March 4, 2020
Celtic Sojourn maestro Brian O’Donovan. WGBH photo
A welcome fixture in the annual March festivities, “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” returns this month for its 13th year of featuring performers with ties to Boston and New England as well as others from further afield. The show will stop at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center (March 11), Hanover Theatre in Worcester (March 12), the Northampton Academy of Music (March 13), Sanders Theatre in Cambridge (March 14), and Beverly’s Cabot Theatre (March 15).
Joining the lineup this year are The Murphy Beds – the duo of Jefferson Hamer and Eamon O’Leary – Irish-born singer Clare Horgan, Boston-based fiddle duo Nathan Gourley and Laura Feddersen, Maine accordion and concertina player Chris Stevens, uilleann piper Torrin Ryan and, as featured dancer and choreographer, Boston-area native Ashley Smith-Wallace, and dancer Kevin McCormack. Also on hand will be the show’s music director, guitarist-vocalist-pianist Keith Murphy.
In his customary role as emcee, narrator, and interlocutor will be Brian O’Donovan, creator of the show, which is based on his WGBH-FM “A Celtic Sojourn” program.
Hamer, who grew up in Massachusetts, and Dublin native O’Leary crossed paths in New York City more than a decade ago, and began performing as The Murphy Beds a few years later. Accompanying themselves on guitar, bouzouki, and mandolin, the two are known for their laid-back yet deceptively elaborate, quietly mesmerizing arrangements of traditional songs from Irish, American, Scottish, and English folk traditions, and their own compositions. The Murphy Beds’ wide-ranging interests are reflected in their 2012 album, which includes material from traditional singers like Donegal’s Lillis O’Laoire, Arkansas’ Almeda Riddle, and Paddy Tunney of Fermanagh, and from classic song collections, like that of Francis Child or Sam Henry’s Songs of the People, and even a 19th-century composition by W.T. Wrighton and J.E. Carpenter, “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still.”
Both have numerous ongoing or recent collaborations of note: Hamer’s “Child Ballad” album with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell won a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award; O’Leary has played with John Doyle and Nuala Kennedy as The Alt and in The Immigrant Band, an Irish-American old-timey project.
“Jefferson and Eamon are just riveting, with those vocal harmonies and close, curling strings around them,” says O’Donovan. “There’s an authenticity about them in terms of their selection of songs from different traditions, and the care they show them.”
Horgan, from South Kerry, has sung in a variety of genres, including jazz (which she studied at the University of Leeds), gospel, bluegrass, and swing, but has never strayed far from the tradition of her childhood, and current, home. One of her most recent projects has involved delving into archival recordings of traditional seán-nos singing of her native Iveragh, and she has been granted funding for research and teaching activities related to preserving and passing on the music. Last year, supported by a coveted grant award from Culture Ireland, she went on an extensive tour of the US, giving concerts and also holding seán-nos workshops. Her two recordings showcase her wide-ranging musical interests: from covers of Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart’s “The Tennessee Waltz” and Hank Williams’s “You Win Again” to traditional and contemporary Irish songs such as “An Leanbh Si (The Fairy Child),” Sigerson Clifford’s “Boys Of Barr Na Sráide” and “The Road from Killorglin to Cahersiveen.”
“Clare is a fascinating sort of singer, steeped as she is in folk tradition and especially the Gaelic vocal tradition,” says O’Donovan, “yet also possessing the dexterity and color of a voice with strong jazz roots. She’s with us as a traditional singer, but it’s amazing to have someone with all those influences and chops.”
Arriving in Boston several years ago within a few months of one another, Feddersen and Gourley – already well-acquainted with one another from various musical gatherings – quickly became stalwarts in the local Irish scene, whether at sessions, ceilis, or concerts. Their fiddling, as spotlighted in their 2015 album “Life Is All Checkered,” represents what they call “the American style of Irish music”: an amalgam of the styles and influences that developed over time in places like Boston, New York City, Chicago, and wherever else strong Irish music communities have thrived – offshoots of the regional traditions that originated in Ireland, but also dependent on the individual player who’s playing it.
