This past Friday evening, aka Fake Patty’s Eve, the McCain Performance Series entertained a good-sized, very enthusiastic audience with a vibrant concert by the traditional Irish music group Danu.
Danu’s Irish idiom may indeed be traditional, maybe also in some senses even authentic, but it’s a far cry from the old-style folk music generated in countless Irish pubs by gifted amateurs using strictly acoustic instruments. Of course it has to be. If you want to bring it to assembled masses, you’re going to require help from electronic amplification.
And boy did they have it—ten gigantic black-box speakers stacked five to each side of the stage, pumping mega-decibels out with all the stun power of a rock band. It was often more than my ears were happy with and sometimes left the system itself whining in feedback overload, but clearly most of our crowd were thrilled to be blown away by its blast.
Changing the medium also means adapting original scorings, which is why everything Danu played was “arranged by Danu.” Scholars may wish to speculate about how such alterations affect the character or quality of the originals, but what listeners care about is whether the adaptations make for good music in themselves. I can only say it all sounded terrific to me. I’m sure J. S. Bach would have admired the flow and the intensity. John Adams would surely have approved the multitude of minimalist progressions.
Another difference between Friday’s gig and a typical Irish folksong jam session was the extent to which the presentation was pre-programmed. Unlike the informal impromptu nature of most pub ensemble performances, Danu’s agenda was tightly organized, meticulously advance-planned from first walk-on to final farewell waves. It all went down as smoothly as a row of dominos, each set following fast on the previous one, each introduced by a designated presenter who had his/her lines ready.
Which leads to a further distinction: Danu is a wonderfully well rehearsed ensemble. They know just how they want their show to go and they go out and do it. And not as if doing their daily calisthenics. Each of the six seemed totally invested in making this the group’s best ever performance. That’s professionalism.
So naturally it helped greatly that all six musicians were in fact true, often multi-talented professional artists. Danu’s sole female artist, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, isn’t just an accomplished vocalist but also a virtuoso flute and whistle player. Oisin McAuley not only fiddles up a storm but contributes vocal backup. And Martin O’Neill, the “outlander” Glaswegian, plays so much bodhran (Irish Drum) that he’d have to be called a versatile virtuoso whether he’s gifted with another talent or not.
We were told early on that all Irish ballads are sad, as Danu’s sampling seemed to confirm, yet despite the prevailing poignancy of disappointed love, the refrains never grew stale. Likewise, for all the seeming reiteration in those rousing rush-to-the-finish instrumental codas, they were always freshly exciting, full of new-found energy.
What can you say to such a crew but Wow! Anyone for Guinness?