If you are a lover of Irish music, then The Harmonie was the only place to be in Bonn on this Autumn night. Her debut CD ‘Sharon Shannon’ was the biggest selling disc of traditional music ever released in Ireland, and today, the lady herself was in town.
Originally a member of successful Irish band The Waterboys, County Clare born Sharon Shannon left to do her own thing after that band decided to pursue a more Rock n Roll musical path. Understandably so, if tonight’s concert is anything to go by. Shannon sounds born to interpret Irish traditional melodies, and I’m not the only one to think so, since Accordian makers Castagnari have even created a button model, the ‘Sharon Castagnari Accordion’ in her honor, and to her specifications.
My experience thus far of accordion led music is pretty limited. It starts with James Fearnley adding a distinctive Irish swirl to Pogues classics, and ends, until tonight anyway, with Hubert von Goisern and his Steirische Harmonika (an Austrian variation of the accordion). Both were pretty lively during their respective shows. The stage this evening though looks like it’s been set up backwards. Why is the drum raiser at the front? come to think of it, where is the drum?!
All is revealed when the band take the stage. Sharon Shannon, when seated on the raised podium, is actually now the same height as her musical colleagues are when standing. It should also be said that, despite remaining seated throughout, she still makes a very lively figure throughout the evening – the very act of physically playing a button accordion and squeezing it in and out actually looks pretty exhausting. It’s obviously quite hard on the left ‘squeezing’ hand too – hence the need for a thick sponge between hand and instrument which in Sharon’s case has a comic drawn figure on it (any takers for calling him ‘sponge Bob’? – sorry about the joke!…)
The concert starts, as does the new CD, with a gentle strum from Jim Murray’s acoustic guitar on ‘Rusheen Bay’ and it’s a good indication of where the evening will go musically – although with some musical surprises as you will hear. The root of tonight’s show though is the traditional sound of jigs and reels. I hear them come and go – all beautifully played – but “Which is which?” I ask Jim Murray later. It’s in the time signatures he explains. I smile and nod. I don’t understand… for the musically challenged like me, check out a perfect explanation from The Gothard Sisters HERE All clear? I can at least tell you what ‘Frenchies Reel’ is with confidence.
‘Reel Beatrice’ is also self explanatory. It’s a chance too for Sean Regan to give his fiddle skills a work-out. Which he does in stunning fashion. In fact each of the band members gets a chance to take the spotlight – and each brings their own bit of magic to the table so to speak, proving by the way that this is really Top League Irish traditional music that The Harmonie has brought to us. Really, there should be standing room only, rather than a pleasantly filled hall of people seated at bistro tables. Those here have a treat – those at home, your loss!
Jack Maher brings the only slightly Rock element to the evenings sound with his Gibson Les Paul. It’s an understated element though, confined mainly to gentle melody picking which is actually a refreshing change from what I’m used to hearing from the instrument. He also brings the only vocal element to tonight’s show. ‘Smile’ is a simple balled sung plainly and all the more effective for it’s simplicity. A take of Dylan’s ‘Don’t think twice’ is similarly beautifully understated both musically and vocally. Showing he too is no slouch when it comes to finger picking prowess, Jim Murray presents the delicate instrumental ‘Siliabh na mBan’ which has a twist of ‘Danny Boy’ in it’s sound.
I mentioned some musical surprises earlier, and Sean Regan was the major contributor in that department. From my seat I could hear the regular beat of a drum but in front of me were only an acoustic guitar, a fiddle, an accordion and an electric guitar. Only when the show was over and my curiosity overcame me, did I inspect the stage more carefully to discover a small wedge of wood on the floor as the originator of said beat. I guess the Who would have looked a bit weak with Keith Moon tapping his foot on a plank of wood – but hey, it’s amazing what such a simple effect achieves. Not so simple were the other effects that Regan produced, particularly during ‘James Browne’s March’ where he replicated a complete rhythm section of drum, maracas and cymbals. “A product of my mis-spent youth” as he laughingly explained his abilities to me later. Amazing stuff.
An amazing concert all-round actually, for anyone with a love for melody and invention. Biggest applause and loudest sing-along awards had to go to Shannon’s sprightly version of Steve Earle’s hit ‘Galway Girl’ (she actually plays on the original release). Not to be confused (too much at least!) with the recent Ed Sheeran song of that name – this is a guaranteed audience warmer and Jack Maher’s request to sing along wasn’t really necessary, as you could tell the audience were bursting to do so anyway.
Having seen videos of the band playing in vast halls and now, having heard them in the smaller confines of the Harmonie I think it’s fair to say that this is a musical style that benefits from smaller, intimate atmospheres. In that respect we were fortunate to hear such a World-Class band in such an intimate setting. What must it be like though to sit with a pint of Guinness in a little crowded Galway pub and listen to Sharon Shannon and her excellent musical companions belt out Galway Girl?!