and journal pieces than I can recall now. I will always write, and, like my musical heroes, I will always strive to exceed my own expectation.

Farewell, loyal readers of “Ceol.” I owe you a debt of gratitude beyond words. I will miss you. If any of you want to contact me directly, you can e-mail me at



McComiskey is trad artist of 2011

POSTED ON December 21st  - POSTED IN Arts

Irish America has never had a better musical standard-bearer than Billy McComiskey.

When I phoned Billy McComiskey to tell him that he was the Irish Echo’s Traditional Artist of the Year for 2011, he replied, “Why? I didn’t do anything in 2011.”

That humility about his own prodigious accomplishments every year is one of many reasons why the Brooklyn-born, Baltimore resident button accordionist and composer has earned this highest and most coveted annual accolade from the Irish Echo for traditional music.

Since 1993, the Irish Echo has honored these 16 musicians and two radio hosts with its “Traditional Artist of the Year” award: Charlie Lennon, James Keane, Joe Derrane (a two-time recipient, 1995 and 2010), Seamus Egan, Joanie Madden, John Whelan, Mick Moloney, Liz Carroll, Kevin Crawford, Seamus Connolly, Mike Rafferty, Andy McGann (posthumous), Monsignor Charlie Coen, WFUV-FM’s Kathleen Biggins and WGBH-FM’s Brian O’Donovan (co-recipients for 2006), Micheal O Suilleabhain, Brian Conway, and John Doyle.

Is there any devotee of Irish traditional music who thinks Billy McComiskey doesn’t belong on that Olympian list?

Despite his protestation, McComiskey had a standout 2011. He appears on the best new Christmas album I’ve heard in several years, “An Irish Christmas: A Musical Solstice Celebration” (Irish Arts Center/NYC), and has just concluded a 14-show run of “An Irish Christmas” in the Donaghy Theater of Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center, where he was nothing less than brilliant. With customary distinction he taught the button accordion at the 2011 Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, N.Y. With self-effacing grace he supported and touted the album “Crabs in the Skillet” by the impressive Old Bay Ceili Band, whose members include his gifted button accordion-playing son, Sean, and whose CD features one of Billy’s compositions, the jig “Poor Timing.” And he wrote an insightful, thought-provoking short essay for the album “Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion” by Dan Gurney, a highly skillful button accordionist to whom Billy gave lessons when Gurney was seven.

Does all that sound like someone who “didn’t do anything in 2011”?

By overwhelming critical and popular consensus, only two U.S.-born musicians currently occupy the loftiest level of button accordion mastery in the U.S.: Joe Derrane, America’s greatest D/C# box player who is a 2004 National Heritage Fellowship winner, and Billy McComiskey, America’s greatest B/C box player who is the 1986 All-Ireland senior button accordion champion. As Derrane once told me: “When Billy plays, he makes us all proud of our Irish-American heritage.”

Like Derrane, McComiskey over the decades has been pivotal in shattering the long-term, stereotypical, distorted perception of the button accordion as an inferior, obnoxious instrument. He has raised the profile and stature of the button accordion through the sheer luminosity of his playing. Other button accordionists in America and Ireland owe him a huge debt for helping to resuscitate an instrument that never deserved to be put on a ventilator. Every note he plays on the box proves it belongs side by side with the fiddle and flute in both dexterity and prestige. Billy McComiskey makes the accordion sing.

His achievements in 2011 and in previous years constitute a formidable resume of music-making.


They include two exquisite solo albums (“Makin’ the Rounds” in 1981 and “Outside the Box,” the Irish Echo’s top trad recording for 2008), three influential albums with the Irish Tradition (“Catchin’ the Tune” in 1975, “The Corner House” in 1978, and “The Times We’ve Had” in 1985), two stirring albums with Trian (“Trian” in 1992 and “Trian II” in 1995), and “Pride of New York” (the Irish Echo’s top trad recording for 2009).

Billy McComiskey uses two B/C button accordions in performance now: a four-voice Saltarelle Tara and a rare, four-voice, gray Paolo Soprani. The latter previously belonged to his mentor and friend, Tynagh-born Sean McGlynn (1937-1983). By playing it, Billy keeps the memory of McGlynn tactilely alive.

