How it’s New York: Karan Casey zoomed to success with the group Solas, which began in NYC. And this event took place at Irish Arts Center.
How it’s Irish: Karan Casey is Irish, and Aoife O’Donovan is Irish-American.
My expectations for the collaboration between Irish chanteuse Karan Casey (Solas, A Prairie Home Companion) and Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still, Childsplay) were not low.
But they weren’t high enough.
The Irish Arts Center really knows what they are doing with these events, the brainchild of Mick Moloney who launched the series in 2008 with Paul Brady and Sarah Siskind.
Masters in Collaboration projects since then have included Andy Irvine/John Doyle, Bill Whelan/Athena Tergis, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill/Gregory Harrington, Iarla Ó Lionaáird/Ivan Goff and Seamus Begley/Joanie Madden.
They’ve all been different degrees of Great.
Karan Casey and Aoife O’Donovan are one of the Greatest.
I would so buy this CD.
It isn’t a CD yet, but I am angling for it. Aoife is very busy getting ready to release her solo CD on Yep-Roc records in June, but let’s all begin a nagging campaign. I want to put Saturday’s concert on my iPod.
Both women have gorgeous voices. Karan’s is clear and has a small timbre, a little like Dolly Parton. Aoife has a breathier quality with gut-punching expressiveness.
Together, backed by Jacob Silver on double bass and Grant Gordy on guitar, with Aoife on guitar and sometimes Karan on piano, their sound just soared.
There was a Stevie Nicks/Christine McVie kind of blend going on, and the rhythmic drive set the voices in elegant relief.
He spoke first to Karan and then to Aoife about their backgrounds and how they became singers.
Karan began as a singer in Ireland doing Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan songs.
She first came to America, she had a job at Scholastic editing science books,
“which I knew nothin’ about, I blagged my way in,”
She met Seamus Egan and Winnie Horan from Solas and left a jazz course she was taking in Brooklyn to go on the road with them. John Doyle soon joined.
“You came on like gangbusters. Did you know you were in the presence of something extraordinary?”
Mick wanted to know.
Well, she was happy to be able to quit her various day jobs!
Karen recalled how the late Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham produced the first Solas CD, Solas, and how she stood in the studio with her hands in fists, she was so nervous.
“We came on the wave of Riverdance. I was shocked by the crowds of people who loved traditional music,” Karan said.
She learned many songs from Frank Harte, when she was hired to teach traditional singing at a teaching session and he quickly realized she didn’t know very many. She went off the road and home to Ireland, and began a solo career, after four years with Solas.
She had met her husband Niall Vallely by then and, she said, she didn’t really love being on the road. Karan also talked about her love of message in song, and to sing about injustice.
Aoife O’Donovan is the daughter of Brian O’Donovan, host of WGBH’s hugely popular ‘A Celtic Sojurn’ in Massachusetts.
Aoife told Mick she was
“always singing. I remember Altan, Lúnasa, Johnny Cunningham at the house. I would fall asleep under the piano.”
Mick said he asked Brian about Aoife’s becoming a singer, and he replied
“It was always in the cards.”
Aoife fell in love with American folk music, and also listened to Solas in high school.
She studied classical music as well and did a music course at the Berklee College of Music.
Aoife said she actually formed Crooked Still when she was 18, because the college asked her to put something together to play for the incoming freshmen.
“We worked up ‘Darling Corey.’ That was it,” Aoife said.
Where Karan is a wordsmith, Aoife said she is drawn to melody first. Both women write songs. Aoife’s been doing it since childhood; there are even YouTube videos of her forcing her younger brother to sing a silly song she’d written.
The two women said they had written some things specifically for the collaboration. One interesting point they made was that the Irish tradition is solo singing, whereas bluegrass is choral.
“One song puts you in mind of another. If someone starts a lament, you have gone down that road.”
It can be a bit like going to Mass, Mick said.
“Bluegrass is joyful, with three-part harmony, and call and response.”
The interview closed with the women singing Patty Griffin’s song “Mary,” a capella.
So I already knew the voices would sound good together. I expected to hear one or two new songs, and some new harmonies on songs I already knew from either of them.
Aoife was in a print dress, Karan in a white lacy shirt and black jeans. There was a kind of new country vibe to the evening.
I have always loved Karan Casey’s voice, but have sometimes felt that classical arrangements and slow laments dragged. Here, with the core beat, she sounded just amazing.
I think she needs that contrast to showcase what she does, just as Aoife’s subtle nuances shine against the steady beat.
Many of the songs had complex melodies, with interesting chords that shifted from jazz to country and back again.
Aoife’s truly a wonder – she makes it sound so easy, her voice just floating above the music, and then she somehow tweaks a word and the whole lyric grabs you.
The blend of the two voices, both true, both just different enough, was like hearing two birds calling to one another.
I so want this album.
The women interspersed the concert with intros, and, as Aoife said, a “love fest.” Aoife hilariously imitated Joanie Madden the night before complaining about how Aoife said she’d listened to Karan in high school.
Karan announced that she turned 45 the day before. She also described a great day in the city, running in Central Park, going to see Colm Tóibín’s “The Testament of Mary” on Broadway, and eating falafel and hummus.
Karan accompanied herself on piano for “Do You Wanna Be My Love,” a sweet ballad in a major key. She took the lead at first and then was joined by the others.
She also sat at the piano for her original song “Lovely Annie,” about her late mother. “The world keeps on turning, but you’re not standing there,” she sang, as great a rendition of how grief works as any I’ve heard.
Some standouts of the evening were also songs by others, such as “When I See Your Face,” by Mike Miranda of the Mammals.
The harmonies appealed to the heart, and Karan’s delivery of “I will be there with a wheelchair, when your race is run” was both touching and funny.
There were a few Irish songs included too, including the lament “A Stor Mo Chroi,” and “The King’s Shilling,” which really sounded terrific with a double bass. Karan asked the audience to join in the chorus, and they did.
Their encore was another Irish song, an a capella rendition of “Song of Wandering Aengus,” based on the poem by W.B. Yeats.
Karan recorded the song on her first solo CD, Songlines. It never sounded better.
Grant’s solos were innovative yet not flashy, supporting the women and adding spice, while Jacob either bowing or strumming the bass provided a solid heart to the music.
Aoife told the audience at one point that the combo had never played together before.
Let’s hope it’s the first of many.