The Towne Crier Cafe is a surprising venue: nestled off route 22 in rural Pawling, New York (about a mile past the point where you think you’ve gone too far), on the outside it looks like your basic restaurant.Inside, however, you will find a small stage and lights tucked in the corner, and the hostess station is actually the bottom of the sound booth. After a delectable meal of impeccably prepared Southwestern fare, the main event begins: usually a contemporary folk or traditional music act, such as you’ll see at the Bottom Line in New York City or the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, MA. It’s one of the best places to experience live music in the Northeast. And on Sunday, June 27 an intriguing double bill was on the menu: Susan McKeown and the Chanting House, and the up-and-coming “Irish-tribal” group Kíla.
Due to the logistics of fitting on the tiny stage (Susan’s four-piece vs. Kíla’s seven multi-instrumentalists), the Chanting House went on first, and treated us to an hour of their typically wonderful music.
The only constant in the Chanting House is founder, songwriter, and vocalist Susan McKeown. After a few years on the road with members of the Chanting House’s studio incarnation, these days she is trying out a brand-new lineup: Catherine Bent on cello, Jeff Allen on both acoustic and electric bass, and John Spurney on guitars. That night, the configuration was so new that it was clear they were still finding their way through some of the old favorites, though there were no discernible missteps. It’s clear that with just a bit more practice, it won’t be long before they are a rocking quartet indeed.
The set concentrated on unrecorded material (which we all hope will appear on the follow-up to 1995’s Bones, rumored to be in the planning stages), as well as trad selections from McKeown’s solo album Bushes and Briars, a couple tracks from Bones, and two covers: a hauntingly beautiful version of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes,” and later on a rousing cover of the classic tune “Son Of A Preacher Man,” done as only Susan could sing it.
As always, Susan’s clear, strong voice filled the room with little need for amplification, and when she closed the show with an acappella encore of “Seoladh na nGamhna” (“Driving The Calves,” found on Bushes and Briars), you could hear the figurative pin drop.
She has a way of bringing an audience into her music, and making them forget everything but what they’re hearing at that very moment. Her voice is so strong and pure, so compelling, that even people who haven’t thought much of her recorded work can’t help but be rooted to the spot where they sit, vowing to mark a Susan McKeown date on the calendar every time she comes back to their town. (To quote a friend of mine who fits that description: “god, but the woman can sing!”) It’s because of this that she has no equal as a live performer, and it’s good to see that she’s continuing to surround herself with musicians who have the chops to keep the magic going.
After intermission, and time for the Towne Crier’s famously decadent desserts (I highly recommend the chocolate raspberry torte), Kíla took the stage. I hadn’t heard a note of their music beforehand, but I had heard a few descriptions of them. Unlike some of my companions I went in with an open mind, and no predisposition to hate them just because they’re trying to do something new and different with Celtic music.
Kíla has been described as “Rusted Root goes Gaelic” (or something to that effect). In reality, they are a group of very established musicians from Ireland who aren’t interested in the constraints of genre. The instrumentation in the band ranges from what you’d expect (uillean pipes, bodhran, whistles, fiddle, guitar) to the distinctly non-traditional (fretless electric bass, dumbek, mandolin, balalaika, drum set, saxophone). Everyone in the band is a multi-instrumentalist, which includes in every case various forms of percussion. All that percussion is where the “tribal” adjective has come to describe Kíla. Mixed in with the Celtic elements, it makes for some very effective and infectious music.
Leading the band is the frenetic Ronan O’Snodaigh, who among other things is late of Dead Can Dance’s touring ensemble. He is the principal vocalist and percussionist, flinging his body around the stage while making the most wonderful sounds come from his bodhran. Male vocals aren’t my thing in general, so I could do without the tunes with words, but Ronan’s songs are the ones that have the most African/tribal elements in them.
Listening to them I never would have known he is singing in Gaelic: his hoarse, rapid-fire delivery, and the style of the backing vocals is much more Ladysmith Black Mambazo than anything out of Eire. Once I got used to that, I actually started to enjoy those tunes, but I much preferred the instrumentals when all was said and done. The instrumentals tend the most toward what one expects from Irish music, with Dee Armstrong’s fiddle finally allowed centerstage. Ronan’s brother Colm also provides vocals on a few songs, those more traditional Irish. That night he ended the show with an acappella version of a traditional tune, which had the room hushed and brought everyone down nicely from the 90 minutes of energetic music they had just witnessed.
Green Linnet, which released Kíla’s latest album, Tóg é go bog é (Take It Easy) in the United States last month, is hailing them as “the future of Celtic music.” I’d hesitate to call them that: if anything I’d say that they are the closest thing to “world music” I’ve ever heard, in that they are a true fusion of musical cultures which otherwise wouldn’t naturally have met, yet which happen to work together really well. If you are a traditional-music purist you will probably want to run screaming from the room; however, if you’re interested in exploring new territory from much-trodden older ground, be sure to keep your eyes, ears, and mind open for Kíla.
(Pawling, NY, 27 June, 1999)