Haunting and rousing by turns, if hardly lull-proof, vocalist Mary Black's performance at the Birchmere on Wednesday night was clearly influenced by a biographical DVD she recently made in her native Ireland.
While preparing for the career retrospective, Black exhumed a few traditional ballads she hadn't sung since she toured the world with De Danann in the '80s. She expressed a newfound love for "old classic songs" during the opening set, and when she performed "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye," instantly silencing the room with her soulful, heart-aching soprano, it wasn't hard to understand why.
The first half of the concert found Black seated onstage, performing an acoustic set with her four band mates, including accordionist (and Black's tour mate of 16 years) Pat Crowley. The setting proved flattering to the singer and the songs, especially when a ballad like Mary Chapin Carpenter's "The Moon and St. Christopher" or a Sandy Denny-inspired reprise of "By the Time It Gets Dark" seemed tailor-made to reveal Black's vocal charms.
The second, "stand-up" set was more vibrant but less consistent, enlivened by Crowley's turn on electric piano but marred by a few sentimental ballads. In the last decade, Black has occasionally chosen songs that are largely indistinguishable from the easy-listening ballads favored by her pop peers. Yet there was no mistaking her talent for stirring deep emotions when she performed "The Crow on the Cradle," an antiwar ballad, or her affinity for the music of Billie Holiday ("Don't Explain") and Bob Dylan ("Forever Young").
-- Mike Joyce