So far, McComiskey has composed about 30 tunes, and a number of them have seeped into the repertoire of other musicians. Among his most popular compositions are “The Controversial Reel,” “Ohm’s Law” jig, “The Flowers of Brooklyn” reel, “Sleepless Nights” waltz, and “Sean McGlynn’s” jig.

During this year and prior years, Billy McComiskey has honored us with great playing and relentless nurturing of the best within Irish traditional music. Today, Dec. 21, the day he turns 60, the Irish Echo fittingly honors him. Irish America never had a better musical standard-bearer than Billy McComiskey, the Irish Echo’s Traditional Artist of the Year for 2011. Congratulations, Billy, and happy birthday.


Top 40 Irish traditional albums of 2011

Chosen from hundreds of recordings received during 2011, and in acknowledgment that a number of others were not received in time for review or consideration here, these 40 stellar recordings make excellent holiday gifts and belong in the home library of every Irish traditional music lover. As always, I stick my critic’s neck out and rank them in order of preference. Only the top ten have been annotated by me.

(1) “How to Tune a Fish” by Beoga (Compass): breathtaking virtuosity, unflagging energy, and inventive risk-taking from a unique quintet charting fresh territory.

(2) “Ego Trip” by MacDara O Raghallaigh (Laracor): Rathmolyon, Meath, fiddler, unaccompanied and live, delivers a solo debut that’s the single best fiddle album of the year.

(3) “Shadow and Light” by John Doyle (Compass): Dublin-born Doyle’s third and finest solo CD reveals a singer, guitarist, and composer in dazzling command of his music.

(4) “Deadly Buzz” by Mick O’Brien and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh (Irish Music Net): superb, eagerly awaited follow-up to the supreme “Kitty Lie Over” album in 2003 by this inspired uilleann piper and fiddler.

(5) “In Retrospect” by Danny O’Mahony ( the 1996 All-Ireland senior button accordion champion from Ballyduff, Kerry, makes a stunning solo debut.

(6) ”Island Treasures” by Marcus Hernon and Johnny Connolly (Feenish Sound): grandfathered from 2010, this recording by the Connemara flutist and melodeonist offers a turf-scented bounty from the simplest of settings: Hernon’s living room.

(7) “Flagstone Memories” by Jim Higgins, Orla Harrington, and Andrew Mac Namara (, Clare dance music from a trio who know how to bring out its full vigor and flavor: Higgins on percussion and piano, Harrington on fiddle, and Mac Namara on button accordion.

(8) “Foxlight” by Iarla O Lionaird (Real World): the finest sean-nos singer in Ireland today, this Cork native invited a dozen instrumentalists and one other vocalist to help him make a drop-dead gorgeous CD of his singing.

(9) “Country Crossroads: The Nashville Sessions” by Cherish the Ladies (Big Mammy): Ireland’s and Irish America’s vibrant tradition meets Music City USA for one of CTL’s most accomplished albums ever.

(10) “Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion” by Dan Gurney ( the 24-year-old Harvard graduate from Rhinebeck, N.Y., drinks deeply from the pure drop of trad on a solo debut establishing him firmly as a fast-rising talent to watch.

(11) “And So the Story Goes” by Sean Tyrrell, Kevin Glackin, and Ronan Browne (Clo Iar-Chonnacht).

(12) “Small Towns and Famous Nights” by the Alan Kelly Gang (Blackbox).

(13) “Lost River: Vol. 1” by Daithi Sproule (New Folk).

(14) “Idir” by At First Light (

(15) “Bits ’N’ Pieces” by Donal McCague (

(16) “The Boys of the Town” by Paul McGlinchey (

(17) “At Complete Ease” by John Carty and Brian Rooney (Racket).

(18) “A Sweeter Place” by Girsa (RiverRollick).

(19) “Millhouse Measures” by Raw Bar Collective (

(20) “Crabs in the Skillet” by the Old Bay Ceili Band (

(21) “In the Shadow” by Brendan Begley (

(22) “Jig Away the Donkey” by Gerry O’Connor, Gabriel McArdle, and Martin Quinn (Lughnasa).

