Maura O'Connell At the Birchmere Friday night, County Clare-born vocalist and Nashville transplant Maura O'Connell performed Irish songs brimming with melancholy and rue. But she didn't stop there. "Now we're going to get to the real pain," she declared, moments before singing "Teddy O'Neil," a heart-wrenching tale of emigration, parting and sorrow.
Yet no matter how sad the song, O'Connell's mezzo-soprano sounded wonderfully radiant. Its soulful beauty was particularly evident during an a cappella rendition of "Danny Boy" -- the overtaxed Irish favorite that O'Connell stubbornly avoided performing in her youth. She sings it now in Gaelic and English, wringing poignant emotion from each verse. (Small wonder that Nashville named O'Connell grand marshal of its St. Patrick's Day Parade this year.)
Crisply supported by a mostly acoustic, dobro-equipped quartet, O'Connell also displayed her passion for recording ballads by contemporary composers. A longtime champion of Patty Griffin's music, she imbued "Poor Man's House" with a mixture of compassion and outrage. Well-crafted songs by Richard Thompson and Malcolm Holcombe inspired sharply contrasting moods, and while reprising Nanci Griffith's "Trouble in the Fields," O'Connell produced a soaring expression of faith, love and determination. Her interpretation of Van Morrison's "Crazy Love," on the other hand, was joyous and giddy.
O'Connell added some special twists as well, pausing to recite poems by Seamus Heaney, Flann O'Brien and Patrick Kavanaugh. These brief selections -- somber, thoughtful and amusing by turns -- complemented the songs that followed and led to the evening's richly deserved encores.
-- Mike Joyce
And GrooveLily After "tuning the audience" in preparation for singing the call-and-response choruses to his songs, Billy Jonas, his acoustic guitar in hand and bells wrapped around his ankles, stood on an industrial-size plastic bucket and asked a musical question: "What kind of cat are you?"
Jonas, the North Carolina singer who is somewhat of a celebrity among those under 12, performed his "adult" show Friday night at Vienna's Jammin' Java. The songs may have been more mature -- "Late" had the audience singing back to him about making love in the morning, but without saying as much -- but Jonas had the crowd giggling like schoolchildren.
The songs were novel -- "One" commented on the nature of diversity, with the audience singing the title three times in each line; "Cat" had the audience shouting "catamaran" in answer to the question "What kind of cat floats on two pontoons?" -- but had enough musical integrity to avoid jokiness. The centerpiece of the set was "God Is In," an omni-sectarian catalogue of dozens of witty couplets about where God can be found, set to a mesmerizing melody.
Headlining the evening was GrooveLily, a local trio that combines elements of jazz, folk and jam band to forge a unique style of pop. Keyboard player Brendan Milburn, drummer Gene Lewin and electric violinist Valerie Vigoda, who has toured with Cyndi Lauper, Joe Jackson and Cher, issued a set of intricate, complex and somewhat unfocused tunes -- lyrically and melodically -- that require repeated listenings to be fully appreciated.
-- Buzz McClain