Back in Davis Square: The Burren's 'Backroom' series

One of Greater Boston's most popular Irish pubs, The Burren in Somerville's Davis Square, has relaunched its "Backroom" series of concerts featuring top-notch Irish/Celtic performers from the Boston area and elsewhere.

Fiddler Winifred Horan and accordionist Mick McAuley, members of Solas, kicked off the monthly series on Oct. 19, along with Maeve Gilchrist, a Scottish harpist living in Boston. At press time, plans were in the works for a Nov. 11 performance by Frankie Gavin & De Dannan, a reboot of one of the most acclaimed traditional Irish music bands. An appearance by Irish "super group" Dervish is envisioned for March 7, according to the series organizers, WGBH radio host Brian O'Donovan and Burren owner Tommy McCarthy.

If the October event is any indication, the "Backroom" series would seem to have a promising future, as a spirited and supportive near-capacity crowd filled the venue. In her opening set, a demure yet personable Gilchrist displayed her deft, graceful touch on the harp, whether playing tunes or as an accompaniment to her singing, which demonstrated a considerable range. In addition to a pair of traditional songs, she sang a masterfully sensitive version of Richard Thompson's lost-love lament, "Beeswing."

Horan and McAuley, with guitarist/vocalist Colm O'Caoimh, unleashed set after set of fervently played jigs and reels, along with the occasional high-octane polka and stately waltz, all embellished by those "we do this because we can" flourishes on their respective instruments. McAuley and O'Caoimh showed their considerable singing skills, both solo and in harmony, with McAuley taking the lead on the anti-war ballad "The King's Shilling" and O'Caoimh on a surprising but well-delivered rendition of the Tom Paxton classic "The Last Thing on My Mind."

There will be plenty more of such evenings to come, if O'Donovan and McCarthy have anything to say about it. They see the "Backroom" series - hatched by the two during a bicycle ride around Galway, according to O'Donovan - as a means to satisfy eminent touring Celtic performers looking for a medium-sized local venue, and as an opportunity to give exposure to local musicians.

"Tommy has been dedicated to traditional music for so many years, and has done a lot for the area's music scene in that regard," says O'Donovan, who will emcee the series. "The Burren has a very impressive reputation, as a place for concerts as well as sessions, and what we're trying to do is create a particular vibe based on that. We hope people will trust us as curators for musical experiences that are compelling, interesting and fun."

Adds McCarthy: "From our standpoint, we're very happy to have The Burren hosting traditional music concerts again. It's something that takes a lot of effort, so having Brian, with all his experience as an organizer and host, take it into his hands is wonderful."

The series format also will include a little time for conversations between O'Donovan and the performers, so audiences can get to know more about them and their music. "The idea is to create an intimate listening room, a kind of salon-type experience," he explains. "It just makes the whole thing a little more accessible and educational, especially for people who may not be that familiar with the music."

O'Donovan says there will be every attempt to inject variety into each concert. "We'll definitely shoot for balance. Take the first concert, for instance: With Maeve and then with Win, Mick, and Colm, you had two acts with very different sounds, each enjoyable in their own way. That's the kind of diversity we want to have."

If the music isn't necessarily always low-key, the atmosphere for the "Backroom" events is definitely intended to be genteel: The bar in the room is even closed during the times when the performers are on stage.

"We just want this to be a nice night out for people," says McCarthy. "They can come in the early evening, have a bite to eat, enjoy the show - which, because it starts at 8 p.m., won't keep them out too late on a weeknight. And, of course, there's a T stop right down the street, so you don't even need to bring a car."

O'Donovan and McCarthy also hint at the potential for après-concert sessions to spring up. "It's The Burren," quips McCarthy. "No one's going to stop anyone from playing an instrument."

The Burren website is