Introducing ‘The Sole Mates,’ Free Spirits of Dance and Music

New Ensemble to Perform in Cambridge Jan. 20
By BIR Staff
Boston-based Irish dancer and choreographer Kieran Jordan will present her new collaboration, “The Sole Mates,” for one night only this month before the group hits the road in March for an 11-gig tour of Germany and Switzerland.

Two performances will take place (6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.) on Sun., Feb. 20, at the Julie Ince Thompson Theatre at The Dance Complex, 536 Massachusetts Ave. in Central Square, Cambridge.
Audiences can expect live Irish music that is exuberant and robust, and free-spirited choreography that interprets the many moods and flavors of Irish dance.
Jordan toured Germany last March with husband-and-wife duo Matt and Shannon Heaton, two popular musicians based in Medford. The German agency, Magnetic Music, asked Jordan to return with her own ensemble featuring her brand of Irish dance. “I love improvisation,” says Jordan. “My approach comes from sean-nós or ‘old-style’ Irish dance. This is neither the competitive Irish dance form nor the commercialized show-style. It’s about finding your individual expression, within the traditional music and steps. It’s about dancing something very personal… no matter how that may be categorized among the academics and adjudicators of Irish dance.”
Jordan’s “dream team” of dancers and musicians includes accordion player Sean McComiskey from Baltimore, guitarist Josh Dukes from Washington, D.C., dancer and fiddler Danielle Enblom from Minneapolis, and dancer/choreographer Nicholas Yenson from New York. “People think this is crazy,” says Jordan, “that I work with people who are scattered all over the US. And it certainly presents its challenges. But this is the nature of Irish music and dance today. There are many successful touring groups, comprised of people who live in different cities, and often in different countries. When you connect artistically and personally, you just want to dive in. You make the best of it.”
Jordan is a veteran of Irish music and dance performances throughout North America and Europe, including the WGBH production of A Christmas Celtic Sojourn, for which she has served as choreographer and dance director for seven years.
Tickets are $20 general admission ($15 for students with ID, $18 for BDA members). Reservations are strongly suggested. Cash or checks only, at the door. To reserve tickets, send an e-mail to or call 617-645-3743.

Injuries Kept Jordan On the Sidelines
Her large following of friends and fans are looking toward Boston Irish dancer/choreographer Kieran Jordan’s return to the performing stage this month.
For Jordan, the two Cambridge performances on Feb. 20 with her new group, “The Sole Mates,” will mark the first time in almost half a year that she will be physically able to perform.
She first was injured early last summer, when she pulled a hamstring while dancing. After a long stretch of limited movement, she returned to dancing in September, only to be hit with a severe foot injury that left her unable to dance at all.
A preliminary exam by orthopedists suggested she had suffered a stress fracture in the foot, and one doctor cautioned her that the injury might force her to cease dancing completely. The injury was similar to an athlete’s injury, and the medical people were stymied about how best to treat it.
The prognosis kept changing, but after a grueling fall and winter of rehab and healing, Jordan has been able to lace on the shoes and return to the stage later this month, much to her delight and relief.
Last September, days before the injury, Kieran joined the Irish Studies Program at Boston College as a part-time faculty member. The 1996 BC graduate says she is “delighted to be back at her alma mater, teaching Traditional Irish Dance for undergraduates.”

Black 47’s Larry Kirwan talks about his work, and lots else
(First of Two Parts)