(23) “Na Fir Bolg” by Jack Talty and Cormac Begley (Raelach).

(24) “Joshua’s Dream” by Johnny Og Connolly (

(25) “The Old Wheel of Fortune” by Fidil (

(26) “Ceol Sidhe” by Micheal O hEidhin, Steve Cooney, and Charlie Lennon (Clo Iar-Chonnacht).

(27) “Bosca Ceoil and Fiddle” by Cathal Clohessy and Eamonn Costello (

(28) “Lumiere” by Eilis Kennedy and Pauline Scanlon (

(29) “The Hare Said a Prayer to the Rainbow and Followed the Fox Down the Hole” by Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna (

(30) “Since Maggie Dooley Learned the Hooley Hooley” by the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra (

(31) “Halcyon Days” by Sean McCarthy (Halcyon).

(32) “T with the Maggies” by Triona and Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, and Moya Brennan (Compass).

(33) “Cliabhan An Duchais” by Brid O’Donohue and Family (

(34) “The Wishing Well” by Michelle O’Brien and Laoise Kelly (

(35) “Echoes of Sliabh Luachra” by Billy Clifford (e-mail:

(36) “Teanga Na nGael” by Grainne Holland (

(37) “II” by Guidewires (

(38) “Songs of the Scribe” by Padraigin Ni Uallachain (Ceoltai Eireann).

(39) “Green Grass Blue Grass” by the Brock McGuire Band (Paulman; available Feb. 28, 2012, on Compass).

(40) “Nuair a Theid Se Fan Chroi” by Maire Ni Choilm (Clo Iar-Chonnacht).


Best holiday album of 2011: “An Irish Christmas: A Musical Solstice Celebration” (Irish Arts Center/NYC).

Best archival album of 2011: “Seancheol Ar An Seannos” by Peadar O Lochlainn and Aggie Whyte (Spol/Na Piobairi Uilleann; six tracks originally recorded in 1963).

Best non-Irish roots album of 2011: “Old Brooklyn” by Andy Statman (Shefa; two-disc release).

Best sources for all of the above-named recordings: Copperplate Consultants (Alan O’Leary, proprietor), 68, Belleville Rd., London SW11 6PP, England, UK,,, 011-44-207-585-0357, and Ossian USA (Charlie Clarke and Mary Lou Philbin, proprietors), 118 Beck Rd., Loudon, NH 03307,,, 603-783-4383.

Candid Flynn tells painful tale of childhood

POSTED ON December 14th  - POSTED IN Arts

Gerard Mannix Flynn.

“James X” • Written & Performed By Gerard Mannix Flynn • Directed by Gabriel Byrne • Produced by Gabriel Byrne And Liam Neeson •Culture Project 45 Bleecker •Run extended beyond Dec. 18


When Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson decided to bring Gerard Mannix Flynn’s one man sbow, “James X,” to New York, its unlikely they were fully aware of the topicality the play brought with it.

Flynn’s 90-minute, intermissionless monologue, once it declares its intentions openly, deals with sexual abuse of children, particularly of young boys, which puts it in a direct line with several stories dominating much of today’s news.

As he tells his painful tale, the author, a moderately well known actor in his native Ireland, but virtually unknown here, makes it clear that his audience knows from the start that every fact and every detail is absolutely true.

A solidly constructed man of perhaps 60, Flynn makes excellent physical use of the Culture Project stage at 45 Bleecker Street, where “James X” has just had its run extended beyond Dec.18, which was originally scheduled to be its closing date.

Flynn’s manner is candid and somewhat casual. He speaks rapidly, which at times obscures what he is saying.

Apparently, after the first press preview, he slowed down sufficiently to be heard and understood. His altered pace added almost 10 minutes, according to his producer’s assistant, to his show’s running time.

His text covers a great deal of material and wanders a fair bit, as he moves through he events of his life, plus a good many random subjects which, at least on a single hearing, have little or nothing to do with his own experiences.

Over the course of the last couple of theatrical seasons, an audience member might easily be forgiven for feeling at least a measure of fatigue where solo shows are concerned.

They do tend to run together and blur after a spectator has been exposed to a certain number of them in a limited period of time.

