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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Hear My Song

Critical Blarney Dept.: Seems to me that the Capital Region was a lot more Hibernian in its mid-March entertainment in years past, before we devolved into celebrating merely by coloring our beer and our bagels green. Here’s one such account of mine from 1988.


WEARING CABLE-KNIT SWEATERS and ale-freshened grins, the Clancy Brothers and Robbie O’Connell gave a St. Patrick’s Eve performance at Proctor’s Theatre with the practice of entertainers who’ve been touring for a good long time and the enthusiasm of those who don’t seem to tire of touring.

The Clancy Brothers
They had friends aplenty in the crowded house, friends who joined in with gusto when such old favorites as “Wild Rover” and “Tom Finnegan’s Wake.”

“You just go ahead and sing along,” Tom Clancy invited, “and if the fellow next to you looks at you funny, just belt ‘im!”

All such rowdiness took place within the songs, however, that told of drinking and battling and drinking and working and drinking and ... you get the picture.

Each of the brothers – and nephew O’Connell – has a style and personality that gives the family feeling of the performance a variety as well.

“The Irish have a great tradition for making illegal booze,” said Pat Clancy, “but the tourists who visit the country expect to find it in the pubs. They forget that it’s illegal. But I’ll tell you a secret: you can find it any police station and any convent. The Reverend Mother keeps it for medicinal purposes.” This led him to lead the group in a rousing “Mountain Dew.”

The songs included humorous ditties such as Robbie’s a cappella rendition of “Dear Boss,” the well-known saga of an ill-fated bricklayer; and some trenchantly grim ballads: Tom sang himself hoarse in “The Green Fields of France,” a hit of a few years back.

And the songs weren’t just from Ireland; Australia’s “The Pub with No Beer” sang a universal lament, while England’s “They’re Moving Father’s Grave to Build a Sewer,” dedicated to Mrs. Thatcher, bemoaned the always-annoying class structure.

Bobby Clancy played an amazing range of instruments, including banjo and bodhran, and took his turn with the others in leading songs or telling stories, again with that enthusiasm that keeps favorite material fresh.

And what other group can go from the bawdy tale of a convict in a convent, “Sister Josephine,” to a recitation of the opening pages of Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” without a tremor? Although they bid a solemn good-night with the easy “Parting Glass,” the crowd was left in high spirits indeed and, no doubt, the desire to seek out more spirits.

It’s unusual to hear Irish songs introduced in a Maine accent, but when Allan McHale and the Northeast Winds set to singing it’s with such high energy that the dialect sounds fine.

This foursome opened for the Clancys with songs both traditional and original – a recent member, Taylor Whiteside, is a multi-instrumentalist who also writes moving ballads like “The Martin Gray,” saluting a ship that vanished from Kittery Point (near his home, but many decades ago).

No group from Maine could be expected to neglect the sea, and Northeast Winds (the title refers to weather and voice; there are no oboists or flutists or the like among the ensemble) also sang about “The Mermaid” and the shipwreck she caused.

They, too, saluted toping with “Whisky in the Jar,” which got the audience to clap and sing along at the urging of Emery Hutchings (who played a number of instruments, among them banjo and guitar). Paula McHugh, who plays acoustic bass, sang the wistful “I Know Where I’m Going,” a dedication to her new husband, “and certainly not my old one.”

With any luck, Proctor’s won’t confine this kind of entertainment to one day a year: either group would have been terrific on its own; together, they were quite a celebration.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 18 March 1988

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