By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
Gigs have been few and far between for Ship in the Clouds, a Boston-based traditional Irish music quartet that formed last year. Given, however, that its three Boston members are working at pretty demanding full-time jobs, and that the remaining member lives and works in New York City, well, it’s understandable.
But the band will make an all-too-rare stage appearance at the fifth annual Summer BCMFest, on July 7 at Club Passim in Harvard Square. Ship in the Clouds will be part of the event’s evening finale concert, along with revered New England fiddle-guitar duo Becky Tracy and Keith Murphy.
Summer BCMFest also will feature performances during the course of the day with
Cape Breton-style fiddlers Jake Brillhart and Rachel Reeds, Celtic fiddle-cello duo Caroline Dresser and Giulia Hable, and genre-bending ensemble Fade Blue.
Summer BCMFest is tailored after the annual BCMFest (Boston Celtic Music Fest), a gathering held each January to celebrate Greater Boston ’s richness of music, song, and dance from Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton and other Celtic traditions. This past January’s BCMFest, in fact, marked one of the few performances of Ship in the Clouds, whose members are Laura Feddersen (fiddle), Nathan Gourley (guitar), Natasha Sheehy (accordion), and Anna Colliton (bodhran).
Of course, there are untold numbers of music ensembles that, for one reason or another, seldom if ever play out in public. Groups like Ship in the Clouds – which grew out of Boston’s Irish session scene – illustrate the first principle in forming a band: Because it just seems like the right thing to do.
“Putting a band together is all about constructing opportunities to play music with people you really enjoy playing with,” says Gourley. “Sessions are fun – they’re open, kind of in-the-moment experiences where lots of things can happen. With a band, you’re trying to create something intentional. It’s just enjoyable to go back and forth with the others while sitting in your living room, or over tea in the kitchen, and think and talk about tunes and sets – to find what connects and compels you to the music.”
“Rather than ‘happening’ on something,” adds Feddersen, “you build it.”
Ship in the Clouds has good, solid material with which to build, given the experience and aptitude of its members. Feddersen and Gourley (who’s also a highly regarded fiddler) recorded a well-received album, “Life Is All Checkered,” and have other ongoing collaborations – Gourley with uilleann piper Joey Abarta, Feddersen in the old-timey trio Wooden Nickels. Sheehy, a Limerick native, was part of Irish and British Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann tours and is a faculty member in Boston’s Comhaltas music school. Colliton, also a member of the band Comas, is a mainstay of New York City’s Irish scene but has been a regular presence in Boston for some time.
As Gourley and Feddersen recall it, the metaphorical keel for Ship in the Clouds was laid on two separate occasions: Last summer, when they and Colliton gathered at the Saturday session in Jamaica Plain’s Brendan Behan Pub, and sometime later, when they and Sheehy played at a pub in Cambridge. In both cases, the circumstances were just right to spark interest in a more formal arrangement.
“Sessions can be pretty loud sometimes, so you don’t always get a sense of how you and someone else sound together. It can just be luck of the draw: We’ve known Anna for a long time, but Nathan had never sat next to her at a session, and something clicked. And we knew Natasha, but that day we really felt a good energy between us. So, why not see what the four of us sound like together?”
A home-made video on the band’s Facebook page [facebook.com/shipinthecloudsband] offers a tantalizing sample of that sound, as the four play a hornpipe, “Horse Keane’s” (a composition by Irish accordionist Jimmy Keane and named for his father, a sean-nos singer) and two reels, “Larkin’s Beehive” and “Tom Dowd’s Favorite.” The chemistry between Feddersen and Sheehy is – quite literally – front and center, their instruments complementing one another with alacrity; Feddersen occasionally departs from strict melody, and at one point in “Horse Keane’s” playing an octave lower, further enriching their duet. Gourley’s guitar, capoed up to the fifth fret, has a bright tone to its rhythm, and sits snugly alongside Colliton’s bodhran playing, which locates and enhances the pulse of each tune.
“What’s distinctive about Nathan and Anna is that they don’t play like rhythm players, but like melody instrumentalists,” says Feddersen. “They both are so familiar with the tunes we’re playing, so they have a great feel for how to accompany them.”
Playing in a band, of course, is also a matter of meshing individual styles and tastes: In this case, Feddersen and Gourley’s interest in the American style of Irish music – the amalgam of characteristics and influences that developed over time in places like Boston, New York City, Chicago, and wherever else strong Irish music communities have thrived – with the West Limerick patois that informed Sheehy’s music, along with the tutelage of accordionists like Willie Larkin and Danny O Mahony.
Such considerations may be esoteric for some listeners, and in any case, are outweighed by the shared joy ¬– for audiences and band members alike – of a collaboration that simply works, period full stop.
“She has such great lift and energy to her playing,” says Gourley of Sheehy, who will not be present for the Summer BCMFest performance – a special guest, one well-suited to the Ship in the Clouds vibe, will sit in for her, he adds. “And Anna is just such a great listener, and can play with, and off, other people in a way you just don’t see happen every day.”
Adds Feddersen, “When we all sat down as a quartet to see how we sounded, I think we all had a feeling it would come together – but I don’t think we anticipated how easy it would be. Even though we can’t get together as often as we may like, it’s exciting to know how well everything goes when we do.”
For more on Summer BCMFest, see passim.org/bcmfest. Note that the evening concert with Becky Tracy and Keith Murphy, and Ship in the Clouds, which begins at 7 p.m., is a ticketed event.
By Sean Smith