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Springtime Double Header

We’ve been having the kind of lovely days that used to inspire Chicago Cub great Ernie Banks to enthusiastically say “Let’s Play Two!” And even though it’s still only Spring Training for baseball, we had a rare MCR double header this week that encompassed our reasons for being as completely as any short stretch of time in our show’s history. Because while it starts with the artists on the stage, it’s always about something more. With a Tuesday partnership show with the Berklee College of Music and then Wednesday night’s Sister Cities show with songwriters from Belfast, we did our best to reach out of town and around the world with belief in music and community. Here’s a brief recap.

Tuesday’s show was bound to sell out because Berklee forces arrived with a couple hundred students, faculty and alumni and because their very distinguished alums Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings asked if their performance and award presentation could be nested in a special Roots show. That means a lot to us, and both parties pulled out the stops to create one of the finest and most meaningful shows we’ve ever put on.

Liz Longley has a song with a chorus that starts “You’ve got that way…” and wow, so does she. Armed with an acoustic guitar and her cool, smoky and nimble voice, she took the stage for our first set. The songs have become hits for me from repeated listening to her debut album. “Memphis” and “Bad Habit” are new soul folk standards. “Skin And Bones” has a darker Appalachian edge. Then it was on to a very different voice in Sierra Hull, with her musically entwined new string trio and songs from her fascinating new Weighted Mind album. After the title track we heard the baroque and intricate composed interplay of “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea” (thank you Berklee training) and the silk pillow of a song that is “Lullaby.”

We were only one song into Maureen Murphy’s set when Photographer Tony whispered to me that we were experiencing the finest singer in the show’s history. There’s a case to be made. I’ve rarely seen so much refinement and technique mingled with so much power and passion. Murphy delivered four very different songs with a rocking, versatile quartet, but the capstone was her ode to her singing idol Lisa Fisher “How Can I Ease The Pain.” The song’s free form gave Maureen ample ways to shape and craft and massage and emote. It was simply breathtaking in its range of textures, from delicate to forceful. And she got to hit a classic money note in Martin Sexton’s “Smoke.” It would have been difficult to pack more musical range or magic into 20 minutes.

I’ve been watching Gillian and Dave perform for twenty years, and it’s always riveting. Certainly, seeing the MCR logo behind them was extra inspiring and gratifying. They opened with spectral unison singing on “The Way It Will Be,” making the harmonies of “The Way It Goes” and “Miss Ohio” all the more bloom-like. When Berklee President Roger Brown presented the school’s American Master Awards to them (as individuals by the way not a group), he cited Dave’s harmonically rich and inventive guitar playing. And yes, that’s one thing I’ve always loved about it – close, dissonant intervals delivered with bebop command and a staccato attack, like Bill Monroe downstrokes on Eddie Lang’s guitar. And on this night I got to be about 20 feet from his shredding solo on “Red Clay Halo,” one of my favorite Gill and Dave songs. Their final number “Everything Is Free” includes the line “we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay,” and that’s how GW and DR always sounded to me. Their old friend T Bone Burnett, who collected the night’s other Master Award, played amiable electric guitar strokes and sang a bit on that final tune before adding a whole new verse about a certain orange presidential candidate in the rollicking Nashville Jam on “I’ll Fly Away.”

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Turning around the next night to do a second show was easy. The crew didn’t have to move any gear. We just showed up and hung out with our Irish friends who were about five days into their Nashville field trip. The six songwriters who came over this year were just brimming with gratitude, goodwill and talent. Indeed I was taken aback by how good they were. Over two in-the-round style sets, they offered six clearly different feelings drawn from six different hearts.

Ciara O’Neill sang “give yourself the spark” over a clean-rolling fingerstyle guitar – as if she’d found her own spark long ago. Simon Murphy’s lovely and triumphant “I Have A Voice” was inspired by his day job working with psychiatric patients. Sam Wickens showed deep chord vocabulary and a voice that took flight between full and falsetto on his song “Mother.” Then in the second flight we got Ryan McMullen’s beautifully passionate lament to a girl named Suzanna. Brigid O’Neill showed wit and twinkle in her song that made me think strongly of our beloved Susan Werner. And the seated piano playing Best Boy Grip rendered a song so fascinating and musically complete in a Randy Newman kind of way that I plan to follow up and find it to buy. I declare that the only mistake we made all week was not building the show more centrally around these stellar artists and giving them more songs to sing. I hope the Nashville music community recognizes what a secret weapon they’re being handed with this international intrigue.

Rounding out Irish Night was Nashville based duo The Fells who offered our trad component with whistles and guitar. But also they’ve written some awesome instrumental fusion tunes like “The Seeded Pot” that featured Tom Saffell’s self-designed 8-string banjo. Colleague Travis Johnson pulled off a nice turn adapting an old Irish melody to a Civil War story. The show closer couldn’t have been more different, but it was wildly, weirdly great. Billy Prine played Telecaster from a seated position but rocked as hard as a standing Sleepy LaBeef. It was old school, tapping his youthful love of rock and roll and Chicago blues, with fine lead guitar help from Richard Bell. That, plus a swift, four-four version of “Paradise” by Billy’s brother John put a cap on an incredible two day mini festival.

We got to celebrate music education, global folk music and St. Patrick’s Day all at once. In baseball terms, that’s at least a triple if not a home run.

Craig H.

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