Luton-born, County Sligo resident Theresa O’Grady is a much in-demand performer and tutor. Her album “BANJO’ista” is everything one could want to hear in a banjo album.
By Daniel Neely
It was a banner evening at the Irish Arts Center last Saturday for FairPlé: New York. The concert, which featured performances by Maeve Flanagan, Christina Dolphin, Dan Gurney, Brendan O’Shea, Jenna Nicholls, Katie Linnane, Maeve Gilchrist, and Ivan Goff attracted a warm and very receptive crowd and the music was top shelf. My co-host Megan Scully (WFUV) and I spoke at each interval about FairPlé and its mission and kept the evening moving along at a steady pace. One of the night’s great highlights came from Rachael Gilkey, who gave a stirring talk about equality and opportunity, outlining how the Irish Arts Center strives to be mindful about these things in their approach to programming. After the finale, much of the audience remained for a bit of a hang in the lobby and as I moved around I heard some great conversations that embraced the spirit of FairPlé’s Day’s mission. Overall, a great evening and an important step in the right direction. Keep up with further FairPlé events at fairple.com.
Reminder: this coming weekend is Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Fleadh out in Parsippany, N.J. It’s going to be an exciting weekend of competitions and tunes! Those who place first or second in their respective competitions are allowed to compete for the All-Ireland title at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, which this year happens in Drogheda, Aug. 12-19. This weekend’s centerpiece will be the Hall of Fame banquet and céilí, where this year’s honorees will include Eileen Ivers, Annmarie Acosta Williams, and John O’Neill (RIP). I hope to see you there! Visit nyfleadh.com for more info, and while you’re there do sign up to the mailing list so you can stay up-to-date on all your Mid-Atlantic Fleadh needs.
In the player this week is banjo player Theresa O’Grady’s new album “BANJO’ista.” Dripping with soul, it’s really everything one could want to hear in a banjo album: brilliant phrasing, lovely tempos, smart tune selection, and fabulous, fabulous tone. O’Grady is a fun banjoist to listen to.
This shouldn’t be surprising, as her bona fides are inarguable. Originally from Luton, England, O’Grady is a senior All-Ireland Banjo Champion, who has lived in Ireland since the late 1990s, first in Dublin and now near Aclare, Co. Sligo. An in-demand performer and tutor, she and her husband, piano accordion player Declan Payne, were founding members of the band The Border Collies, and today she plays with the excellent Knocknashee Céili Band. Although perhaps less known in the States, she’s a well-known and widely respected player in Ireland.
“BANJO’ista” makes it easy to hear why, as the album is full of excellent tracks. I am particularly struck by reel sets like “Master’s Return / …,” “The Pigeon on the Gate / …,” “The Cavan Reel / …,” and “Miss Crehan’s / …,” which I find really outstanding. The tone she pulls off the banjo is unbelievable and it really highlights what she’s able to do with these tunes. The same can be said of the jigs “Scatter the Mud / …” and “Happy to Meet / …” as well.
Although virtually all of this album features O’Grady’s banjo playing, one of its best tracks is the one that doesn’t. On “In Memory of Tommy McCarthy / The Sunny Hills of Beara” (tunes by Charlie Lennon and John Dwyer, respectively), O’Grady plays tenor guitar. Her touch on the instrument is dynamic, and the track glides along with a gentle lilt but really takes off with the change to the second tune, where the string section swells and Catherine McHugh’s piano playing becomes particularly hypnotic. It’s a great track.
There have been some truly remarkable banjo albums released of late and “BANJO’ista” stands tall among them. O’Grady’s a wonderful player. I love the crispness of her ornamentation, the nuance in her phrasing, the expressiveness in her delivery, and the strong lilt in her delivery. These are things every banjoist could benefit from hearing. But it’s the space she leaves in her music that really grabs me. There’s a lot going on in her music, and she leaves enough space there so that the detail is easy to hear. Overall, this is a very enjoyable collection that will most certainly open the ears of many to what O’Grady playing’s all about. Recommended for banjo lovers, and also to those who may be reluctant to admit they love the instrument, as this might change their mind. To hear tracks off “BANJO’ista,” visit theresaogrady.bandcamp.com.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music in the Irish Echo every week.