Early into her sold out concert last night at Natasha’s – the opening performance of a low profile tour that effectively marks the end of her solo career – Maura O’Connell took pains to distance herself from the conventions of Irish traditional music. That’s a bold move for such a strong interpretative singer, one born in the culturally fertile County Claire.
But Irish muses aren’t the kind of spirits that like to stay dormant. For the better part of the 100 minute show, McConnell summoned a set of very different Irish voices – specifically, ones that were a generation or two removed from tradition. Paul Brady, Gerry O’Beirne, Declan O’Rourke and, of course, Van Morrison populated the setlist. And for a slice for seriously sobering Irish fancy, there was a familiar yarn by W.B Yeats (Down by the Salley Gardens).
For balance, a few female voices from America were thrown in by way of songs from Nanci Griffith, Joan Armatrading, Cheryl Wheeler and Jonell Mosser. But regardless of which shore the show favored, O’Connell proved quite adept at adapting to the vocal and emotive extremes of the songs, making them very much her own in the process.
Much of the material was, in varying degrees, romantic in nature – from the blissful strains of O’Rourke’ Galileo and the encore finale of Morrison’s Crazy Love to O’Beirne’s more contemplative picture postcard eulogy The Shades of Gloria. Yet the resulting performance in no way seemed demure or sentimental. O’Connell possessed a deep clear resonance that not only morphed into a fine dramatic tool (displayed during the brief but commanding wail she hit at the conclusion of Griffith’s’ Trouble in the Fields). It also mirrored a profound but casually displayed confidence that rang proudly from even the most vulnerable of songs (including the terrible beauty of O’Rourke’s No Place to Hide).
At times, the show sailed into purposely foreign waters, as with the a capella Chilean lament Hay Una Mujer Desapercida. In other instances, Irish and American streams flooded into each other, as was the case during Mosser’s Blessing. Mostly, though the performance served as a final headlining chorus by a champion vocalist (keenly aided last night by guitarist John Mock and bassist/harmony singer Don Johnson) echoing the new generation voices of her homeland with remarkable interpretative skill, wit and vocal daring.