Cherish the Ladies’ performance in Boston this month comes as the band celebrates its 35th year. “We’ll keep going until the phone stops ringing,” says co-founder Joanie Madden.
Sometimes, destiny comes in the form of a message that tells you you’re on your own.
So it was for Joanie Madden some years ago when she was part of a new groundbreaking all-women Irish music group. Formed in 1985 for what was envisioned as a one-time series of concerts, the ensemble received such an enthusiastic response that – with support from the National Endowment for the Arts – it had gone on to record an album and, with a smaller, restructured line-up, went on a short tour under the name “Cherish the Ladies” (the title for the original concert series) that also proved successful.
But then the NEA funding ended, and the band was at a crossroads.
“It was a shock to the system,” recalls Madden, the band’s flute and whistle player. “Things had been going so well, though, and I went to the rest of the band and said, ‘Hey, quit your jobs and I’ll keep us working.’ I just took up the mantle: I sat home calling around, spending months – years – getting us gigs. And it clicked.”
It certainly did: Madden and her Cherish the Ladies colleagues will come to town this month – they perform Feb. 16 at the City Winery Boston – having just begun the band’s 35th year. The group’s tour comes on the heels of its newest album, “Heart of the Home,” their 17th overall, including the recording that helped serve as Cherish the Ladies’ launch point. It’s also the second with the band’s revamped line-up following the departure of Boston-area fiddler Grainne Murphy, Nollaig Casey (fiddle, viola) having joined Madden and co-founder Mary Coogan (guitar, banjo, mandolin), Mirella Murray (accordion) and Kathleen Boyle (keyboards, vocals); vocalist Kate Purcell – who sings on one track – will be with the group for their Boston appearance.
Cherish the Ladies has been hailed for drawing attention to the contribution of women to Irish music, and – given that some of its past and present members, like Madden, are Americans of Irish ancestry – showcasing the vibrancy of Irish-American music. The list of musicians associated with Cherish the Ladies, whether in the original iteration or the band that followed, is impressive to say the least: Liz Carroll (who’ll also be with the band for the Feb. 16 show), Eileen Ivers, Aoife Clancy, Winifred Horan, Mary Rafferty, Deirdre Connolly, Donna Long, Bridget Fitzgerald, Rose Conway Flanagan, Cathie Ryan, and Heidi Talbot, among others.
But for Madden, Cherish the Ladies’ significance also has a personal, familial dimension. “Wherever we may be from, whether the US or Ireland or elsewhere, a lot of us who’ve been in the band are daughters of musicians,” explains Madden, whose father Joe was an All-Ireland champion accordionist from Galway. “So for us, the music is like a golden chalice passed down. Cherish the Ladies is all about being true to the tradition and legacy, not just putting on a tune. We’re strict about our material – if it’s not something passed down, it’s something we went digging for, in old recordings or collections. But we also find new tunes and songs that fit the mold. We’re conscious and respectful of the role we play as tradition-bearers – and we’re proud to do it.”
That pride, and the vitality that goes with it, animates “Heart of the Home.” The band’s instrumental prowess is as potent as ever, as is their talent for arrangement: On the “Paddy Mills’ Fancy/Eel in the Sink/Johnny Henry’s Reel” set, for instance, Boyle lays out a lovely opening for Madden (on flute) and Murray, who pairs up with Boyle for a sprightly duet at one point during the second tune, and then Coogan joins in on banjo to bring it home.
Boyle also plays solo, all graceful and limber, at the outset of an upbeat medley that begins with the jig “The Murphy Boys,” leading into a typically festive O’Carolan piece, “Planxty Johnson.” It’s Coogan’s turn in the spotlight, with some deft finger-picked guitar, at the start of her own “Gloria’s Travels”; Casey joins with Boyle to jumpstart her reel, “Galloping the Glen,” and Madden’s “Montana Reel” finishes off the set in a rollicking spirit-of-the-West fashion.
A linked pair of Madden-composed tunes merits attention not just for the quality of the music but for the story behind them: “The Portumna Workhouse” refers to a notorious structure in her father’s East Galway hometown built by the English to house the destitute during the Great Famine; Madden’s whistle (with more fine backing by Coogan) leads the solemn, respectful tribute to those who made it out – and those who didn’t. “The Hurling Boys of Portumna,” meanwhile, offers a far more revered memory of her father’s birthplace, and its accomplished sportsmen.
