The Sharon Shannon BandReviewed by Nick Tipping
The Sharon Shannon Band
The National Bank Festival Club
March 4 and 5
Last night at the National Bank Festival Club, a packed house heard the Sharon Shannon Band's NZ debut, and no one would have been left without at least a foot tapping or a tune in their head.
This concert was billed as the Sharon Shannon Band, and it was indeed the band which took centre stage. And what a band! Shannon plays a mean squeezebox, and while she is equally at home on the fiddle, for this tour she has deferred to All-Ireland champion fiddler Dezi Donnelly. Michael McGoldrick (from Capercaillie) produced a stunningly liquid flute sound, and all was held together by Jim Murray's guitar – both exciting and solid, and capable of a seriously funky groove. Each player took their turn in the limelight and on the microphone (with welcome touches of Irish humour), and in fact Shannon seemed to be content to allow the other members of the band to lead.
As a unit, the band was as tight as any band this reviewer can remember. The squeezebox, fiddle and flute raced along as if one instrument, and Murray was a one-man rhythm section, providing harmony, bass line and percussion simultaneously. The group moved seamlessly between tunes, negotiating changes of tempo and key with hardly a blink. Although listeners of Irish music will be accustomed to this kind of arrangement, it would have seemed no less thrilling to see it performed in such a secure and assured way. Of particular note were Jim Murray's heroics on guitar; any guitar player who can move the capo mid-tune, without losing time, and incorporate it into the music is worth the price of the admission on his own.
The music was at turns thrilling and soulful. A dizzying selection of jigs, reels and hornpipes dominated the group's repertoire, punctuated with some slower and more heartfelt airs. Of special note was the wonderful air 'Paddy's Rambles through the Park', a feature for Donnelly with sensitive accompaniment from Murray.
Each member of the band was allowed a solo spot. McGoldrick brought touches of jazz improvisation and groove to his; Shannon played an exciting bracket of reels (a la Silly Wizard's Phil Cunningham), and Murray, having accompanied all the other members of the band, tugged at the heartstrings with his rendition of 'Cape Clear' before leading the band back into another up-tempo number.
Shannon is known for incorporating an eclectic range of musical influences into her music, and while the theme of the evening was traditional Irish music, there were a few numbers which looked further afield. A Finnish fiddle tune was well played by Donnelly, and McGoldrick contributed (among other pieces) a rollicking Eastern European-inspired number in 7/8 time; the audience was warned not to attempt to dance to this one!
The audience had begun toe-tapping during the first tune, and by the end of the show several had thrown caution to the wind and were dancing in the aisles (and in front of the stage). This seemed to energise the band, and the performance shot up a couple of notches from then on. This style of music is better suited to a crowded pub or Irish craic than a concert situation, but when the bar is open, a good Irish jig is irresistible!
Shannon is acknowledged as one of the giants of contemporary Irish music. It was perhaps the opportunity of a lifetime to see her with sidemen of the calibre of McGoldrick, Donnelly and Murray.