‘Backroom’ series offers a winning trifecta

Not that the Burren “Backroom” series hasn’t had plenty of wow-inducing shows during its nearly four years of existence, but this month’s line-up is something of a marvel: three acts that collectively represent nearly five decades – and some of the most prodigious talent – of the modern Irish folk music revival.

On Aug. 5, Lúnasa will play two shows, at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. The nearly 20-year-old quintet, whose current line-up is Ed Boyd (guitar), Kevin Crawford (flute, whistle), Trevor Hutchinson (string bass), Seán Smyth (fiddle, whistles) and Cillian Vallely (uilleann pipes, whistles), emerged as one of the most compelling new forces in Irish music right around the turn of the 21st century. Lúnasa’s overall excellent musicianship and inventive arrangements, which simultaneously reveal and enhance the breadth of Irish traditional music’s beauty and power, has been captured on seven highly acclaimed studio albums, as well as their 2013 collaborative recording with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. The band has sold upwards of a quarter of a million albums while performing at more than 1,500 events in 36 countries.

“Lúnasa has proved to be very appealing across the board, and helped draw people into traditional music,” says WGBH radio host Brian O’Donovan, who co-organizes the Backroom series with Burren co-owner Tommy McCarthy and serves as emcee. “Individually, they are such strong musicians, and very attuned to the ‘pure drop’ tradition. Together, they create a very adventurous sound that seems unquestionably modern, rooted as it is in music that goes back centuries.

“The fact that they are entirely instrumental – without a singer – and have enjoyed such popularity, really speaks to the quality of their music.”

• Aug. 12 will see the union of three mainstays of Irish music, Matt Molloy (flute, whistle), John Carty (fiddle, tenor banjo), and Arty McGlynn (guitar), for shows at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. An All-Ireland champion at age 18, Molloy played a major role in bringing the Irish flute to prominence as a member of the pioneering groups The Bothy Band and Planxty and, for the last 36 years, The Chieftains. Carty, a multi-instrumentalist like his father – a member of London’s famed Glenside Ceili Band in the 1960s – has numerous recordings to his credit, both solo and in various collaborations, including with Molloy and McGlynn, which resulted in the 2007 album “Pathway to the Well.” McGlynn’s resume stretches clear across the Irish music scene to include Van Morrison, as well as Patrick Street, Planxty, De Dannan, Four Men and a Dog, Sean Keane, Allan Kelly, and his wife, fiddler Nollaig Casey; his 1979 album “McGlynn’s Fancy” is regarded as foundational in establishing the guitar’s presence in Irish traditional music.
“That’s one of the most exciting things about the Irish music scene: You have all these phenomenally talented individuals who are working on many different fronts, but every now and then they carve out the time to intersect with one another – and the results are wonderful to behold,” says O’Donovan. “These guys are a delight to have around.”
• Rounding out the month’s schedule will be Finbar Furey – for whom the word “legendary” may have been created – on Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m. Furey helped bring the uilleann pipes to a wider audience in the late 1960s and early ’70s when he toured and recorded with his vocalist-guitarist brother Eddie, with whom he had played in the Clancy Brothers’ back-up band. Finbar and Eddie then formed a band with younger brothers Paul and George, and singer Davey Arthur, and their wide-ranging repertoire – including Irish traditional music as well as contemporary songs – proved to have crossover appeal to the popular music domain; their rendition of the vaudeville song “When You Were Sweet Sixteen” was No. 1 in the Irish Singles Chart (as was their cover of Eric Bogle’s “Green Fields of France”), and No. 14 in the UK Singles Chart. In 1997, Finbar decided to leave the band and since then has achieved success as a singer-songwriter as well as a multi-instrumentalist.

“Finbar is absolutely one-of-a-kind,” says O’Donovan. “He represents the ‘traveler tradition,’ something that is perhaps an overlooked or forgotten aspect of Irish cultural history nowadays, and learned his music through his father. His piping always had a passion, almost a wildness to it that was thrilling to experience. And yet, he found a huge following across a broad spectrum, especially as part of The Fureys and Davey Arthur band, and still has a devoted fan base.

“One of the things I’ve admired about Finbar as a singer revolves around his commitment to the song, rather than a commitment to a certain ideal or concept of music. What I mean is, he’ll sing an old song that goes back centuries, and then he can go into, say, something by Johnny Cash – and it all works, because he’s not doing it to be ironic or funny; he believes in the song and gives his all to it.”

Arranging for three such illustrious acts to appear in the space of only a few weeks involves a rather fortuitous convergence of schedules, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying, says O’Donovan. In fact, he feels this August trifecta illustrates the Backroom series’ growing visibility in the world Irish/Celtic music province.

“I think this points to a coming-of-age for the series and the club,” he says. “It’s definitely on people’s radar. Now, when you have performers coming from abroad to do tours in the US, they’re looking to see if they can get a date here. And obviously, that’s great for Boston, which as we know has long been regarded as a locus for Irish and Celtic music.”

For more on the Burren Backroom series, see burren.com/Backroom-Series.html.
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Another Boston-area Celtic music institution, the Boston Harbor Scottish Fiddle School, will get a special evening in the spotlight at Club Passim in Harvard Square on August 15. The annual one-week camp on Thompson Island, sponsored by the Folk Arts Center of New England Inc., brings some of the most talented performers in the Scottish and Cape Breton music traditions to teach classes and present concerts. The Passim event will feature collaborations by this year’s faculty members, including area residents Katie McNally, Barbara McOwen and Anne Hooper (fiddle) and Eamon Sefton (guitar), as well as the Battlefield Band’s Alasdair White (fiddle), Cynthia MacLeod (fiddle), Sandy Brechin (accordion) and Kolten MacDonell (piano).
Reservations are available via passim.org.