"Did you hear about the two blondes who walked into a building?" Seamus Begley asked the audience. "Wouldn't you think one of them would have seen it?"
Such jokes mingled with inspired instrumental playing, exceptional singing, excellent solo stepdancing, competent set dancing, and good-natured slagging inside the Donaghy Theatre of Manhattan's Irish Arts Center on Friday evening, April 15.
Sharing the stage with West Kerry button accordionist, singer, and quipster Seamus Begley was Bronx-born, Yonkers resident flute and whistle player Joanie Madden. Together they formed "Masters in Collaboration V," the latest edition of an IAC series conceived by Mick Moloney and launched in April 2008. Accompanying the pair was Athenry native Gabriel Donohue on guitar and keyboards.
This was the first concert of a three-night stand, and some initial nervousness was detectable. In the opening medley of polkas called "Little Diamond Set," Madden on whistle and Begley on a gray Paolo Soprani button accordion played expertly but very fast. Afterward, a panting Begley genially chided Madden about the velocity. And when Begley told a ribald joke, Madden feigned blushing and slagged him back. Much to the delight of the audience, this jesting coursed through their performance.
A medley of jigs including "Lark in the Morning" followed, performed by Madden on whistle, Begley on box, and Gabriel Donohue on acoustic guitar.
The first song of the night from Begley, "Bruach na Carraige Baine," recalled his stunning version on the album made with Steve Cooney in 1992, "Meiteal." Begley has a voice of spellbinding beauty, like a wildflower of earthy radiance, and the foundation of authenticity and conviction makes him one of Ireland's outstanding natural singers.
A set of reels featured Begley playing the red Soprani button accordion owned by Joanie's late father, Joe, with Joanie on flute and Donohue on guitar. But this selection was marred at one point by Donohue uncharacteristically in the wrong key (he was supposed to be in G), which compelled Madden to say something. Joe Dwyer, one of America's finest stepdancers, helped to redeem the set with a high-impact solo.
Composed by Madden and Begley, "The American Wake" was a captivating slow air delivered with pristine precision by Madden on whistle, Begley on Joe Madden's accordion, and Donohue on keyboards.
Joanie Madden's own compositions "Boat to Bofin" (short for "Inishbofin," a Galway island) and "Croton Dam" shone in a medley played by her on whistle with Donohue on guitar.
A popular song by Scotland's Karine Polwart, "Follow the Heron," showcased again Begley's magnetic singing, ably shaded by Madden and Donohue on harmony vocals.
A blast of reels comprising "Speed the Plough / Man of the House / Far from Home" gathered propulsion from Madden on whistle, Begley on his gray Soprani, and Donohue on guitar.
The first half of the concert ended with Begley's adept singing of "The Bonny Boy," accompanied by Madden on flute and Donohue on keyboards, and with a serving of lively slides powered by whistle, box, and guitar and burnished by the footwork of four set dancers.
After intermission, a rousing medley entitled "The Magic Slipper Set," featuring Seamus's son Eoin on concertina (it was his first time in New York), signaled that the rest of the concert would reflect the comfort and cohesion gained during the first half.
"Cailin na Gruiga Doinna," a ballad sung by Seamus Begley, shimmered, and with son Eoin on concertina and Donohue on keyboards, he performed "The Eavesdropper" jig on his gray Soprani with breathtaking agility.
No whistle player in America can play a slow air with the depth of feeling and range of control as Joanie Madden, and the air she performed as a solo, with Donohue backing on keyboards, was a showstopper.
A bunch of reels that included "Devaney's Goat" was adroitly driven by Madden on whistle, Seamus Begley on gray box, Eoin Begley on concertina, and Donohue on guitar, capped by Dwyer stepdancing,
The second half of the concert remained a model of skill, and an unexpected treat was Madden's brief lead singing turn in "Mountains of Pomeroy," a song De Dannan covered on their 1991 album, "A Jacket of Batteries," and Begley himself recorded with guitarist Jim Murray on their 2008 album, "Eiri Go La."
Among other highlights were a medley of piquant Kerry polkas, a set of reels featuring "The Torn Jacket" and the four set dancers, and a fitting encore of "Parting Glass," where Seamus Begley encouraged the audience to join in on the chorus.
The 99-seat Donaghy Theatre provides a proximity and intimacy that only enhanced and even enlarged the music and merriment created by Joanie Madden and Seamus Begley. What can get lost in the aftermath is what never drew attention to itself: a New Yorker and a Kerryman playing music in a way that suggested the Atlantic Ocean separating them was no bigger than a puddle.
Sixth annual benefit dinner for CUNY-IIAS
Along with musician Mick Moloney and poet Billy Collins, I'm a member of the advisory board of the City University of New York's Institute for Irish-American Studies, and each year CUNY-IIAS holds a special dinner to raise funds for its month-to-month programming and its ongoing research centers devoted to traditional Irish-American music, the Great Famine and immigration, the Irish language, and the preservation of Irish-American publications. With budgets tight everywhere, this year's dinner is all the more important to the maintenance and growth of the institute.
Last year, Kathleen Biggins, the longtime host of "A Thousand Welcomes" on WFUV-FM (90.7) in New York City, joined Brian Andersson, Edmund Hartnett, James McCarthy, and Jim McCann as the institute's honorees at the dinner, where button accordionist John Redmond and stepdancer Niall O'Leary performed. No less deserving this year will be honorees Mary Courtney (of the group Morning Star), Mary Holt Moore, Ciaran Staunton, and Martin Cottingham, all of whom will be feted during the dinner beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Fri., April 29, inside the Manhattan Club of Rosie O'Grady's on the corner of 52nd St. and Seventh Ave in Manhattan.
For more information about this sixth annual benefit dinner and other events sponsored throughout the year by the institute, contact CUNY-IIAS Executive Director Thomas Ihde at 718-960-6722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Browning to retire from WMI
For 26 years Robert Browning has been the executive and artistic director of the not-for-profit World Music Institute. Founded by Browning in 1985, WMI is a monumental outgrowth of the many inspired concerts he and his wife, WMI Publicity Director Helene Browning, held previously at the Alternative Center for International Arts (subsequently the Alternative Museum) in lower Manhattan. Irish and other Celtic traditional concerts have been a reliable cornerstone of their programming, and Robert Browning's retirement from WMI next month sparks many fond memories of the diverse global music he and Helene have given us. I'll have much more on Robert Browning and WMI in next week's "Ceol" column.