By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR

Although he has been a New Yorker since arriving in the city during the 1970s as a college student, Wexford native Larry Kirwan, co-founder and guiding spirit of the seminal Irish rock band Black 47, has plenty of attachments to Boston -- and very soon he’ll have another. Kirwan is involved with the pub Four Green Fields, which is due to open at 1 Boston Place this month, and he plans to be on hand for the official opening on Feb. 10.
Kirwan will make another stop in Massachusetts a couple of weeks after that, on Feb. 26, when he and Black 47 perform at Town Hall in Clinton along with Boston’s own Irish rock outfit, The Gobshites, local acoustic musician Deirdre Sweeney, and step dancers from the Irish Rhythm School. The concert will benefit The Polus Center, which provides services for people with developmental disabilities and has offices in Clinton, Quincy, Worcester, Petersham, Amesbury, and Peterborough, NH. [See for more details about the event.]
There aren’t enough hues to describe the colorful life Kirwan has led. This is a guy who was forbidden from playing at the legendary New York punk rock club CBGB’s because the owner considered him “too demonic,” and who, during his time with Black 47, has provoked controversy with unapologetically strident, left-of-center songs about the Iraq war and sociopolitical issues in the US and Ireland. Yet he has also released a CD of children’s music, has established a literary career as a playwright, memoirist and novelist, writes a column for The Irish Echo and hosts and produces “Celtic Crush” for SiriusXM Satellite Radio. The Daily News once included him in a list of the top 50 most interesting New Yorkers -- several places ahead of Madonna.
On one recent wintry afternoon, Kirwan chatted about his various enterprises, musical and otherwise, his favorite authors, and his views on discourse and civility.
Q. You’ve put down strong roots in New York, but you also have a fondness for Boston. How so?
A. A lot of New Yorkers may have friction with Boston, but I love it. It’s a great place for music, as we know, but I’ve also been drawn to its historical aspects, Boston’s prominence in the Irish-American story. And being from Wexford, where’s the whole Kennedy connection, you came to see Boston as a kind of a mythical place that way.
Traveling and playing around the US, you know, there’s always been an opportunity to observe and learn about Irish communities in other cities. I don’t know what it is, but the Irish always seem to end up on the south side, whether it’s Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Buffalo. Very interesting.
Q. Talk a little about your childhood in Wexford. Did you have that “classic” Irish musical upbringing -- sessions in the home, lessons, competitions, etc.?
A. Oh no, not at all. It may seem odd to say, but Wexford wasn’t a “traditional Irish” kind of place; it was very rock and roll. Wexford people would tend to go to London, and as soon as performers like Elvis and Eddie Cochran became hits there, that all came back to Wexford. The only traditional music that Wexford had was the sean-nos singing, that kind of song-story which is more a way of transmitting history. That was one of the things I took with me to Black 47, the idea of song as narrative.
Q. You wrote a play, “Liverpool Fantasy,” which later became a book, as a kind of alternate-history about what if The Beatles had never made it big. That was inspired by this era in which you grew up, wasn’t it?
A. There was boat service between Wexford and Liverpool, so that made for a lot of movement between the two cities; George Harrison’s mother’s side of the family was from Wexford, you know. And as you can imagine, in the 1950s and ‘60s– what with The Beatles, especially – this really contributed to the popularity of rock and roll in Wexford. It just became second nature.
That period of time made me look at John Lennon in a different way. Yes, here would be John Lennon hanging around Wexford, but back then we knew a lot of John Lennon types: They had tons of talent, but they also had some considerable flaws, which ultimately stood in their way. I don’t think John would have made it without Paul McCartney’s influence.
Q. When you came to New York as a college student, what made you want to stay?
A. I liked the openness, the fact that you could do anything and be anything. I loved Wexford, but after a while you outgrow the place where you started from. New York in the ‘70s was such a wild place -- I mean, if you ever watched “Midnight Cowboy” or “Taxi Driver,” that’s exactly what New York was like then. There was the whole punk explosion going on, and lots of exciting places to go hear or play music, and some great people to play music with. It was just very good timing all around.
Q. Your most recent novel, “Rockin’ the Bronx,” is a kind of fond reminiscence of the New York that you found and which influenced you. What’s been the response to it?
A. I’ve been very pleased at how people have responded to the book, especially those who were there during that era. It was just amazing to me, discovering this area of the Bronx that was very Irish; I couldn’t believe it; it was like Mayo on a Saturday night. There was such a richness to the scene, but no one was really writing about this sort of thing. And by 1993, it was all over, and I was stunned. I mean, the Irish are usually not quick movers, and once they find a place they tend to stick there for a while. But there was just no trace of the Irish scene that had been there; you had nail salons where there used to be bars. I wanted to capture those years, but I had to find people who’d been around then, and verify the recollections and other impressions I’d had. It took a while.
Q. Black 47 is now into its third decade. When you started out, did you ever think the band would last this long, and maintain the popularity it has?
A. [Laughs] No, I can’t say I ever thought that far ahead. In the late 1980s, people didn’t play original music in Irish bars, but I just was always on for being totally original, playing our own kind of music. Enough people liked our sound, and we would just keep going along, playing three sets a night. Our song “Funky Ceili” hit it big, and it was going on seven or eight years then and I realized that, you know, maybe this will work out.
NEXT: The Time of the Troubles

