Leahy family show like Christmas at home

By Gary Clift

McCain Auditorium series Christmas shows, up on the K-State campus, have for a long time signaled the beginning of the local holiday season. This year the kick-off show was Leahy Family Christmas, a remarkably homey performance by eight adult (and seven or eight juvenile) members of the singing and clogging Leahy family of rural Ontario.

Probably the show was even a little more Canadian than it was country, and there was the well-scrubbed air of the PBS special about it as well. In fact we were told by the performers that they have done specials for U.S. public television. But don’t imagine the show was like the glitzy old network holiday specials.

Nope. This one was like Christmas at home. For your great-grandparents. Between the drum kit and the electric piano there was an over-stuffed sofa on which some temporarily disengaged performers could relax and watch the show. The backdrop projections were simple, single color cut-outs. There were wrapped boxes (no ribbons or bows) scattered along beside and behind the picking and stomping areas.

The simple costumes (bell sleeves on three of the four women) were Canadian and homey as well. And the music was front porch stuff, albeit with a decided Irish bent. When the group got away from reels and ballads—for example, when they played Christmas carols—they used the drums and bass to give the tunes gentle power treatments. I was reminded of The Carpenters more than of Anne Murray, though Frank the drummer didn’t do those runs down a length of roto-toms.

Besides Frank, the other Leahy siblings were four women (who individually specialized in keyboards, guitar, electric bass, or singing, though all sang and danced and all doubled or tripled on those instruments) and three men (all fiddlers who could dance). Together they performed a couple of dozen musical numbers including familiar hymns like “Joy to the World,” carols including one written for the family performers, down-tempo stuff, and dance numbers.

Not only did they favor the reels, often with Donnell’s fiddle taking the lead through a series of variations, but they also favored one tempo. In some ways the other selections in the show might be imagined to have been camouflage for the group’s inclination to get back to playing stomping music.

As the program neared its central intermission, the kid Leahys were brought on one at a time to dance, beginning with ten-year-old Adelle and going through a series of progressively younger and younger children.

One of the younger ones, who had sufficient good taste to wear a purple shirt and tie for the performance, was later introduced as the show’s only accordion player, and he fronted the band for a couple of numbers late, seconded by the electric piano and sounding very French Canadian.

The rest of the evening was perhaps predictable. It included, for instance, a sing-along medley of four Christmas songs, “Away in a Manger,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Deck the Halls,” and “Jingle Bells,” this last played with the backing drum line used by the K-State bands for playing “Wabash Cannonball.” There was an a cappela number done with “single mic technique,” though it actually required two mics.

But one couldn’t have guessed that each of the sets would begin with apparently pre-recorded comments on family Christmas traditions, comments made, apparently, by the Leahy parents of the adult performers. It was almost like we were being entertained in the Leahy farmhouse sitting room.

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