Schenectady’s Music Haven Concert Series was kicked off by singer Maura O’Connell on Sunday night. She was accompanied by a duo of acoustic guitar and electric bass, as opposed to the larger groups on her most recent recordings. This setting works well for her brand of Irish-minded folk pop. Stripped down instrumentation can have the effect of distilling a song’s meaning and that works to O’Connell’s strengths.
O’Connell sang tunes from John Gorka, Janis Ian, and The Beatles (“If I Fell”), but mainly sang from her most recent CD “Don’t I Know” (Sugar Hill Records, 2004). That record explores more pop and near rock ’n’ roll sounds and grooves. Without the band, however, the music in Central Park stayed firmly in the subdued folk/emo mode.
O’Connell’s opener, “To Be The One,” was the most energetic tune of the first set. When O’Connell really gets turned on by a song, she comes off as some kind of a gentle (not too!), folk-evangelist diva. But not preachy. When she lets fly, her Irish tenor permeates the space, as she raises her head and hands toward the sky and bounces on her feet as if on an unseen mini-trampoline beneath her.
But mostly the show tended toward minor-key melancholy. Lyrics of the tunes O’Connell covers (she’s not a writer) are generally of the confessional, heartbreak, personal relationships kind. They can sometimes veer dangerously close to New-Agey, personal affirmation territory. Think Stuart Smalley, but not as exaggerated and not meant as satire. But when this happens, O’Connell’s personal conviction usually saves them from feeling maudlin.
However, the stand-out tune of the evening had nothing in common with Stuart Smalley. Patty Griffin’s “Poor Man’s House” drew the most impassioned singing of the evening and the biggest reaction from the crowd as well.
While O’Connell’s between-song banter leaves a little to be desired (remember, she’s not a writer), she introduced Griffin’s song with a short talk about the hard times many find themselves dealing with today. She also had some relatively nondescript words to say about government finances and the upcoming election.
This all led to a song with powerful lyrics like, “There’s nothing like poverty to get you into heaven,” and “Mama says God tends to every little skinny sheep, So count your ribs and say your prayers and get to sleep.”
O’Connell is known as an Irish singer but her music is far from traditional Irish. She was born in Ireland and her earlier musical experiences were more traditionally Irish. Martin Scorsese even gave her a bit role in his “Gangs Of New York” film as an Irish immigrant. But her family had more opera playing in the house than anything else. You won’t find much bodhran drum, hammered dulcimer, penny whistle, or uilleann pipes on her solo albums. She’s more in the eclectic vein of an Alison Krauss than that of the Chieftains.
It was a beautiful night in Central Park and 300 to 400 fans were in attendance. The show was catered by local favorites Home Style Pizza, adding some Italian flavor to the Irish singer’s evening. This was a fine opening show for the 2008 season.