Where music is concerned, the Irish music trio Open the Door for Three – Maine-based spouses Liz Knowles (fiddle) and Kieran O’Hare (uilleann pipes, flute, whistle) and their friend, Irish-born Chicagoan Pat Broaders (bouzouki, vocals) – takes it personally.
The union of three highly accomplished Irish traditional music performers, Open the Door for Three – which recently released its third album, “The Joyful Hour” – has toured all over the world, with appearances at Carnegie Hall, L’Olympia in Paris, Shanghai, São Paulo, The Kennedy Center’s Ireland 100 festival, the Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton, Milwaukee Irish Festival, and in The Masters of Tradition series in Cork. Locally, they’ve played at such events and venues as Féile Cheoil Boston, “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” and Boston College’s Gaelic Roots series.
Astute musical scholars all (their band name derives from the title of a slip jig), they’re known for digging through print or audio sources to find often rare or obscure gems of traditional music from Ireland, Scotland, and elsewhere. But that’s only one aspect of their modus operandi in building on their knowledge and repertoire. More often they seek, and relish, a personal connection to the tunes or songs they perform.
As an example, on “The Joyful Hour,” Broaders sings “Carrig River,” written by James Nolan and James McGrath of Wexford in 1890, one of those classic bittersweet expressions of nostalgia for place and people that are a fixture of the Irish song canon. Knowles came upon it while browsing a book of Wexford songs during a visit to Broaders’ house, and began playing the melody on her fiddle. It served to remind Broaders that he had learned the song from his father, although Broaders made a few changes to the lyrics. And so, “Carrig River” found its way into the Open the Door for Three playlist, and onto the album.
So did “Boyne Water,” a tune associated with the celebrated Clare whistle player Micho Russell, whom O’Hare was fortunate to meet on several occasions. He also got to know East Clare fiddler Martin Rochford, whose version of the jig “Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part” is on the same track as “Boyne Water.”
And Cape Breton fiddler Ian MacDougall was Knowles’s source for the air “Heavy Is My Fate” (its name seemed out of place on an album title “The Joyful Hour,” Knowles noted, but the only alternative name they found was “This Casts a Gloom Upon My Soul”).
“Those kinds of connections are very important to us,” said Knowles, as she, O’Hare, and Broaders relaxed before their concert at Boston College this past spring. “If you want to understand our music, you have to understand those connections.”
“For me, there’s no filler or dross in the songs I sing,” said Broaders. “I don’t play something because it’s popular or that it’ll get the crowd going. I have to connect with it in some way or it just doesn’t work.”
In fact, according to O’Hare, each track of “The Joyful Hour” embodies a personal association: Even if a particular tune or song might have come from a published source or a recording, there’s something that ties it to this friend or acquaintance, or that notable musician memorably encountered on some occasion or another.
Not that O’Hare and his bandmates are grumpy, get-offa-my-lawn technophobes (they even use smartphones, social media, and other modern things), but he’s dubious as to whether the quality of connectiveness modern technology provides can compare with that which he’s experienced through Irish music.
“I think, for us three, a big part of being an Irish musician was always the physical act of seeking out the music,” O’Hare explained. “A trip to Ireland was a musical pilgrimage that you simply had to make. If you heard about some old fiddle player from Mayo living on the edge of town, you would go see him. I’m not sure how often this happens anymore.”
Knowles said, “For Kieran and me, Americans playing Irish music, having that connection to Ireland was so important, and a lot of it was through the generation of Irish musicians that came here decades ago. We’re seeing the end of that generation, and while there continue to be many excellent musicians immigrating from Ireland, the community won’t be the same as it was.”
In a similar vein, Knowles acknowledges that the proliferation of technology like Skype has made it easier to find teachers and other resources for learning Irish music. But is it better? Not necessarily.
“For me, music has to have that immediacy, that personal presence. I have to be in the same room.”
Willing as they are to offer opinions on Irish music, the trio is even happier to play it. As “The Joyful Hour” demonstrates, they’ve got a lot of reasons to be happy – and their delight is infectious for lovers of well-crafted Irish and other Celtic music.