On one level, Flynn’s play is an indictment of the “most horrendous industrial and reform schools” maintained by the Irish government.

“The effects of abuse,” Flynn writes, “are dynamic and interact with each other.” As forms of mistreatment often encountered, he lists “sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect.”

Flynn maintains that the “experiences and adaptations children make as a consequence of abuse become part of their overall development process, shaping their view of the world and themselves.”

Trauma, he feels, may also affect an adult in what he calls “the long-term.” The effects of this, he feels, “may become an intrinsic part of the adult’s psychological functioning. Thus, the coping mechanisms adopted by a abused children may significantly influence their behavioral, emotional and psychological well-being as adults.”

There is a certain amount of confusion in Flynn’s material, or perhaps in the manner in which he presents it. Just when the audience seems to be getting comfortable identifying him with the things about which he is speaking, he identifies himelf as “James O’Neill.”

He is, in a sense, portraying a character who is only partly himself. To put it another way, everyone who has ever undergone these, or similar, experiences, becomes, in a sense, “James X.”

Day of infamy, then and now

POSTED ON December 7th  - POSTED IN Arts

USS Arizona burns in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

December 7, 2011, marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that ushered America into World War Two. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, now a punchline for punitive politicians seeking to eradicate all remnants of the New Deal, called it “a date which will live in infamy.”

In thinking about that date, I recalled the tenth, or last, part of “The Pacific,” the 2010 HBO miniseries about fighting the Japanese during WWII. I was disappointed with the first nine installments, striking me as almost anticlimactic after “Band of Brothers,” the 2001, ten-part, HBO miniseries concentrating on the 101st Airborne Division’s “Easy Company” fighting the Germans in Europe during the same war.

V-J (Victory over Japan) Day was August 15, 1945, in Japan but announced in the U.S. on August 14 because of time zone differences. That was more than three months after V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, May 8, 1945.

Consequently, far less fanfare greeted many of the GI’s returning home later from the Pacific, even though Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on August 14, 1945, perfectly captured America’s euphoric reaction to the good news out of Japan. Eisenstaedt’s photo landed on the front page of Life magazine on August 27, 1945, and was forever enshrined in the memories of all who saw it back then and since.

My father was one of the GI’s who returned without confetti ceremony from the war in the Pacific. Deepening his distress was missing Christmas 1945. Even with the official surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945, he had been held back in order to type up courts-martial for GI’s facing dishonorable discharge for theft or other offenses. My father’s ability to touch-type cost him a speedier return home. He hated that end to what seemed an endless war to him. My father wasn’t allowed to come home until February 1946.

In 1942, he had enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and eventually became a top-turret armor gunner on a B-25 bomber that, during one mission, was crippled by anti-aircraft ground fire and had to limp home with just one of two engines operating.

Yet he never volunteered his more private thoughts and experiences about the war unless prodded by one of his own sons.

I remember stumbling upon an old, musty chest in the crawlspace of our home in Whitfield, Pennsylvania, and discovering inside it several artifacts of the war he had been in, a war known to me through books and movies and TV, all of which made it less real, less a horror. I remember being impressed by it all, for to a young boy growing up in the early 1960s, it was like finding treasure hidden in your own home. Only when I saw a faded, creased photograph–showing American prisoners of war who had been set afire, then machine-gunned as they tried to escape–did I have any insight into why my father remained mostly quiet about what really happened then.

The last, long leg of my father’s return home from World War Two was by train, heading from San Diego to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. He never described with any detail that cross-country train ride. I thought of the GI’s returning home by train in the tenth part of “The Pacific.” I imagined some of their dialogue being my father’s: What now? Get a job? Get married? Take time off? Dread of death and no choices suddenly gave way to uneasiness about the future and perhaps too many choices.

My grandfather, a WWI veteran, met his only son at the train station in Philly and drove him home. My father quickly got a job, and on June 15, 1946, he married my mother, who had waited for him. Their first child, me, came along in 1951. During the interim, my father attended Wharton Evening School at the University of Pennsylvania on the GI Bill. He firmly believed in the value of a formal education.

