Rarely do fiddle players rise to headliner stature. Among the few memorable exceptions are Vanessa Mae and André Rieu, schmaltz waltz evangelist of Johann Strauss Orchestra fame. So it had been at the until Saturday night, when innovative programming by Executive Director Sharon Maier-Kennelly brought past Riverdance veteran Eileen Ivers and a talented ensemble to town, and changed all that.
Hosted by WFUV DJ Kathleen Biggins, who singled out another Port Washington landmark, prominent Irish restaurant and co-sponsor , the show introduced Eileen Ivers’ brand of Celtic, Irish, blue grass and rock violin to an audience that grew more and more enthusiastic as the performance unfolded. Backing her was an equally capable and energetic ensemble, Immigrant Soul, featuring drummer/vocalist Tommy “Pipes” MacDonald, Greg Anderson on guitar, bassist Lindsey Horner, and three-time all-Ireland champion accordionist (and keyboardist) Buddy Connolly. Ivers has toured with this lineup for several years, and the result was an impressive blend of improv, blindingly fast licks, tempo turns and duet derring-do that no pickup band could match.
What Ivers termed “the music of the people,” included blues bends, renegade glissandi, Irish trills, signature grace notes, all executed with flourish and spunk by the bright-eyed, dimpled Ivers on a fiddle with wireless pickup, effects pedals and the occasional mandolin. And accordionist Connolly was every bit as speedy.
At times Ivers switched to mandolin, as with the audience-participation favorite, Scotsman Dougie MacLean’s song, “Feel So Near.” Knit together nicely by Anderson’s steady finger-picking, and “Pipes” steady vocal, the song so moved the Landmark crowd that the lyric could well have been “Feel so near to the crashing of the waves at Manhasset Bay.”
In her performance of “Gravel Walk,” Ivers pressed into pedal-metal territory with wah, blues and psychedelic licks – then just as dramatically back to traditional fiddle. Not afraid to accompany her multi-octave skips with near-acrobatic hopping and jumping, Ivers demonstrated a broad repertoire that also included an arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon (“Pachelbel’s Follies”). The tune began with an accordion and violin duet, after which string bass and guitar modulated to a jig and three versatile young dancers, from the Petri School of Irish Dancing, took to the stage to further delight an already roused audience. Songs Ivers performed included vaudeville-era “The Kellys” and another audience-pleaser, “Rocky Road Blues.”
Ivers, whose stage persona included gracious shout-outs to crew and arts sponsors, is working on a new album titled “Beyond the Back Road.” Based on the reception given her version of “Jenny’s Chickens,” part of a show featuring looping, Zulu influences, bowhair-breaking accents and virtuosic dueling violin and accordion runs, it’s fair to say that many of those present will be looking for Ivers and her band on the back roads of iTunes.
The number of Americans with Irish roots is more than 6 times larger than the entire population of Ireland itself, but Ivers’ audience is likely to grow even larger than that. For as long as the world’s violin rosin supply holds out, the exuberant Ms. Ivers and Immigrant Soul will be giving Prozac a run for the money. The only side effects are an involuntary tapping of the foot and an irrepressible desire to clap.
Landmark’s next weekend performance is a May 6 children’s show, SkippyjonJones.