This show featured two wildly different kinds of music, with no discernible connection, at the elegant Grand Hall.
First up was the new Irish supergroup At First Light, a six-piece band band that grew from the collaboration of John McSherry and Donal O’Connor. Their initial album, Tripswitch, caught attention for its distinctly original arrangements and energetic playing; this new formation only amplifies both characteristics. In addition to McSherry (Uileann pipes, whistles) and O’Connor (fiddle), the band now includes Tony Byrne (guitar), Michael McCague (bouzouki), Francis MacIlduff (pipes, bodhran), and Ciara MacCrickard (fiddle, vocals). The power and complexity of this expanded lineup was evident from the first set, which began with a spare, plaintive sound from Byrne, O’Connor, and McSherry (on low whistle). McCrickard came in with fiddle while McSherry switched instruments, and then he and MacIlduff and McCague all came in at once; the sudden leap of intensity brought whoops and cheers from the audience as the band tore into the reels.
Tripswitch, the title track from McSherry and O’Connor’s first release, started as a slow reel or march, and ended as a fast reel – the transition marked by another of those sudden jumps of energy, provoking more whoops and shouts of approval. On a slow air, McSherry and MacIlduff doubled up on pipes and seemed to be tossing the melody back and forth between them; the effect was mesmerizing. Especially notable was a tune from Brittany (learned from the band Pennou Skoulm) where the doubled instruments played call-and-response in the Breton tradition with a distinct Irish accent and another from Galicia (El Garrotin).
Singing in both Irish (Gaelic) and English, MacCrickard’s vocals provided a counterpoint to the powerful instrumentals, slowing the tempo and lowering the energy, but avoiding the breathy whispering style affected by many Irish vocalists in recent years.
And then all too soon, At First Light finished their set and left the stage. After the break, something completely different: Jaadu with Faiz Ali Faiz, a Pakistani qawwali singer performing Sufi poetry to the accompaniment of buzuq, tabla, handclaps, shruti boxes, frame drum, dumbek, cajon, accordion, and some kind of weird bass stringed instrument whose name I didn’t catch. The music was powerfully rhythmic and complex, the vocals eerie and alien to my ears. Titi Robin on buzuq and guitar led off each set with some marvelous playing, and each set built in complexity and intensity, rising and falling in mysterious (to me) cycles. I don’t know what the Celtic connection is, but it was strong stuff.
– Reviewed by Tim