Among their other activities, Feddersen and Gourley are part of the occasional quartet Ship in the Clouds; Gourley also plays in a duo with uilleann piper Joey Abarta, and Feddersen in the old-timey trio Wooden Nickels.
“It’s remarkable how Laura and Nathan capture the twin fiddle tradition – there’s such a raw brilliance to it,” says O’Donovan. “They also are very thoughtful and articulate about what they play and how they play it, which suits our format very well: We’re looking to illuminate the music tradition and invite people to think about its nuances.”
Stevens is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost Irish-style accordion and concertina players in the US. Although based in Maine – he was named a master musician and awarded a fellowship by the state’s Arts Commission – he has numerous connections to the Greater Boston area, performing at events and venues such as the Dorchester Irish Heritage Festival, BCMFest, The Burren Backroom, and the Boston College Gaelic Roots series, and teaching at Boston’s Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann music school. He is a member of The Press Gang, which has released three albums, and more recently showcased his talents on piano in a trio with fiddler Caitlin Finley and flute and uilleann pipes player Will Woodson that recorded the CD “The Glory Reel.”
“Chris’s musicianship is just outstanding, and we’re especially looking forward to having him as part of the marvelous ensemble that will be playing during the show,” says O’Brien.
Ryan, who in addition to uilleann pipes plays flute and whistle, has won five All-Ireland medals, including first place as the slow airs champion on pipes. He has taught at the Boston Comhaltas music school for a number of years, and received grants from the Southern New England Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program to support his teaching of Irish music and history to several apprentices, furthering the art of the session in New England.
“It’s no secret that I’ve been enchanted by the uilleann pipes, and we’re glad to have a brilliant young musician like Torrin on hand for this year,” says O’Donovan.
Smith-Wallace, the featured female dancer in last year’s “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” production, studied at the Smith-Houlihan Irish Dance Academy of Norwood and was the World Irish Step Dancing Champion in 2004 – the youngest American female ever to win the world title at that time; she went on to garner two more gold world medals in 2005 and 2009. Moving to New York City, Smith-Wallace expanded her portfolio to include ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, and musical dance theater. Her stage credits include “West Side Story,” “Peter Pan,” “A Chorus Line,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Pippin.” She also was the female lead dancer on the national tour of “Rockin’ Road to Dublin,” a nationally touring Irish-rock fusion show.
McCormack, who started dancing at the age of five for the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance in Boston, has an equally impressive record as a competitive dancer: He placed in the top five at multiple national and international competitions, including first at the All-Ireland Championships and the World Championships in ceili/figure dancing. He started his professional career with Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance,” and after performing in London’s West End and on Broadway, he landed a coveted role in “Riverdance” in 2017.
“Ashley was a pleasure to work with in ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn,’ and now she gets to spread her wings as choreographer for this year’s ‘St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,’” says O’Donovan. “Kevin, like Ashley, is an extraordinarily accomplished dancer and is definitely used to the big stage.”
Murphy has been a familiar figure in the Boston/New England folk music scene for the better part of three decades, as a co-founder (along with his wife, the fiddler Becky Tracy) of the groundbreaking trio Nightingale, an accompanist for numerous performers, including fiddlers like Brian Conway and Hanneke Cassel, or a soloist. To all his musical enterprises, Murphy brings a rhythmically savvy and engaging guitar style, and clear, resonant singing – with a repertoire drawn from his native Newfoundland as well as English, Scottish, Irish, and French traditions – as well as a masterful flair for arrangements.
“Everyone who’s worked with Keith has admired his creativity and leadership,” says O’Donovan. “He just ties it all up with a splendid bow.”
For ticket information and other details about “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” go to wgbh.org/celtic.