‘Adventurous’ is the driving spirit at ‘Celtic Sojourn’

The annual “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” celebration hits the magic 10-year mark this year in characteristically adventurous fashion, with performances by Irish folk-roots trio The Henry Girls, hot Cape Breton quintet Còig, New England singer-guitarist (and the show’s music director) Keith Murphy, and a special appearance by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Mick McAuley, a member of Irish super group Solas.

Also featured will be Irish dancer Sarah Jacobsen and members of the Harney Academy of Irish Dance.
“A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” will be at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater on March 14 (8 p.m.) and 15 (3 p.m.), following a March 13 show at the Zeiterion Theater in New Bedford.

Concert producer and host Brian O’Donovan, also the guiding spirit behind “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” is pleased that the St. Patrick’s Day production has established its own identity – one that has clearly resonated with audiences over 10 years.

“It’s great that people have been enthusiastic and supportive about what we’ve been doing,” he says. “‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn,’ of course, has a unique purpose, celebrating a particular, very special time of the year and all its traditions. But ‘St. Patrick’s Celtic Sojourn’ allows us some flexibility and variability to be experimental, stretch things a little. So we’ve had a little of everything over the years, from John McCormack-style songs to a Scandinavian hardanger fiddle.

“St. Patrick’s Day is a largely American phenomenon, after all, so that gives the show a different kind of perspective to begin with. For me, ‘St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn’ is intended as a journey, constantly looking at where the Irish have travelled, how the Irish have influenced others – and in turn, been influenced by others.”

The Henry Girls – Donegal-born sisters Karen, Lorna and Joleen McLaughlin – are a perfect embodiment of that two-way influence in Irish music, says O’Donovan. Irish they may be, the trio has a firm grasp of Americana styles and grooves, joining gorgeous three-part vocal harmonies to an assortment of instruments that include fiddle, banjo, harp, ukulele, accordion, guitar, mandolin and piano; most of their material is original compositions, but they’ve also been known to throw in some beguiling covers, such as Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” (familiar to those watchers of the “History Detectives” TV show).

For “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” however, the Henry Girls will feature more of their traditional material, says O’Donovan, which went over well enough when they made a cameo in the finale of last year’s show. “They did just one song, and yet they sold more albums at the show than any of the other performers. In a way, you can think of them as somewhat similar to the Irish dance hall bands of yore, who would play the trad stuff but also the form and content of the popular music of the day. In any case, we’re really happy to be giving them a bigger place in this year’s show.”

Còig (the Scottish Gaelic word for “five”) represents a case of something too good not to keep going. Colin Grant (fiddle), Darren McMullen (guitar, mandolin, banjo, bouzouki, whistles, vocals), Rachel Davis (fiddle, vocals), Chrissy Crowley (fiddle) and Jason Roach (piano), accomplished soloists all, originally banded together a few years ago to do a promotional tour for Cape Breton’s Celtic Colours International Festival – and when the tour was over, found they enjoyed the collaboration so much they decided to play as an ensemble whenever possible.

While Còig embodies the proud Cape Breton tradition, with plenty of marches, strathspeys and reels, their repertoire also gives nods to Irish and Scottish music – the song “Mary and the Soldier” (popularized by Paul Brady) and Dougie MacLean’s “She Loves Me,” for example. And don’t be surprised if there’s a flourish of French-Canadian in there, too.

“They are just a dynamic representation of Cape Breton, and it’s wonderful to see the tradition in the hands of outstanding young musicians,” says O’Donovan.

Mick McAuley is familiar to Solas fans, but at “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” he’ll be highlighting his “pure drop” persona.
“He’s an all-around performer, brilliant as a musician on several instruments and as a singer,” O’Donovan says of McAuley, who recently appeared in “The Last Ship,” a musical created by the pop singer Sting. “But as a straight-forward traditional player, he’s just the best. We’ll be looking forward to some good old-fashioned accordion from Mick in the show.”

All well and good to have such talent on one’s roster, but how much better when you also have a top-drawer director and arranger to maximize it to the best possible effect. That’s what “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” has in Keith Murphy, says O’Donovan – and, oh yes, he happens to be a gifted guitarist-pianist-mandolinist and singer himself. Murphy is a leading figure in the New England folk music scene, exploring facets of the many traditions that have graced the region, including that of his native Newfoundland. He and his wife Becky Tracy were two-thirds of the groundbreaking New England music trio Nightingale, and he’s also known for his stints with Childsplay, Hanneke Cassel, and others.

“This is Keith’s third year as our music director, and he’s been just a great fit,” says O’Donovan. “Keith understands what we try to do, and does a wonderful job in knitting everything together. And what a bonus it is to have him as a performer, too.”
One of the more enjoyable things about putting on a show that lasts as long as “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” notes O’Donovan, is the opportunity to witness young performers come of age and begin to take leadership roles in the traditional music and dance community. So it is with Sarah Jacobsen, who having appeared in both the Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day versions of “Celtic Sojourn,” this year will add dance director to her duties.

“Sarah has stepped up to the additional responsibilities with gusto, putting together the choreography for this year’s show in addition to preparing for her own performance. This is what you love to see, and we see it a lot in the Boston area: the tradition being passed on to a new generation that embraces it and keeps it going.”

For ticket information and other details about “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” see wgbh.org/celtic.