Music is a tough business. To survive you need to constantly re-invent yourself.
That’s why Ireland-based trio, The Henry Girls, deserve so much credit.
Whether playing traditional Irish music, bluegrass or even Bruce Springsteen covers, the three sisters from the village of Malin in north Donegal, constantly adapt their powers of performance to suit the occasion.
Formed in 2003 and named after their grandfather, Henry, the three sisters turned professional ten years ago and have already recorded seven albums and several singles – their debut album being ‘Between Us’ – and have performed throughout Europe and the US.
Their latest leap of creativity harkens back to the 1920s and ‘30s and the intricate harmonies of The Boswell Sisters, nicknamed The Bozzies, also a three-sister group, that won the hearts of audiences across America and abroad during their heyday in the big band and swing jazz era of Louis Armstrong and Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller.
Reflecting their love of experimentation, The Henry Girls, resurrected that beloved period with an exceptional two-hour concert at An Grianan theatre in Letterkenny singing songs from their latest album ‘Shout Sister Shout’ that roused a packed audience to several standing ovations.
Creative stage design set the mood, with soft lighting, tall, standing lamps, an array of plants, a vintage radio and red velvet covers draped over music stands reflecting that bygone musical era, some of the props being provided by family members, including an aunt of the sisters.
Elegantly dressed, head-to-toe in green, the Boswell sisters’ favorite color, Karen, Lorna and Joleen McLaughlin invited their listeners on a nostalgic journey down through the years with a medley of Boswell songs, ranging from classic love ballads such as ‘Coffee In The Morning’ from the 1934 film ‘Moulin Rouge’ to more lively and light-hearted renditions such as Cab Calloway’s ‘Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day,’ which involved strong audience participation, and ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ by Irving Berlin.
Lending authenticity to the proceedings, the sisters also enjoyed a little scat singing as in their interpretation of Louis Armstrong’s 1926 composition, ‘Heebie Jeebies’ and Fats Waller’s ‘If It Ain’t Love,’ which The Boswell Sisters recorded with The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in New York.
Alongside the Donegal trio, a seven-piece band provided excellent accompaniment and some delightful solos, a case in point being their smooth interpretation of Duke Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’ with the traditional front-line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet.
The band, composed of Peter Vail (guitar), Rohan Armstrong (double bass), James Anderson (drums), Robert Goodman (trumpet), Matt Jennings (tenor saxophone), Donal McGuinness (trombone) and Kevin Murphy (clarinet) also combined to create an exotic sounding ‘Caravan,’ first performed by Duke Ellington in 1936, as well as ‘jungle-style ‘The Mooche.’
Adding to the overall enjoyment of the evening was the multi-media nature of the show. A full screen as a stage backdrop displayed black and white photographs of the Boswell sisters, as well as images highlighting some of the songs The Henry Sisters performed, such as a Mississippi steamboat shown to the tune of ‘Muddy Waters’ and images of New York for ‘42nd Street, the title song of the 1933 Warner Bros. film of the same name. Tributes to the Boswell Sisters from well-known personalities such as Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong were also displayed.
Other classic era songs performed on the evening included ‘Shout Sister Shout,’ The Henry Girls album title; ‘Everybody Loves My Baby,’ a jazz standard composed by Spencer Williams in 1924; ‘When I Take May Sugar To Tea,’ written for the 1931 movie, Monkey Business; ‘Let Yourself Go,’ by Irving Berlin for the 1936 movie, Follow the Fleet; ‘Ain’t Misbehievin’ by Fats Waller for the Broadway musical comedy play Connie’s Hot Chocolates; ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ by Al Dubin and Harry Warren and made famous in musical film 42nd Street; and as encores, the ever-popular 1925 song, ‘Dinah’ and ‘Don’t Let Your Love Go Wrong.’
Kudos also go to other performers who helped make the evening so memorable including Tess Munro Pedreros, an aerial dancer who performed on-high acrobatic contortions dangling from silk curtains hanging from the stage ceiling; Eoghan Boyce, champion Irish dancer; and ‘In Your Space,’ fire performers from Derry who entertained outside the theatre.
As Paul Brown, CEO and artistic director of Donegal’s annual Earagail Arts Festival, pointed out in an evening introduction, The Henry Girls are multi-talented performers, not just as musicians – playing fiddle, ukulele, banjo, guitar, harp, mandolin, piano and accordion – but also as excellent singers courageous enough to break new barriers and fuse different genres. Full credit goes to Joleen, pianist and vocalist, who found the Boswell Sisters on YouTube and notated all the musical scores.