How It’s New York: Susan McKeown lives in the East Village, and several of the songs reference NYC directly.
How It’s Irish: Susan’s originally from Dublin, and there’s an Irish melody that runs throughout her work– not to mention her songs about Irish people and places.
A few weeks ago we had the pleasure of seeing Susan McKeown perform songs from her new CD Belong at 92Y|Tribeca.
Here’s our concert review, which appeared in an earlier version in Irish Examiner USA, Jan. 8.
There’s something haunting and healing about her, a shaman with dark eyes and long hair.
Mike Farragher reviewed her CD here, and we also have an interview with Susan here.
A Feeling Of Belonging With Susan McKeown
Halfway through her concert at 92YTribeca Saturday night, Susan McKeown took off her high heels.
“Just tonight,” she said. “It’s New York. We’re home.”
Born in Dublin, Susan has made Manhattan her home since 1990. While many of her songs and the song intros the she told engagingly throughout the night referenced Irish themes, including Cuchullain, the love of “delph,” Irish poets and artists, and there’s no mistaking her accent, Susan also has incorporated the city’s atmosphere and openly into her songwriting.
Dressed in a black skirt with a ruffled top that was faintly Western, Susan played one long set, telling us tales of walks in New York, waitressing in Texas, watching American television shows as a girl, about poets including James Mangan and Robert Lowell, and her love for the East River which, she said “doesn’t stink like the Liffey,” which she rushed to say she also loves.
She sang from the soul, drawing us in, calling with a voice both strong and gentle. There’s something haunting and healing about her, a shaman with dark eyes and long hair.
“It was a beautiful day in Manhattan today,” she said to the audience of about 60 after opening the evening with “The Nameless One,” from her last CD, Singing in the Dark, which came out in 2010 and which we wrote about here.
In that CD Susan set lyrics from poets to her own music, on an album that explored connections mental illness and creativity, inspired in part by high rates of alcoholism and suicide in Ireland.
“The Nameless One,” using a poem by James Mangam, who died of malnutrition brought on by alcoholism, Susan said, is also a song that shows a person reaching for something higher.
In Belong, that something higher seems closer and more attainable, even though a few songs are wistful and with dark issues.
It’s basically a happy CD, and altogether an irresistible one, with catchy melodies that demand to be reheard immediately, and sharp lyrics that create arresting images in the mind.
Susan has described Belong as being more infused with Americana than earlier CDs.
Since she also said that she used never to speak onstage and now the band couldn’t get her to shut up, maybe New Yorkers can take some credit for her demeanor. We’re an outgoing city. Of course, maturity has something to do with her comfort onstage and sharing with a crowd.
Belong is a mature CD that looks out as much as in, sharing observations of individuals and places, inviting the listener into its world.
Susan was in excellent voice, holding long notes and sometimes belting them.
She is a trained singer, who originally planned to sing opera, a fact that may surprise those who know her as a singer-songwriter, someone who sang in Mabou Mines’ collaboration with Johnny Cunningham, the Obie-Award winning Peter and Wendy, in 1997, and often sings with The Klezmatics, sharing a Grammy-Award with that group in 2006 for Wonder Wheel.
The training shows in her ability to twist her volume quickly and cleanly, and let her emotion come through.
On “A Woman Like That,” another song from Singing in the Dark, Susan bit out the angry words by Anne Sexton, “I have been her kind.”
Before she sang “On the Bridge to Williamsburg,” from Belong, Susan told the crowd that her father had run sugar factories. “I feel good about sugar,” she said. There’s a reference to a broken sugar factory in the verse that comes just before the uplifting refrain,
“I am old enough, I am young enough,
I have lived enough, I am strong enough,
I have heard enough, I have loved enough, and I’ve been here for long enough.”
That could mean “I’m ready go home,” but the way Susan sings it it feels like “now I’m home.”
On the CD Declan O’Rourke takes some of the verses, and it’s more a song of a relationship; in concert it was slower and more personal.
The actress Fionnula Flanagan appeared in several of Susan’s anecdotes, notably in the intro to the song “Delph,” a song about a woman who is the object of gossip seen in town buying cups and saucers. That obsession is an Irish thing, Susan explained. The song, one of the few on the CD that is throat-catching and sad (at least, to me, with its final line about “who ever thought to give her time of day”) had been suggested by one of her band to play in concert – Brendan O’Shea, a singer-songwriter himself, who accompanied Susan on tour and has been showcased by her in the inaugural edition of SongLives at Irish Arts Center last year. You can hear Susan talking about SongLives in this podcast.
Susan held onto notes in this song, letting the band keep the beat going while the image of a woman pushed beyond her limits floated in her voice.
Susan’s five-piece band were supported and drove her with sensitivity.
They included Erik Della Penna on electric guitar, Mason Ingram on drums, Jason Sypher on double bass, and Justin Carroll on keyboards. I especially dug Carroll’s soft keyboards with their electric, almost retro sound.
English singer James Maddock joined Susan for a sweet rendition of “Everything We Had Was Good,” which he also sings on the album. Not many songs look at a finished relationship with joy. Here, even as the speaker sees a shirt her ex would love and almost asks for the price, there’s an air of happiness and even wonder that the relationship existed.
Susan praised her band for following her in “The Cure for Me,” which had not been on her set list.
My favorite on the CD, it is a magical, catchy song-swans sing a refrain and someone who seems under a spell. Susan explained that it is about inner darkness, partly inspired by Seamus Heaney’s poem “Night Ferry” about Robert Lowell. The poem, Susan said, can’t be found on the internet, and she loves that, that people have to actually go to a library or buy a book to get it.
Throughout the evening, Susan covered all of the songs from the CD, with the funny “Fallen Angel,” about a man who seems angelic to others, but not to her: “they only see your fingers, I see your fist.” The song’s melody has a vaudeville, comic tone. “As you raise your boyish brow, I see the horns behind your hair,” she croons.
It’s one of the songs, Susan explained, she wrote many years ago but never put on an album.And it’s about a real person. If “Everything We Had Was Good” remembers a relationship with joy, this one rolls its eyes.
For an encore, Susan sang “River,” from 2002’s Prophecy. The song, which has imagery of Cuchullain being bathed of his physical and spiritual wounds in the rivers of Ireland as well as images borrowed from Emily Dickinson, and from Chief Seattle, was written in the mid-90s for the North of Ireland, Susan explained. She was also thinking about how the rivers of Ireland had literally run red with blood. It’s the closest Susan has to a rock anthem, and its build is exhilarating.
She also sang “Gonna Get Through This World,” with cool, minor-to-major music by The Klezmatics’ Lisa Gutkin and lyrics written by Woody Guthrie in 1945. For a description of Lisa playing this ias a Niggun (wordless Yiddish melody) on the album and as an Irish reel at the 11th Street Bar, w click here (this piece on the Celtic-Klezmer connection was originally in The Village Voice, and has gone viral).
Before that, she sang a little Irish song that is on the 2011 CD A Winter Talisman that she made with Johnny Cunningham and Aidan Brennan, maybe responding to someone who shouted “Sing in Irish!” Someone else then yelled “Sing in Yiddish!”
She was as relaxed as if she were at home.