Shocking Invention

Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill, Séamie O’Dowd and Máirtín O’Connor at Whelan’s (Photo: Emily O’Callaghan)

Shocking Invention

In the first concert of their Music Network tour, Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill, Máirtín O'Connor and Séamie O'Dowd moved between playfulness and finesse, writes Anna Murray.

Singer Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill, button accordion player Máirtín O’Connor, and fiddler/guitarist Séamie O’Dowd embarked on a ten-date Music Network tour on 12 September with a slightly giddy concert at Whelan’s.

Even for someone unfamiliar with their previous work, it was obvious from the moment they took the stage that all three performers have the ease of masters – the comfortable stage manner, the sensitivity with which they respond and adapt to each others’ playing, and above all, the finesse of their skills. 

Máirtín O’Connor was however the stand-out of the three, a musician of shocking invention, which was most evident when paired with the guitar or fiddle playing of Séamie O’Dowd.  

Gestural architecture
The two wove the tightest of tapestries when working together, such as in the opening set of jigs. In each they distilled the architecture of each tune to its gestural rather than melodic essence  – the indivisible shape of it, the physical motion that underpins it – and, passing it between them, allowed the other to expand on a counter-melody, embellish with a surprising suspension or repeated-note ornament, or even throwing in a change of harmony. Each set they played during the concert grouped tunes by how the successive gestures would lead on to the next, and through this they built a whole structure.  

The duo’s treatment of tunes in this way was above all playful, and tunes such as ‘Caisleán na nÓr’, ‘Paddy Fahey’s Reel’, ‘The Swedish Jig’ and O’Connor’s own ‘The Road West’ made an appearance. However, the air of play and joyfulness ran through the singing of Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill too. As she told The Journal of Music recently, performance for her these days is ‘all about enjoyment’.  

Direct and unadorned
Her singing also brought new emotional dimensions to the gig, cutting straight to the core of each song with her direct, unadorned delivery –  whether in her aunt Nellie Ní Dhomhnaill’s version of ‘Róisín Dubh’, or the lighthearted ‘False Fly’, for which she was joined by sister Tríona. Hers is a voice of both character and intense clarity, which begged to be experienced up close and unamplified. However, Whelan’s is too large and noisy a space to allow for that. Instead she sounded somewhat displaced, as if, despite her great presence, her voice was being piped in from elsewhere when placed against the immediacy of O’Dowd and O’Connor’s accompaniments.  

This didn’t much take away from the evident close sympathy between the three when all played together; O’Dowd and O’Connor were always supportive, making their presence felt when momentum is needed, drifting to the background to allow Ní Dhomhnaill to shine – which she did especially when given an opportunity to explore her sensitive and expressive upper register, such as in ‘The Lily of the West’.

The trio also paid homage to the recently deceased singer-songwriter Thom Moore, performing his ‘Train to Sligo’ and ‘Gorgeous and Bright’ (with O’Dowd on vocals). Finishing out the programme then were original compositions by O’Dowd (‘Cradle of Stars’) and O’Connor (‘Shape of Things to Come’), while the song Ní Dhomhnaill has become best known for, ‘Spanish Lady’ – for which the trio were joined again by Tríona – of course formed their encore.

The trio’s Music Network tour continues at the Pavilion in Dún Laoghaire this evening (20 Sept.), then Roscommon Arts Centre (22 Sept.) and St Peter’s Church of Ireland, Portlaoise (23 Sept.). For more, visit www.musicnetwork.ie.

Published on 20 September 2018

Anna Murray is Assistant Editor of The Journal of Music. Her website is www.annamurraymusic.com.

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