Filler Irish Perfection

By Mari Wadsworth

IT'S BEEN ONE of those "If-it's-Friday-we-must-be-in-Boston" tours, and the Irish band Arcady is nearing the half-way point in an American tour consisting of 10 shows, 10 cities and 10 days. Yesterday they were, in fact, in a theater in Boston, today I've caught up with them during a sound check in a club called The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and tomorrow they'll be playing San Francisco. And by the time we go to press, all that will be miles behind and they'll be making their way down from Phoenix for the homestretch. Band leader Johnny McDonagh sounds tired, but affable. Above the barroom din and reminders that his presence is required on stage, he takes a few minutes to talk about the history of the band.

Music "The name comes from the land in ancient Greece (Arcadia) where artists, musicians and poets lived together. It's also a place in Ireland, so there's that connection, too," he says. Indeed, musicians do flourish in Arcady (the band), with an impressive ebb and flow of diverse talents joining, leaving and sometimes rejoining the band, as with original member Jackie Daly, who's sitting in on the American tour.

But the most notable--and welcome--change this time around is the replacement of lead vocalist Frances Black with Niamh (pronounced "Neeve") Parsons. Whereas Black's voice had a pop-inflected edge, Parsons' rich alto has a more traditional quality, a pleasing combination of Dolores Keane and June Tabor. Black, whose decision to pursue a solo career stemmed in large part from Arcady's rigorous worldwide touring schedule, is but one in a near-constant rotation of singers McDonagh has had to come to terms with since his days as the phenomenal bodhrán player with DeDannan.

Whether Parsons will be a lasting part of Arcady remains in question: She's recently released a solo album with her backing band Loose Connections and is becoming a popular voice in Ireland's music scene. All the more reason to see her performance this Friday at the Berger Performing Arts Center, where the band's awesome combination of new and returning players promises to be the most exciting Celtic Music concert this year.

It's been three years since Arcady last played in Tucson, and the band has undergone some significant changes. Not only have some of the players changed (Conor Keane replacing Jackie Daly on accordion), but the farther their travels, the more they longed to return to their traditional roots.

Cherished memories of jamming with old Irish fiddlers and tin whistle players in the earthy country pubs along the byways of County Galway gradually displaced the myriad of stylings on their debut album After the Ball, which borrowed from American country, bluegrass, Canadian and European folk traditions in addition to their Irish roots. As their popularity grew, the message was clear: It was time to go home. McDonagh tells a story about an old man requesting a standard tune called "The Sally Gardens" from some young musicians at a local pub, and his being ignored because none of the players knew the song. "I felt it was about time somebody did an album not only for that older generation, but for the younger generation so that they could learn these tunes and carry on the tradition."

Many Happy Returns is the fulfillment of that promise, with a tireless cascade of jigs, reels and ballads with arrangements that sparkle with a contemporary flair that never competes with the purity of these traditional favorites. A host of guest musicians lend their talents on the new album, including Liam Maonlaí from the rock band Hot House Flowers, The Voice Squad (the venerable trio including Phil Callery, Fran McPhail and Gerry Cullen), harmonica sensation Brendan Power, cellist Neil Martin, bassist Paul O'Driscoll and Michael McGoldrick on flute.

McDonagh isn't overly philosophical about what some call "the current wave of Irish folk revivalism." "I guess people were getting fed up with the Top 20 material," he says with a laugh. Well, thank God for that.

He defends that these songs have always been popular, at least since their first "revival" more than 30 years ago, with bands like The Chieftans, The Pogues and DeDannan getting the attention of foreign audiences. The implication is that it isn't so much Ireland as it is the rest of the world that's waking up.

Personally, I think it's that knack the Irish have for taking a song of tragic consequences--of lost love, poverty, death--and making you want to clap your hands and dance to it. There's an unflagging spirit to Irish folk music that speaks clearly to listeners the world over. It says, "Look, I'll give it to you straight. Things don't look so good for us right now. But rest assured, they're going to get better." And that's what Arcady's really about, from their mythological namesake to their evolving musical identity: finding perfection.

Arcady performs at 8 p.m. Friday, March 15, at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway. All seating is reserved. Tickets are $13 and $15, with discounts for TFTM and KXCI members. Advance outlets include Hear's Music, Loco Records, Piney Hollow and the Harp and Shamrock. Charge by phone for a $1 fee at 881-3947. Call 327-4809 for ticket and concert information. TW

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