As a far-off clock echoed nine bells last night, Maire O Braonain's startling a capella soprano brushed gently against the Gaelic words of "Gaothbearra," a song about absence and memories of a particular corner of the Irish soil. It was a transcendent moment in a superb evening of Irish music from Clannad, a quintet from County Donegal made up of two brothers, a sister and two cousins. They performed at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall last night.
Whereas groups like the Cieftains and the Boys of the Lough accent the instrumental traditions, younger Irish musicians, starting with Planxty, the Bothy Band and now Clannad, show a willingness to assimilate modern influences. The result is a Pentangle-like sound, though nearly all of the songs are sung in Gaelic.
Clannad began its program with "Miss Brown's Fancy," composed by the great 17th-Centruy Irish harpist Turlough O'Carolan. Building on a sloping bass phrase, the melody filled out gently with harp, guitar, flute and mandolin. Throughout the evening, these instruements supported the ensemble singing of Clannad.
The three-part harmony of "Maire Bhruineal" and an achingly poignant rendering by Maire O Braonain of Eats' "Down by the Sally Gardens" were especially chilling. O Braonain's voice was glorious and crystalline. It made one long for an immediate return visit.