Katie Linnane and John Morrow at Glucksman Ireland House.
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
Last Friday fiddle player Katie Linnane, banjoist John Morrow, and piper/flute player Isaac Alderson put on an extremely impressive show at New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House as a part of Don Meade’s long running “Blarney Star” series. They played to a full house and in the process reminded everyone there not only of their great musical abilities, but of why venues like Glucksman Ireland House are so important to the wellbeing of traditional music in New York.
Linnane and company were brilliant. One of the anchors of the Tuesday night session at Swift's, Linnane is an old hand in the scene. A student of the great Willie Kelly, she’s competed in fleadhanna, played in céilí bands (including the Old Bay and the New York Céilí Bands), and is one of the best people around to play in sessions with. Morrow is one of the finest banjo player you’re likely to hear. From County Leitrim, he grew up with musical siblings (his brother Tom plays in the band Dervish) and earned the All-Ireland banjo champion in 1994. Alderson, who grew up in Chicago and is now based in NYC, also has multiple All-Ireland honors to his credit and is an in-demand touring musician. The three can be found playing in places like Swift’s, the 11th St. Bar, and Hartley’s (14 Putnam Ave.), but this is the first time they’ve performed together in concert and hopefully it will not be the last.
On Friday they set themselves in various solo and ensemble arrangements (including a guest visit from Linnane’s mother Kathy, from whom Katie also learned) and played with great energy and joy, which thrilled the crowd. It was quite a lovely night of music and craic.
Congratulations, then, to Linnane, Morrow, and Alderson, but congratulations, too, to Don Meade for bringing us such great music. Many know Meade for his playing. He won the All-Ireland for his harmonica playing in 1987, but he’s perhaps better known for his work on banjo and fiddle. He runs the popular session at the Landmark Tavern (46th and 11th) every Monday night, where he’s been for over a decade.
However, he’s equally well known for the concerts he’s put on. For those who may not know, he first began organizing concerts at the legendary Eagle Tavern on 14th Street in the mid-1980s. When it closed, he moved his operation to the Blarney Star bar on Murray Street, and when that closed, his series moved to the Washington Square United Methodist Church on 4th Street. After the church was sold some years back, Meade’s series settled at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House, where it’s remained a monthly standard ever since.
Over the years, Meade has presented virtually every important musician from Ireland and the U.S. Although he’s hosted his share of stars, many of those he’s presented have been the sort who either fly under the commercial radar or eschew the spotlight altogether. What opportunity would these folks have in today’s New York? Part of Meade’s genius lays also in the opportunity he gives to young up and coming musicians. Many successful local musicians around the scene can boast of first establishing themselves through a Blarney Star concert. Today, it seems like you have to be already established just to get your foot in the door.
Unfortunately, Meade’s concert series is one of the last great stalwarts (outside of an organization like the Irish Arts Center) in what seems to be an ever-diminishing landscape for traditional music in Manhattan. Increasing rents have forced many of New York City’s old reliable venues to close or “change direction,” depriving us of the kind of interesting nooks in which great music was once found. It’s remarkable, then, that something this precious remains. Meade’s curatorial eye is utterly trustworthy and there is every reason to expect something great at any Blarney Star concert. If you’re not making it out when these concerts happen (perhaps taking in dinner at one of the great nearby restaurants beforehand and indulging in a pint afterward?) you’re definitely missing out on one of the things that makes the scene great.
February’s concert takes place this Friday and will feature the great Dylan Foley (fiddle) and Josh Dukes (flute and guitar). The rest of this season’s concerts include Bernadette Nic Gabhann (March 23), Máire Ní Chathasaigh and Chris Newman (April 6), and Alison Perkins and Nicolas Brown (May 4). You can learn about all of the Blarney Star’s future concerts by visiting Meade’s and signing up for his email list, www.blarneystar.com.