Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Danu never fails to deliver

There are some Irish music bands that fly a little too far under the radar for no real fault of their own, and it can lead to their being overlooked when it comes to discussion about bands that bring a lot to the tradition and its performance values.

One of those bands is Danu, who came through the greater New York area this past weekend including a wonderful Sunday afternoon matinee up at the Quick Center for the Arts on the campus of Fairfield University in Connecticut where I was in attendance.

Danu is associated with Co. Waterford because two of the founding members of the band, Brendan “Bennie” McCarthy, the box player and leader, and Donal Clancy, accompanist on guitar (and son of Liam Clancy), hailed from there, as did some later members in piper Donnchad Gough and singer Ciaran O’Gealbhain.

From the first time I saw them in the late 1990s at the Greater Washington, D.C. Irish Music Festival in Gaithersburg, Maryland, I have been tremendously impressed with their lively stage presence and technical brilliance that added up to great crack for them and the audience at the same time.

There’s kind of a natural ebb and flow to the act that sometimes can obscure the sophisticated approach and knowledge they bring to their performances.

They have managed to maintain this despite a number of cast changes since forming in 1994 by replacing quality with quality without dampening the vital spirit that seems to always underpin a Danu show or recording.

The current makeup of the touring band is the aforementioned McCarthy, and Clancy (back for second enlistment), singer and flute player Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, fiddler Oisin McAuley, bouzouki player Eamon Doorley (whose flute-playing brother Tom still performs when he can with the band), and Glasgow import Martin O’Neill on bodhran.

The six person ensemble works very well for their stage shows if the Quick Center was any guide, as they were well able to hold the attention of the crowd with nary a curly-headed step dancer in sight.

Sunday afternoon matinee crowds can be tough to work with, especially after a late night on the road the night before and an early traveling start to the next venue. But the Fairfield crowd was noticeably perceptive and responsive to the very folksy and natural interchange all the band members engaged in over the course of the show.

The thoughtful introductions and intelligible banter wasn’t lost on them or condescending to an audience these type of performing arts centers sometimes muster looking for a different flavor of the month.

Thankfully Danu gets to play more and more of these kind of houses with their more predictable guarantees, and amenities that can make roadwork more enjoyable thanks to a different management agency. God knows they paid their dues early on as they were trying to get established with very long tours over great stretches of the country.

Part of their stagecraft is in building some drama and excitement into the tunes, and the songs they cleverly select where the pacing and performance is always very even and calm and confident. They always seem to surprise with some new work while polishing familiar pieces either of their own or borrowed from others, with the Danu texture well laid on.

The addition of the versatile singer from Dunquin, Co. Kerry, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, who replaced the very fine Ciaran O’ Gealbhain around 2003, was pure serendipity because both have captivating and distinct voices that give the act that extra special quality.

Muireann is one of those quality singers who gets the fact that the words and phrasing have to be put across just right for the song to have maximum impact, and her bandmates also understand their role is to enhance, not drown it out.

In Doorley (bouzouki) and Clancy (guitar) you have two of the finest bookending rhythm accompaniments to be found in any band. They also stood on the paired arrangement of “Clancy’s Farewell to Whiskey,” an air composed by Donal in O’Carolan style, and Breton dance tune “An Dro des Petits Bateaux,” and in other chunes in the repertoire.

On the day they unveiled some other new material from an upcoming album due out later this year called Seanchas (though available as a “preview” CD on this tour).

Muireann gave us a lovely vocal rendition of “An Staicin Eornan” with words in Irish for the tune we know as the “Stack of Barley” that she got from Padraig O’Se.

This Kerry maid also did a fine job on Sigerson Clifford’s classic “The Boys of Barr na Sraide” about Cahersiveen and hunting for the wran that was matched by the gorgeous arrangement from her bandmates.

They also performed their popular cover of Tommy Sands poignant and once again significant song “County Down” about hard times and the loneliness of emigration.

Instrumentally the band is on solid ground, with McAuley’s fiddle playing learned in the fiddle-mad Donegal region, and the subtle but spot-on box playing of Benny McCarthy, who knows his music inside and out, and with Nic Amhlaoibh’s flute and whistle playing that compliment the other two.

They pick their spots for touring these days, but they are not to be missed if they come your way anytime soon on this tour where you can buy the new CD which also has a great cover of Andy Irvine’s “Never Tire of the Road” which has great meaning for this band.

There also may be a few stray copies available through Donal Clancy’s favorite mother-in-law, Terry Rafferty at traff5788@aol.com.

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