‘Celtic Appalachia’ reaches new peak

A scene from this year’s “Celtic Appalachia” at the Irish Arts Center.


By Daniel Neely

For the last six years, “Celtic Appalachia” has been a fixture of New York City’s Patrick’s Day season. With Mick Moloney at the helm, the show routinely presents the finest in Irish music with an outstanding cast of guest artists that has included the likes of the Bing Brothers Band; Sammy Shelor, Eddie Bond, Leigh Beamer, Kirk Sutphin; and the Breton Society of New York (to name a few). This year, “Celtic Appalachia” took place on March 11 and of all the versions I’ve seen, this year’s was perhaps the strongest in terms of presentation, energy, and chemistry. It featured the usual great mix of musicians from the Irish and Appalachian music communities, but the way these musicians and dancers came together gave the show particular strength that added to the enjoyment.

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The night’s core group featured Moloney, Athena Tergis, and Green Fields of America, which included Billy McComiskey (button accordion), Liz Hanley (fiddle and vocals), Jerry O'Sullivan (uilleann pipes and whistle), Brendan Dolan (piano), and Niall O'Leary (dancer). They were joined by Haley Richardson (fiddle) and Jake James (fiddler, bodhrán, and dancer), and Brian Fleming (bodhrán), each of whom added variety and an extraordinary level of musicianship. This crew was outstanding, playing with exuberance and a keen sense of camaraderie, and could have carried the evening on its own.

Joining them at various points over the course of the evening, however, were Erynn Marshall (fiddle) & Carl Jones (guitar, mandolin, banjo), an old-time duo from Galax, Virginia (dittyville.com), and Anna & Elizabeth (Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle; (www.annaandelizabeth.com), from Rural Retreat, Virginia and Brooklyn, NY, respectively. These were brilliant additions. Marshall and Jones brought a lovely spirit to the evening through great songs, warm harmonies, and swingy fiddle tunes. Anna & Elizabeth (Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle) were terrific as well, singing with shimmering harmonies (particularly on Arkansas singer Alameda Riddle’s song “Old Churchyard”) and distinctive banjo and guitar playing.

Dancing was an important part of the show as well. O’Leary and James (who was a Jake-of-all-trades over the course of the evening and excelled in his every role) were frequent partners and danced with great personality. On several numbers, Megan Downes danced flatfoot with light feet and grace and was a highlight in her own right. She was wonderful with the delightfully energetic City Stompers (nycitystompers.com) and her feature with Brendan Dolan at night’s end was a crowd favorite.

Moloney was in particularly fine form throughout the evening. He kept the night’s pacing brisk and his in-between number banter informed, illuminated, and ultimately charmed the audience. In the end, the two hour-plus show passed quickly and the crowd let out an audible note of displeasure when Moloney announced the final tune. The performers responded to the capacity crowd’s ovations with a pair of encores and ended the evening with a bang.

“Celtic Appalachia,” like many of Moloney’s local productions, was staged by NYC’s Irish Arts Center, who should be congratulated for the fine work their team put into the production. Moloney & company always set a high standard with the Irish Arts Center and together they stage must-see events. This year’s “Celtic Appalachia” was not only another instance of this successful pairing, it was also a fresh and particularly well done example. The next event on the Irish Arts Center’s traditional music calendar is the Máirtín O’Connor Trio on March 30. Visit www.irishartscenter.org for more information.

A brief afterword: One of the special things about Celtic Appalachia – about most of Moloney’s shows, really – is that it featured two National Heritage Fellows in Moloney and McComiskey. The National Heritage Fellowship, which is given out by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), is the highest award the United States government gives to traditional artists. It is a crucially important bit of recognition for artists and tradition bearers and only one of a vast array of NEA-funded programs that not only benefit heritage artists working in commercially disadvantaged forms, but that benefit communities outside the urban mainstream.

By now, readers are likely aware of the new administration’s proposed budget that would completely eliminate agencies like the NEA. Not only would this damage or even decimate beloved programs that few realize are actually funded in whole or in part by the NEA, it would terminate programs like the National Heritage Fellowship that reward the hard work of people like Moloney and McComiskey.

This cannot stand. This is not how a great, rich society comports itself nor how it should treat its communities. Congratulations are indeed due McComiskey, who last week (along with musicians Donna Long and Laura Byrne) took a stand against this policy aggression by turning down an invitation to play at the White House. He would have been there the day the new budget proposal was introduced. How ironic, that a National Heritage Fellow would have the opportunity to perform for the President the day the mechanism for his recognition would be proposed abolished. Thank you, Billy, for doing the right thing. The traditional music scene is behind you.