SCHENECTADY — “Can we have five more of these?” mused Music Haven Producing Artistic Director Mona Golub on Sunday, gazing down happily from the stage and likely meaning: “Can we have five more perfect nights of big crowds and stirring music?”
Tiny, talented Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon drew perhaps the largest opening night throng in the series’ 28-summers history and didn’t disappoint. Whenever her quartet’s spry dance tunes and jaunty airs threatened too much cheerful Celtic uplift, she poured on poignancy; her music had mood as well as momentum.
So did opener John Doyle, playing and singing solo in immigrant or rebel songs of loss and dispossession. Lost love saddened “I Know My Love,” deceptively spry and fleet. But both “Rounding the Horn” and “Liberty’s Sweet Shore” that followed mourned the loss of homeland, barely balanced by hope of escaping famine or other troubles. All in black from boots to fedora, he played left-handed, flat-picking downward while fingers plucked upward in counterpoint. In a strong closing run, the rowdy “Wild Colonial Boy” and a singalong celebrating ne’er-do-well Billy O’Shea bookended the heartbreaking exile’s lament “The Rocks of Bawn.”
Shannon started upbeat with party-at-the-pub reels that shifted tempos and chords, firing at full rip with “Rusheen Bay” as some fans clapped, mostly on the beat. That beat surged from fiddler Sean Regan’s thunderous miked foot, giving the music more bottom than most Irish bands command, while guitarists Jim Murray (acoustic) and Jack Maher (electric) wove chords around Shannon’s accordion leads. Her riffs reached out in cozy circles, gathering friends in the crowd, then folding back, inviting and engaging, then upshifting to a livelier tempo. They were cohesive, precise; but never sounded fussy. They played as if for a dance, as if dancing.
After Shannon switched to whistle for an agile Northern reel came the first surprise: Maher singing Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Later he crooned Olly Murs’ “Just Smile.” Both were in a hearty, accurate voice.
They subdivided some: Murray struggled to say “Schenectady,” introducing a short set of sad Southern tunes, Maher beat-boxed in a set of marches that wrapped around Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” assuring us that his mouth percussion tricks were “not easy” as Maher’s guitar went all metal. However, they were most satisfying when most energized together, riffing and rocking on vintage dance numbers or putting their own fresh spin on Donal Lunny’s lively “Cavan Potholes” or Steve Earle’s romantic “Galway Girl,” Maher again singing lead. They’re entitled: Shannon played on Earle’s original.
Few danced, though a handful of couples took the strong hint as Shannon led her crew into a graceful waltz. Most preferred to sit and marvel.
Music Haven continues this Sunday with Afro-pop giants Amadou and Mariam from Mali, likely the most exciting show of this season and maybe of the whole summer.