By Brian Arsenault
Rockland, Maine. This short USA tour by Mary Black and her terrific band and daughter made the warm evening of Irish music even more special on a cold Maine November night at The Strand. Winter’s not here but trying, as a show at another venue the prior evening was cancelled due to slippery roads.
It is not for any single song, I think, that people come to hear Mary, but rather the way you are wrapped in a fine soft shawl of song and poetry that keeps the chill from your soul. Her distinctive clear voice moves smoothly over various music genres from traditional Irish to up-tempo jazz, yes jazz, returning always to the Irish folk that makes the room cozy for all.
The Goddess Fortuna, a well known bitch who sometimes favors mortals, may have short changed the Irish on land and wealth, but she was generous in the awarding of fine voices.
The show was opened by Roisin O’Reilly (pronounced ra-sheen, sort of), Mary Black’s daughter (though she didn’t tell the audience that till near the end). This is yet another amazing voice, pitched higher (younger?) than Mary’s but equally clear and affecting.
It may have been dark in the theater but one sensed a tear or two or twenty during Roisin’s rendition of “Caledonia.” A few intimates of this music sang along quietly.
Roisin also did a Joni Mitchell song – one I didn’t know particularly — saying that she didn’t know if she was up to it. Her voice has much of a young Joni in it and she did just fine.
Mary Black followed her to the stage for two generous sets of her songs old and new.
Highlights from her newest album, Stories From the Steeples, included:
“Faith In Fate,” a sad love song (do the Irish do any others?) written by her son Danny O’Reilly.
“Mountains to the Sea,” a celebration and lamentation of the gypsy life of a musician on the road.
“Marguerite and the Gambler,” a sad tale (do the Irish do any others?) of a father’s wrath destroying the daughter he wishes to protect from her rogue of a lover.
Older songs were interspersed. “Saw You Running” was among the audience favorites. Actually, there wasn’t much of anything that wasn’t an audience favorite.
Like I said, though, it is the totality of the warmth and affection Mary Black brings to the stage and weaves through the audience that really defines her performance.
And that band. The tour band is basically the band on Stories from the Steeples: Bill Shanley playing superb guitar that can softly support Mary’s voice and jump to a snappy lead; Pat Crowley making us see what a fine instrument the accordion can be when he wasn’t playing a Hammond Organ; Ritchie Buckley snatching up various saxophones to cut in just right; and Nick Scott and Liam Bradley, a fine rhythm section. Mary let them cut loose with some solos near the end and you almost wish there’d been more.
A quick word about the venue. The Strand is a beautifully restored version of a movie house/theater of a type that was once common in America. There were once “Strands” all over the country and a few have been well cared for. None probably better renovated than Rockland’s, with a spacious lobby, downstairs restrooms on carpeted stairs and seating that includes a true balcony and seems to have the original appointments.
When The Strand first opened in 1923 the first film shown was My Wild Irish Rose. For this wild Irish rose, the crowd stood more than once for an ovation and of course called Mary et al back for an encore. No one walked home cold.
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