And I firmly believe my father, who died at age 83 on November 1, 2004, would be dumbstruck by the America of today. When, as a teenager, I had impudently asked him what he had fought for during World War Two, he said, “Not for the American Dream. A dream isn’t real, so it’s easy for a politician to sell something that’s not real. But the American way of life is real. That’s what I fought for. That’s what a lot of us fought for.”

Is the American way of life still real?

Christmas comes closest. My dad loved Christmas and doted on family visits and gatherings, blinking outdoor lights, toy trains and trestles, and wrapped smiles waiting under a cut spruce. During WWII, he missed four Christmases in a row with his family. How do you put a price on that? More importantly, how did he?

My father equally enjoyed Christmas music, especially a song many GI’s heard for the first time over Armed Forces Radio during WWII, “White Christmas,” sung by Bing Crosby. It’s easy to take potshots at Crosby for his creamy crooning, but back then, most GI’s ardently embraced the sentiment expressed in Irving Berlin’s lyrics. I always try to hear that Crosby-sung song with my father’s ears.

Was my father’s generation the greatest? I don’t know. But I know this: December 7 and December 25 mean a lot to me because they meant so much more to him.


Carols and tunes to celebrate the season

One of the most enjoyable holiday albums I’ve heard in several years is “An Irish Christmas: A Musical Solstice Celebration” (IAC/NYC), featuring Mick Moloney, Billy McComiskey, Athena Tergis, Brendan Dolan, Liz Hanley, Grace Nono, Rhys Jones, and the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra. It was recorded live at Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center and is a total treat from first through 15th track. Among the highlights is Moloney’s recitation of Terence Winch’s poem “Celebration,” about Christmas within what Winch describes as “the entire supernatural infrastructure of Bronx Irish culture.”

The album will be sold at performances of “An Irish Christmas: A Musical Solstice Celebration” during Dec. 7-18, Wednesday to Sunday, at 8 p.m., with an additional Saturday show at 2 p.m., and an additional Sunday show at 3 p.m. Call 866-811-4111 for tickets. The Irish Arts Center is at 553 W. 51st St., New York, NY 10019,, 212-757-3318.

Musical chestnuts still roasting on that open fire include “Dylan Thomas Reads A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (1994 CD of 1952 LP; read along with the 2007 New Directions paperback), “The Best of Celtic Christmas” (2-CD set from 2002), and Handel’s “Messiah” (1966 version by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Colin Davis). Don’t forget Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” to commemorate Dec. 7 and 25 together.



Beoga knows ‘how to tune a fish’

POSTED ON November 30th  - POSTED IN Arts

Founded in 2002, Beoga has a new album strengthening their status as one the world's pre-eminent Irish traditional bands.

Beoga, one of the best traditional bands in Ireland, is also its hippest. Even though Four Men and a Dog actually recorded with the Band, perhaps the greatest rock-and-roots group in American history, it is Beoga who may be Ireland’s closest answer to the Band in combined virtuosity, risk-taking, and omnivorous musical palate. Beoga’s variety is invariably impeccable, and their fourth recording, “How to Tune a Fish,” is one of the most exciting and adventurous releases I’ve heard so far in 2011.

The band’s name means “lively” in Irish, and that is a vast understatement. Beoga’s impish, fun-loving humor is all over their new CD, from the puns of the album’s title (inspired by the old saw “You can tune a piano but you can’t a tune a fish”) and liner notes (the opening medley is described as “two eels and a polka, just for the halibut”) to the album’s last two medleys where the band stretches instrumentally as never before.

Was “How to Tune a Fish” inspired by the Marx Brothers’ famous scene involving the password “swordfish” in their classic 1932 film “Horse Feathers”? Maybe Antrim’s Damian McKee, Sean Og Graham, and Eamon Murray, Derry’s Liam Bradley, and Limerick’s Niamh Dunne watched the DVD on salmon chanted evening. These piscine puns of Beoga obviously can be infectious and even give you a haddock, but why carp?

The originality (14 of the 15 tunes were composed by band members), arrangements, playing, and singing are no jokes. “How to Tune a Fish” represents invention of the highest order, often paradoxically delivering wild abandon with utter control.

As they did on their prior two albums, where they covered Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” Beoga delivers unique renditions of American songs that preserve the integrity of each. The new album’s two best songs serve as prime examples: “Home Cookin'” and “Come In Out of the Rain.”

