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The best concert I barely saw

By Earle Hitchner

As emcee and frequent backstage manager, I missed most of the concert tribute to Joe Derrane inside Stage One of the Fairfield Theatre Company in Fairfield, Conn. Despite massive traffic congestion on I-95 that caused a few patrons to arrive late, it was a wall-to-wall, cheek-by-jowl, overcapacity crowd in that theatre, and the e-mail and phone pleas for tickets to the sold-out event were especially intense during the last few days leading up to Nov. 13, the concert date.

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The purpose of this “concert for the ages” was fourfold: (1) to pay homage to the life and music of 80-year-old button accordionist and composer Joe Derrane; (2) to celebrate his new recording, “Grove Lane” (Compass), which is his seventh overall since his fabled comeback in 1994 at Wolf Trap; (3) to raise money and recognition for the concert’s sponsor, the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society, a not-for-profit organization that has done yeoman work in promoting and presenting the best in Irish traditional music in southern Connecticut; and (4) to provide a surefire incentive for the extended family of Irish traditional performers and enthusiasts to come together in solidarity at one time and in one place.

I don’t know how much money was finally raised for STIMS, but certainly all the other goals of the concert were more than fulfilled. No performer got paid, nor did the emcee and frequent stage manager, me. Our reward was intangible but indelible: great memories. Even so, mine had to come largely secondhand through the impressions conveyed to me right after the concert by performers and members of the audience. Without exception, they were exultant.

The lineup was nothing short of spectacular: singer and multi-instrumentalist Mick Moloney, Cherish the Ladies’ founding flute and whistle player Joanie Madden, Solas’s founding multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, Green Fields of America and Pride of New York button accordionist Billy McComiskey, fiddler Seamus Connolly, singer and guitar and mandola player John Doyle, fiddler Brian Conway, uilleann piper Jerry O’Sullivan, button accordionist John Whelan, pianists Felix and Brendan Dolan, singer and guitarist Tommy O’Sullivan, guitarist and mandolinist John McGann, fiddler Rose Flanagan, flute and whistle player Margie Mulvihill, button accordionist Patty Furlong, and stepdancers Joe Dwyer, Melanie Deegan, and Catriona Furlong.

Surprise guests at the concert featured uilleann piper and singer Mattie Connolly, bodhran and bones player Myron Bretholz, button accordionist Damien Connolly, tenor banjoist Kevin McElroy, singers Josephine McNamara and Saundra O’Sullivan, and STIMS founding member Don Cavett, who spoke of Joe Derrane as a musical inspiration. Also donating his services free this night was one of America’s finest photographers, Tom Pich, well known for his exceptional portraits of the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship recipients over the years.

On Nov. 13, nearly 30 musicians, dancers, and others devoted their talents to honor Joe Derrane, who sat in the center of the front row along with his family beside and immediately behind him, and the evening was further highlighted by several moving remembrances and testimonials from the performers about Joe.

In addition, with consummate grace Felix Dolan introduced a 10-minute film clip on the stage screen of Joe Derrane and him performing together on May 29, 1994, at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va. The footage was from Derrane’s comeback, the greatest in the history of Irish traditional music, and many in the Stage One audience, who had only read about his comeback, finally got to see and hear two medleys from that day at Wolf Trap: the reels “Shearing the Sheep / The Musical Priest” and the hornpipes “The Southern Shores / The Showman’s Fancy.” Sixteen years later, that music has lost none of its jaw-dropping brilliance.

Joe Derrane himself spoke twice on the Stage One stage, and each time seemed to bring him to the verge of tears in expressing gratitude for the unique tribute. “You are the heartbeat,” he said at one point, gazing directly at the audience.

With loud cheers or an ovation following every act, the crowd spurred all the musicians and dancers to perform at their pinnacle. Moreover, “to have Joe Derrane sitting five feet in front of me as I played was fantastic,” one of the performers confided to me. “What an honor for me just to be here.”

That was the overriding consensus. Everyone felt fortunate to be there, and no one wanted it to end. Too much of a good thing, such as this concert, is never enough.

I know that I experienced it vicariously through the vivid descriptions of those on stage and those in front and on both sides of it. But in some ways, the concert was just as gratifying as if I were sitting, watching, and being held spellbound by it with the audience.

From any vantage point, it was a night no one there will ever forget.

Irish yuletide tidings at IAC

Under the guiding hand of Mick Moloney, “An Irish Christmas” has become a very popular annual attraction at Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center. Besides Moloney as host, singer, and multi-instrumentalist, the lineup of performers this year comprises button accordionist Billy McComiskey, “Masters in Collaboration IV” fiddler Athena Tergis, pianist Brendan Dolan, old-timey musician Rhys Jones, and stepdancer Niall O’Leary. In the past, special guests such as Gabriel Byrne, Colum McCann, Bill Whelan, and Susan McKeown have dropped in. Performances will be at 8 p.m. on Thurs. and Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. on Sat., and 3 p.m. on Sun. during Dec. 9-19. For tickets, call 212-868-4444. The Irish Arts Center is at 553 W. 51st St., New York, NY 10019. Visit www.irishartscenter.org.

Cherish this Christmas

Led by founding member Joanie Madden, Cherish the Ladies will be doing their annual tour celebrating “A Celtic Christmas” soon. Two CTL concert dates to keep in mind are Thurs., Dec. 2, at 8 p.m. in Tarrytown Music Hall, 13 Main St., Tarrytown, NY 10591, 877-840-0457, www.tarrytownmusichall.org, and Thurs., Dec. 9, at 7:30 p.m. in the Irish American Community Center, 9 Venice Place, East Haven, CT 06512, 203-393-0377 or 203-488-6493, www.iacc-ct.com.

Grainne Murphy at NYU

A former prize pupil of renowned Clare fiddler Seamus Connolly, native Bostonian Grainne Murphy is one of the finest Irish traditional fiddlers living in New York City today. She will join button accordionist John Redmond, 2002 All-Ireland senior uilleann pipes, flute, and whistle champion Isaac Alderson, harper Marta Cook, bodhran player Anna Colliton, and guitarist Alan Murray at 9 p.m. on Fri., Dec. 3, at New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House, 1 Washington Mews, lower Manhattan. Information: 212-998-3950.