CD Reviews
By Sean Smith
Two recent CDs by musicians with local ties are in the spotlight this month:
“Dance,” by Lissa Schneckenburger – Maine native Schneckenburger, who for several years lived in Boston and attended New England Conservatory -- and still comes through town (she performed at BCMFest 2011 last month) – has become a foremost musician-scholar of New England roots music. Where her 2008 release “Song” explored the region’s traditional folk songs and ballads, “Dance” pays homage to one of New England’s most distinctive natural resources: contra dance, which derives its music from Irish, Scottish, French-Canadian, and other traditions, as well as from contemporary tune composers.
While Schneckenburger may be better known for her performance-type ventures – as a member of the bands Halali or Childsplay, for example, or fronting her own band – she has plenty of experience playing for contra dances, and has made the acquaintance of some of the contra dance scene’s most estimable musicians, like Bob McQuillen, Dudley Laufman, Dave Cory, and David Kaynor (the latter two both making guest appearances on “Dance”), among others. As respectful of the tradition as she is – the CD’s sleeve even includes instructions for the dances associated with these tunes – Schneckenburger is able to reimagine and recast it in often fascinating, and quite listenable ways.
Start with the first track, “Petronella,” the epitome of a whirling, stomping, hand-clapping New England contra dance. Here, Schneckenburger tones down the boisterousness and gives the tune some space, playing it as a soulful trio with guitarist Bethany Waickman and piano accordionist Jeremiah McLane; Waickman begins by laying down a subdued, spare chord sequence that Schneckenburger quietly embellishes, until she launches into the tune, doubling the tempo of Waickman’s rhythm. (A contra dance veteran hearing this CD almost didn’t recognize the tune, so different is the arrangement than what she was used to.)
The “Lamplighter’s Hornpipe/Suffer the Child” medley is a feast of tasty rhythm, Schneckenburger’s husband, Corey DiMario, supplying double bass and Stefan Amidon snare drum along with Waickman’s galloping guitar work, while Schneckenburger’s fiddle rides high over it all, and there’s a slight and delightful shift in the transition to “Suffer the Child” -- a Greg Boardman composition in honor of local violin-maker and musician Bob Childs, the raison d’etre behind Childsplay. “Lady Walpole’s Reel/Mountain Ranger/Nancy King” evokes the more familiar contra dance sound, Cory’s tenor banjo matching Schneckenburger note-for-note on the melody, and “Fisher’s Hornpipe” is nothing short of pure, infectious ebullience, as DiMario, Amidon, and pianist-guitarist Keith Murphy help push the tune forward.
“Moneymusk” and “Jamie Allen” are notable for their use of brass instruments played by David Harris, but the trombone and euphonium don’t draw undue attention to themselves; they lurk behind the twin fiddles of Schneckenburger and Kaynor, providing the warmth of a tastefully decorative quilt.
If the true test for a contra dance ensemble is to make music that appeals to both listener and dancer, then Schneckenburger and her cohorts have taken on the challenge with infinite relish and no small amount of imagination.
“The Blue Dress” by Shannon Heaton – For Shannon Heaton, music is literally more about the journey than the arrival.
There’s her geographical journey, encompassing places of residence like Chicago, Thailand and – to the delight of local musicians and listeners – Boston, along with many others she’s visited as a performer, picking up tunes, songs, stories, and friends along the way. There’s also her odyssey as a musician: A superlative Irish flute and tin whistle player (and a pretty darn good accordionist) who can sing the birds out of the trees, Heaton is constantly on the move inside the Irish tradition and outside of it as well, composing her own tunes and songs, even occasionally blending in her Thai influences; and while she and husband Matt are a much-beloved duo of boundless creativity and virtuosity, she has also established herself in other musical settings, namely as a member of Long Time Courting and Childsplay.
With “The Blue Dress,” her first solo album, Heaton has sorted through these various travels to find yet another direction in which to head. For this trek, she has left behind tin whistle, accordion, and voice to focus exclusively on her flute-playing, essaying tunes from the Irish tradition – including some of the most familiar, notably “The Wheels of the World” and even “The Irish Washerwoman” – as well as her own compositions, such as the lush title track, which she wrote to celebrate “the freshness, beauty, and fun in playing Irish music.” If this instrumental-only, flute-centered format seems to be limiting for Heaton, rest assured it’s not. She takes particular care, and pleasure, in drawing out the full capabilities of the flute and the character and depth of the tunes (not to imply she gave any of those things short shrift before).
Heaton also is aided mightily by her guest musicians: Matt is there on guitar and bouzouki for many of the tracks, and Shannon’s fellow Long Time Courting member, Liz Simmons, adds guitar on one track, but it’s Scottish harpist Maeve Gilchrist and percussionist/bouzouki and bodhran player Paddy League whose presence are felt the most. The harp’s resonance, its versatility as a melody and rhythm instrument, complements the flute’s gracefulness, and Gilchrist’s leanings toward jazz and world music make her playing all the more distinct. League has this world music business down pretty well, too – hey, he sings in Greek and Gaelic, and plays instruments from seemingly every corner of the globe – but most of all he provides a dead-on, yet subtle heartbeat to the rhythm.
These qualities, along with Heaton’s penchant for fanciful experimentation, are at the forefront in “99 High,” a medley of polkas made exotic by the funkiness of Gilchrist’s “prepared” harp and League’s drumming, which might not be regulation ceili band but is mesmerizingly brilliant. League switches to bouzouki for the “Red Molly” slip jig set, dexterously enhancing Gilchrist’s accompaniment. The “Dennis Watson’s” reel set, meanwhile, is a flute-bouzouki-bodhran barnburner, the three instruments gliding ceaselessly around each other like a flock of birds in perfect formation. In contrast, Heaton and Gilchrist bring an energetic, yet relaxed feel to the hornpipes in “Grandfather’s Thoughts.”
When it comes to feeling, Heaton’s compositions, like “Aunt Jane’s Trip to Norway” (Gilchrist all but conjures up visions of fjords at the outset) have a special character, bearing as they do a stamp of reminiscence and appreciation for loving family members and friends. “Against the Grain,” for instance, honors local artist Vincent Crotty, while “King Nalay” is an evocation of her bond with Thailand; and “Frost Place” was written for the aforementioned Lissa Schneckenburger and Corey DiMario, a slow reel that is tender and bucolic in the manner of their Vermont homestead.
Heaton notes that the album’s namesake, which she’s wearing in the cover photo, is “a vintage composition of lace and satin” – a perfectly appropriate description for this deeply felt, engaging work.