Soft-spoken she may be, but Sharon Shannon has given her traveling music box a unique voice of its own that speaks loud and clear.
And when the petite, nymph-like lady from Clare stepped on stage at An Grianan Theatre in Donegal, sultry-like in silk black stockings with vivid red and black skirt and blouse revealing bare, shapely arms and shoulders, she was dressed to impress.
And she certainly did that, receiving not one but two standing ovations from a packed enthusiastic audience.
Much of that applause was also due to the fine musicianship of her accompanists on the evening – the talented Alan Connor on guitar and synthesizer and guitarist-singer Susan O’Neill– who helped Shannon reinforce her reputation as a ‘crossover’ artist, someone not afraid to parlay her natural abilities into other non-Irish musical genres.
Saturday’s concert, the last of an excellent series organized by An Grianan Theatre and the Regional Cultural Center as part of Letterkenny Trad Week, was not one just for Irish purists, but for a wider audience who appreciate the sheer versatility of the accordion when a maestro’s pushing the right buttons.
Clare-born Shannon is always eager to explore new styles and she certainly did that with O’Neill and Connor. How often do you hear accordion in the company of such popular tunes such as Paul Simon’s 1970s hit ‘Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard,’ Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene,’ the Janis Joplin starred ‘Take Another Piece of My Heart’ or even the much-heralded ‘Midnight Special,’ made famous by artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Such songs merged wonderfully with standard Irish trad tunes such as ‘The Lament of Limerick,’ deriving its title from the siege and fall of Limerick to English forces in 1691, classic reels such as ‘Cavan Pot Holes,’ and ‘Rathlin Island,’ as well as ‘The Woodchoppers’ from Shannon’s first album, and the uplifting waltz ‘The Merry Widow’ from Franz Lehár’s operetta and ‘Pulling Out The Stops’ from her latest, ‘Sacred Earth.’
The result: a varied musical evening catering to a multiplicity of tastes.
Illustrating how technology plays an ever-greater role in on-stage music performance today, O’Neill opened the evening by explaining how she would use ‘looping’ in her set – recording then repeating sections of guitar sound as background for her melodies. “That’s why, I’ve no need for friends,” she joked. O’Neill’s deep, husky voice, its contralto style reminiscent of the late Amy Winehouse, was superb in the title song from her debut album ‘Found Myself Lost,’ as well as in ‘Wexford Snow,’ about being trapped in the city four years ago due to severe winter weather, and ‘Our Mother Is Begging to Breathe,’ a simple tribute to trees. The songs also illustrated O’Neill’s finely-crafted lyric penmanship.
As a duet, Shannon and Connor are a fine match, each effortlessly complementing the other’s style, their intensity and playfulness combining in fast-paced crescendos of sound, or lingering softly on haunting ballads.
No surprise the strongest cheer greeted the penultimate tune, ‘The Galway Girl,’ the toe-tapping, massively-successful creation by American folk singer, Steve Earle. Aside from her collaboration with Earle, Shannon’s version with Mundy was the most downloaded song of 2008 in Ireland and the eighth highest selling single in Irish chart history.
While the evening’s musical agenda was diverse and pleasing to the ear, I felt one crucial element was missing – a solo from Shannon.
Shannon’s appearance at An Grianan at the weekend was programmed by the theatre’s director, Patricia McBride, and was the 12th of 20 gigs nationwide over the coming months.