The first was composed, sung, and recorded by the Band’s Rick Danko in 1976 but wasn’t finally released until 2005 on the Band’s box set “A Musical History.” On Beoga’s CD, guests Richard Nelson on dobro and Jonny Toman on five-string banjo strengthen the rusticity of the quintet’s flavorful interpretation, led by Dunne’s spot-on singing.

Also covered appealingly this year by New York City’s Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra on “Since Maggie Dooley Learned the Hooley Hooley,” their debut album, “Come In Out of the Rain” is a song from early 20th-century America that Beoga invests with period grace and contemporary elan. A tuba (possibly simulated on Bradley’s synthesizer), the button accordions of McKee and Graham, the percussion of Murray, and the clarinet and whistle of guests Rachel Toman and Brian Finnegan, respectively, convey the lighthearted spirit of the song, which at one point imitates an old carbon or spring microphone sound for Dunne’s lead vocal. How can you not smile in appreciation of this fresh take on vintage Irish Americana?

Dunne also sings the traditional “Our Captain Calls All Hands” with a bespoke tenderness, supported by guest Alana Henderson on cello, and admirably gets inside the skin of “Woman of No Place.” The latter song is Barry Kerr’s homage to Margaret Barry (1917-1989), a Cork-born traveler, singer, and banjoist who, often in tandem with Sligo fiddler Michael Gorman, made a lasting impact in Ireland and England. The song ends with a snippet of Barry’s conversation taped by famed U.S. folklorist Alan Lomax.

Instrumentally, “How to Tune a Fish” offers more riches than I could possibly recount faithfully here. It features changes in tempo, texture, tone, and attack, deft use of counterpoint, piquant accents, gentle nuances, nimble fills and insertions, boundless energy, contemplative evocations of mood, “found sounds” carefully picked and placed, a slow, near-vocalese tuck into the otherwise hard-driving reels of “Dolan’s 6 A.M. / The Green Chairs,” and some funk-laced cheekiness coursing through “Back in the Lab / Red Silk Pyjamas / I Married a Chinese Woman,” which includes an abrupt tail-off to stop like a turntable suddenly losing power, and “Minute 5,” in which the low rumble of a crowd and later the low-register harmony singing of the band are heard.

All are skillfully stirred into a heady musical stew of an album sounding anything but fishy.

The other medleys of “The Chewing Gum Boys / How to Tune a Fish / Horsey Leg,” “Brad’s Early Night / The Humours of Taupo,” and “It’s Gonna Tip! / Why You No Like-a My Sticky Buns, Ah?” as well as the single tunes of “Ballymaccaldrick” and “Hay Days” multiply the pleasures of the CD.

Can you tune a fish? No, unless you’re Beoga. This new recording from the endlessly imaginative Irish quintet is a sureshot to crack the top five in my list of the best albums of 2011.

“How to Tune a Fish” (cat. no. 745612) is available

from Nashville’s Compass Records at 615-320-7672 or


Keenan joins Dillon benefit concert

“An Evening of Irish Piping,” a benefit concert for Belfast uilleann piper Eamon Dillon, will also feature former Bothy Band stalwart Paddy Keenan. He’ll join fellow uilleann pipers Cillian Vallely, Jerry O’Sullivan, and Ivan Goff, plus fiddler Tony DeMarco and guitarist Eamon O’Leary, at 8 p.m. on Wed., Dec. 1, at the Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St., New York, NY 10019. Call 866-811-4111 or visit for tickets. For those who wish to make a donation only, you can do so by mailing a check, payable to Eamon Dillon, to Peter Maguire, 5A Emerald Court, Stoneham, MA 02180.


Hot young trad quartet on Dec. 2

The formidable foursome of fiddler Dylan Foley, All-Ireland senior champion pipes, flute, and whistle player Isaac Alderson, guitar and bouzouki player Sean Ernest, and button accordionist Dan Gurney, whose solo album debut should be out in early January, will be in concert at 9 p.m. on Fri., Dec. 2, at Glucksman Ireland House, 1 Washington Mews, New York, NY 10003. Call 212-998-3950 or visit for further information.


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