Reviews

Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul

Jamie O'Brien
Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul

Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul

City: Carlisle, Pennsylvania
Venue: Carlisle Theater
Date: 2003-11-08
"We thought we'd ease into the evening," said Eileen Ivers, as her audience wiped the sweat away after the opening tunes. A set of reels featuring fiddle, guitar and percussion: the first played slowly, then picking up the tempo for the second to reach a million miles an hour! It was fast, but it wasn't frantic. When Ivers and her bandmates play, they have time. Time to explore unexpected avenues opened up by the tunes, time to develop ornamentation and intricacies with their instruments, time to surprise and move the audience and perhaps most of all, time to share and swap ideas with each other. For most of the evening, Ivers played the "blue fiddle," her trademark Zeta electric violin. She passes this through a series of attachments and gadgets, expanding the sound range of the instrument: wah-wah, reverb and more. So she doesn't just play melodies. She wails, she harmonizes, she distorts, she takes traditional Irish tunes into a completely different realm. This is why she is known as the "Hendrix of the fiddle." But when she picked up her quaint-looking wooden fiddle -- the kind most Irish fiddlers use -- she showed why she has won nine All-Ireland fiddle championships. Although she has followed her musical intuition into other styles, she has not lost touch with or respect for the old ways. Her new directions involve collaborating with a quintet of topnotch players. Dubliner James Riley played his Martin guitar with an incessant drive on the fast tunes, yet with a delicate lightness on slower ones. He produced imaginative chord progressions which introduced elements of jazz without losing touch with tradition; and on the one occasion he flatpicked, he created an intricate dance across the strings plucking the melody with drones and harmony lines thrown in for good measure. Puerto Rican Emedin Rivera is a percussionist who has played with such performers as Harry Bellafonte and Gregory Hines. He adds a Latin touch with a wide range of effects, at one point, even recreating the image of a rain forest in sound. Emanuel Chulo Gatewood is a bassist with flair as well as a supportive harmony singer. He never intruded, but always provided a fascinating, highly listenable accompaniment. Pipes, flute and whistles were provided by another Dublin man (but now of Queens, New York), Ivan Goff. With perhaps the most traditional approach of all the musicians, he still proved capable of inventive improvisation during his solo spots. His duets with Ivers showed compatible but contrasting interpretations, usually with him retaining a more conventional style for her to bounce off with her adventurous explorations. The band is rounded out by ex-Blues Brother, Tommy McDonnell, a big man with a big voice. He takes an Irish song like Ron Kavannagh's classic "Reconciliation", and turns it into a blue-eyed soul song. He holds the audience spellbound, even with a simple "toura-loura-lay" chorus. He's also not bad on harmonica and percussion! When you mix Irish with rock, salsa, blues and more, you'll either wind up with a musical stew which tantalizes, tempts and excites your listening buds or with a mess. With these musicians, there is no chance of the latter. Percussion, bass and picked chords on the guitar provided an African sound on "Afro-Jig": a simple, repetitive accompaniment that sways the body and moves the soul, you just have to start dancing. Enter the fiddle and then pipes and suddenly, there are the green fields of old Ireland. Yet when blues harp entered the mix, we were in Chicago or some such place. The tune gave space for each musician to move freely within a genre, a kind of musical mix'n'match that built images to transport the listeners. An emigration set began with Goff reciting a poem called "My American Wake", his warm baritone voice accompanied by an organ-like guitar, echoing far off chords. This then slipped into a Turlough O'Carolan harp tune, "Parting of Friends". Ivers performed this slow air, its lonely melody echoing the sentiments of the poem. Then McDonnell sang to Riley's accompaniment before droning pipes, a growling bass and McDonnell's vocal effects moved into overdrive and led the whole band in a set of lively polkas. It was an epic presentation, linking recital with tunes, lament with dance. Ivers is a true character. She retains much of her older life, the days of straight up Irish traditional music: she chats freely with the audience, joking, reminiscing on her childhood, explaining origins of the tunes and more, rather like a fireside chat over a glass of beer. But then, she swings and sways across the stage, her body contorting and twisting, no separation between musician and instrument; she feeds her band musical ideas and responds freely when they give ideas back; her duets with guitar, with harmonica, with flute, completely engulf her; and perhaps best to watch, Q&A sessions with her partners when she plays a riff and they throw it back with a bit more, only for her to develop it a stage further for them to answer. A two-hour long show ended with an epic vocal and instrumental medley. She wouldn't let the audience sit, but instead had them clapping, waving arms and chanting along with "Dance All Night". Performed in an Irish calypso style, even the most staid present were rocking away. This led into a series of improvisations on rocking reels before McDonnell took over again with a hypnotic "Will the Circle Be Unbroken", again with delirious audience participation - an Irish revival meeting, except this was pure fun! Eileen Ivers has come a long, long way -- from a young student of Irish traditional fiddle into seasoned interpreter of fine music. But she hasn't lost touch with her roots, she is as gracious as ever, and her performance continued in my head, hours after the theater emptied.

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