Finding Harmony in Fraternity

31 March 2004, Irish Echo by Earle Hitchner

[Published on March 31, 2004, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City. Copyright © Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]

At the 1997 Milwaukee Irish Fest, I stumbled upon a late Sunday night singing circle in Park East Hotel where many of the musicians were staying. Inside the room were such singers as Karan Casey, Bridget Fitzgerald, Áine Meenaghan, and Shay, Michael, and Martin Black, otherwise known as the Black Brothers, siblings of Ireland's Mary and Frances Black.

But there were also people in that room who just wanted to sit, listen, and maybe participate in some way. Shay Black, the oldest brother in the famed Dublin family, urged as many as he could to sing, and at one point the room filled with voices joining on a 1940 warhorse of a song, "You Are My Sunshine." Singing with strangers is an act of faith in community. Shay Black understood and encouraged that. It didn't matter if the song was from the Connemara sean-nós tradition, Tin Pan Alley, or the latest pop chart. What mattered was the sheer joy and emotional release of singing, and how it bound one singer to another.

On March 19 at the Towne Crier Cafe in Pawling, N.Y., those same qualities were on display in the Black Brothers' concert. Shay has a strong, stirring voice, Michael a finely honed tenor, and Martin a husky baritone, and the hand-in-glove harmonies they achieve create the impression of a fourth singing brother standing on stage.

They started with a tight-knit, a cappella rendition of "Down Our Street." Martin took the lead, and the audience joined in on the chorus. The affectation some contemporary singers bring to old Irish music-hall numbers was blissfully absent from the Black Brothers' robust versions of "Ireland Boys Hooray" and "McGilligan's Youngest Daughter." With Michael adding banjo, Shay picking guitar, and Martin playing fiddle, their performance served as a reminder that these songs, with the right approach, need not slip into kitsch.

A much more serious note was sounded in the three brothers' singing of "The State of Alabama," touching on hidebound attitudes and racism, that segued into "Alabama John Cherokee," a song about an Indian who was "made a slave in oul' Alabam'" and forced "on board of a whaling ship." Martin Black ably tapped into the humor of "Zoological Gardens," a song recounting some evening escapades in Dublin, and the brothers provided a fresh, sober take on "All That You Ask Me," a song written by Kieran Goss (former musical partner of their sister Frances) that, if done too breezily, could dissolve into pop-lite sentiment. In a song that summarized the Black Brothers' performance, "We for One Another," Shay sang lead vocal with a power he had shown in such groups as Stormalong John and Garva in Liverpool and Nauticus in Berkeley, Calif., where he now lives.

Throughout the evening Shay, Michael, and Martin Black sang sublimely, and they have to be regarded as one of the most impressive groups of Irish singers to be found anywhere. Though not instrumental virtuosos by any stretch of the imagination, they can also back themselves capably. Their pianist's never obtrusive playing complemented their singing very well.

Preceding the Black Brothers at the Towne Crier Cafe was the Aoife Clancy Band, featuring Cherish the Ladies' former lead vocalist with husband-and-wife Matt (guitar) and Shannon (flute, button accordion,
whistle) Heaton, plus Aoife's brother Finbarr as a guest. Aoife's singing of "Banks of Sweet Primroses" and, with Finbarr, "As I Roved Out" was spot-on.

The night's encore included the Black Brothers and Aoife and Finbarr Clancy singing a Black Family staple, "Colcannon," and the durable "Go, Lassie, Go." This double bill provided a double helping of songs, old and new, and some splendid, spellbinding singing.