By Sean Smith,
Boston Irish Contributor
“Live in Concert”, The Kilfenora Céilí Band • The Kilfenora Céilí Band has been around since before ceili bands were even a thing: As early as 1888, it was a fife and drum band that, some 20 years later, had morphed into the ceili band pattern as we know it today. Whatever your feelings about ceili bands – and no, not everyone likes them – there’s no denying that Kilfenora is immensely popular and historic, and well. Beyond Ireland. So, with the pandemic causing difficulty in scheduling live appearances, in 2020 the band arranged to hold a concert with the aim of creating a DVD that would tide over their many fans until some degree of normality. arrived.
Kilfenora – much like traditional Irish music itself – has changed over the decades, having long gone beyond performing for dances and competitions to also doing gigs and TV appearances while shaping an act more entertainment-oriented: sometimes employing more nuanced arrangements than the all-together-now ceili band format, incorporating tunes outside of the ceili band canon, and collaborating with guest vocalists and stage or step dancers.
Ultimately, however, they are what they are, a champion ceili band built around strict unison, tempo and rhythm. And that’s largely what you get on “Live in Concert”, as the 13 members of Kilfenora, who between them play 20 instruments (from fiddle and accordion to banjo, mandolin and drums, and even cello) perform 18 sets of melodies or songs with momentum and enthusiasm. About a third of the content is taken from their latest CD, “Both Sides Now”, which was produced by the esteemed Donal Lunny (Planxty/Bothy Band).
Lunny’s association with the band is an example of Kilfenora’s desire to broaden, if not extend, her artistic reach. Their overture to the ensemble “Dinky Doofer” – two polkas composed by the band’s concertina player, Tim Collins – is a slow and fascinating construction of repeated phrases, first on the piano and gradually on the strings until the flute and accordion return to the tune, with the other melodic instruments coming in over the next two rounds; “The Coolaholliga”, the second track of the medley, includes soft harmonies. Along the same lines, Kilfenora’s setting of “Little Bird,” a soulful, moderate-speed piece by British-Irish guitarist/accordionist Tim Edey, opens with a banjo/cello duet. It’s all very reminiscent of an ensemble like Lúnasa (whose Kevin Crawford also worked with Kilfenora) or the now defunct Boston Childsplay.
The most typical fare is straight sets like ‘Molly Bán’ and ‘Lillies in the Field’, two reel collections, the bagpipe mix ‘Our Last Night Together’ and ‘The ’95 Jigs’ – the latter being a mix . the band debuted over 25 years ago (not even a quarter of Kilfenora’s lifespan). But it is worth mentioning that where there is room for beauty and virtuosity in the classic band ceili sound, Kilfenora continually achieves that state of grace in the midst of propulsion.
Kilfenora’s recognition of new directions is also reflected in their sets with three-step dancers, brothers Michael and Matthew Gardiner and Sinead Neylon. The Gardiners, born in Colorado to Irish parents, are “Riverdance” veterans and a social media phenomenon through their videos on Tik Tok and Instagram. However, Neylon is not at all to be overlooked. All three are athletic and vigorous as they are very skilful, and certainly give their dancing a certain theatricality.
‘Live in Concert’ acknowledges a sad transition: the 2020 death of vocalist Jerry Lynch, whose family has strong ties to the band – his father PJ was its longtime frontman and his brother John (mandolin, banjo) took over the torch almost three decades ago. Thankfully, six-time All-Ireland champion and frequent Kilfenora guest Edel Vaughan is back to lend her sean-nos-influenced vocals to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (although she sloppy the words, repeating part of verse two in verse three), “Clare My Heart, My Home” by Collins and two in Gaelic, “Na Chomaraigh Aoibhinn Ó” (by Maurus Ó Faoláin) and “Ardaigh Cuain” (Seán Mac Ambróis). These songs not only showcase Vaughan’s exquisite singing, but also Kilfenora’s ability to serve as a backup band.
There’s certainly no issue with the music or the overall performance of the DVD, but there are a few things you can quibble about. The editing of sequences involving the dancers isn’t always as precise as one would like – we occasionally catch a glimpse of the Gardiners and/or Neylon just a second or two after what could well have been a jaw-dropping sequence. . Vaughn performs her segments on an adjacent stage (as do the step dancers), with large video screens behind her that show close-ups of the band members as they accompany her; maybe this setup was meant to emphasize singer-band collaboration, despite them being physically apart, but it ends up being a bit of a distraction.
Garry Shannon, Kilfenora’s lively Pied Piper and Whistler, offers introductions to some segments with some quirky, folksy good words. But these take place in the studio rather than on stage, which kind of begs the question why, if this DVD is supposed to replicate a Kilfenora concert experience, didn’t it just do the intros during this part of the shoot? And why not get a few other band members involved?
However, such details are unlikely to bother most Kilfenora fans. It will be fine until the real thing comes back. (Note: this is indeed the case. Since the DVD release, Kilfenora has appeared at Fleadh Nua in Ennis and Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar; they are due to perform this month in Limerick and Killarney the following day.)