“Boyne Water” starts with O’Hare on solo whistle, joined by Broaders and then Knowles for two full-trio reprises. Knowles powers into the jig “Let Us Leave That As It Is,” which has ties to the Scottish and Cape Breton traditions, while O’Hare switches over to pipes. And then it’s onto the cheerful “Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part,” and Open the Door for Three is at full bloom – O’Hare’s chattering pipes, Knowles’ fiddle adding harmonies, and Broaders’ bouzouki interspersed between them with mutable but steady rhythms.
The two jigs in the “Church Hill” set provide a study in contrast: The first, titular tune (from the Goodman Collection, considered among the most prominent pre-Famine compilations of Irish folk and traditional music) is one of those austere but mesmerizing D-mixolydian jigs tailor-made not only for pipes but also for bouzouki accompaniment, and needless to say O’Hare – with drones on full – and Broaders rise to the occasion. It segues into the intricate four-part “The Monaghan Jig,” which simply does not quit – you make it through the first three parts, and you’re rewarded with the accented wickedness of the fourth; Knowles puts in a harmony that ups the ante in brilliant fashion.
O’Hare and Knowles used several sources, from Cape Breton as well as Ireland, to stitch together “Monaghan” (“We wound up with more notes than we’re actually comfortable playing,” he quipped). That process led O’Hare to the thrilling experience of listening to a newly rediscovered cylinder recording from the early 20th century of legendary piper Patsy Touhey playing the tune.
“There was a widespread belief that Michael Coleman, the great Sligo fiddler, had written that fourth part, but then this recording – made before Coleman’s – of Touhey turned up and refuted that theory,” said O’Hare. “It may seem like something from a detective novel, but to sit in my friend’s kitchen and hear for myself the evidence of this was a big treat.”
Elsewhere, Broaders gives a lovely intro to “Heavy Is My Fate,” and Knowles and O’Hare (on flute) take turns doing exquisite things with the melody. Knowles trots out her hardanger d’amore – a cross between the Norwegian fiddle and the baroque viola, featuring five melody and five sympathetic strings – on another slow tune, “An Bhean Dubh,” giving it a fleeting Scandinavian feel. And here and there on the album she displays the fruits of her classical music background, such as the counter melody she devised to accompany O’Hare on “The Heights of Muingbhathá.”
“Liz comes up with some excellent ideas about harmony, not only for tunes but the songs, too,” said Broaders. “But she also has the sense of when to leave something as it is, not to do too much. This is one of the great things about working in this trio.”
Broaders is one of those singers who doesn’t push or dramatize a song more than is necessary. He has a clear, steady delivery that can convey drama, humor, tension, sadness, and other salient emotions without excess. In addition to “Carrig Water” – enriched by Knowles’ repeating hardanger d’amore riff and O’Hare’s gorgeous double-tracked whistle and pipes cameo – Broaders has a go at “Ye Lovers All,” an eloquently voiced song of requited love credited to County Antrim’s gifted singer-collector Len Graham that is made even more beautiful by Knowles’ string parts.
The remaining songs are tributes of a sort to two giants of the British Isles folk revival who popularized them, “Creeping Jane” (Martin Carthy) and “Clyde Water” (Nic Jones): The former is a sprightly horse-racing ballad interspersed with excerpts from the jigs “O’Connor’s Frolics” and “Queen of the Rushes”; the latter, a tragic, vivid narrative of would-be courtship thwarted by maternal interference.
If you listen to “The Joyful Hour” or Open the Door for Three’s other albums – and if you’re partial to Irish and Celtic stuff, you should – remember that Knowles, O’Hare and Broaders aren’t just making music for themselves. They also do so to recognize and celebrate, as they note on their website, the connections “to people and places, to teachers and heritage and audiences, and to the stories and humor that bring us all together.”
For more information about Open the Door for Three and about “The Joyful Hour,” see openthedoorforthree.com.