Like their live shows, Cherish the Ladies’ recordings have almost always featured guests, and the tradition continues here, with appearances by Trevor Hutchinson on double bass, Donnchadh Gough on bodhran, and Peter McKinney on percussion. But, as in the past, it’s the invited singers who give the proceedings an Irish-American family ceilidh ambience, whether taking on gripping traditional ballads or more contemporary tug-at-the-heartstrings songs. On the trad side of things, All-Ireland champion vocalist Molly O’Riordan provides an enthralling “The Little Thatched Cabin,” while the Ennis Sisters (Maureen, Karen, and Teresa) of Newfoundland bring a Canadian Maritimes lilt to the sea shanty “Ambletown.”
“Glenties,” written by Dublin’s Maurice McGrath in fond memory of a Donegal beauty spot, is a bridge of sorts between the traditional and contemporary song material, and Purcell lends an appropriate air of nostalgia to it. Fans of Silly Wizard and the late Andy M. Stewart in particular, meantime can give ear to the rendition of his “Heart of the Home” by country singer Nathan Carter, Liverpool-born to Irish parents and now residing in their home country. Galway singer-songwriter Don Stiffe – who lived in Boston during the 1990s – covers “Shadow of a Singer and His Song,” a rumination by Sligo’s Dermot Henry on the risk of viewing music as a career choice rather than a source of personal fulfillment.
“We’re not fussy about where a song comes from, but how it speaks to us, what kind of connection we can find in it that relates to where we’ve come from,” says Madden, who points out that the group once covered a Dan Fogelberg song, “Leader of the Band,” which includes the phrase “I am a living legacy to the leader of the band.”
“I felt like that song was written about me. It meant so much to all of us, as the daughters of musicians.” (Madden notes that the late Fogelberg called her after the band’s version came out, and after acknowledging his general distaste for covers of his songs, gave Cherish the Ladies a thumbs-up.)
Funny thing is, “Home of the Heart” came together somewhat before its time, says Madden. The band had a tour to China planned last year, but when it fell through, they were at loose ends.
“I felt it might be too soon to start work on album – I didn’t want to lose the quality control,” she says. “However, there we were in West Clare, with its beautiful scenery, and sessions in the local pub – and lo and behold, everything came together. When you surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing, and with whom you have such a great connection, everyone gives a piece of themselves and the experience is wonderful. It just works.”
It has been working since the mid-’80s, when eminent musician and folklorist Mick Moloney noted how many of the Americans winning All-Ireland Fleadh titles were women, including Madden, and reached out to them with his idea of a concert. Madden was the one who proposed the name, which happens to be the title of a jig but neatly summed up the concept behind the project: to value and respect women for what they bring to Irish traditional music.
“We’ve had such a great time, not just because of the music but the friendship, the love, the camaraderie,” she says. “You’re like sisters on the road. Over time, there were marriages and children – I’ll have the baby and I’ll be back!’ – or people felt it was simply time to move on; that’s how it is. But we’ve become a family in many ways.” (That’s not hyperbole: Witness the all-female band Girsa, for example, which includes children and students of Cherish the Ladies members.)
And while Madden had never expected to become a band promoter/marketer/manager, she has felt comfortable enough about doing the job that after outsourcing management for a time, she took it back on again (even though, she admits, there was that episode in which she botched travel arrangements, sending half the band to Kansas City, Missouri, and half to Kansas City, Kansas).
“I’ve learned that it’s more important to be a good business person than a good musician,” she says with a laughs. “But you know, you’re only as good as the people you associate with, and on that count I’ve been extremely fortunate. Like I said, everyone gives something of themselves to help the band along.”
By now, of course, it’s not as if the band struggles to make itself known, or to put bodies in the seats.
“We’ve put our live game out there enough so people know they’ll have a good time when they come see us,” declares Madden with her characteristic joviality. “We have a ball doing this, and we feel fortunate to make a living at it. Hey, I was just a girl from the Bronx – I never expected it would last 35 years. But you know, we’ll keep going until the phone stops ringing.
City Winery Boston is located at 80 Beverly Street; tickets and other information available at citywinery.com/boston.