As her genre-defying trio performance headed for the home stretch last night at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville, Aoife O’Donovan lamented the fact that a six hour-plus drive today to her next gig in Memphis meant passing up an invited tour of the Bourbon Trail. As a means of commiseration, she offered up “Oh, Mama,” a song that saluted the liquid spirits in question before morphing into a sing-a-long that approximated a tipsy lament.
An American born songstress of Irish ancestry, O’Donovan was many things. Vocally, she was wondrously deceptive, ushering in a sense of delicate, hushed articulation (on the set-opening “Briar Rose”) that was regularly capable of flaring up to match the mightier electric atmospherics of guitarist Anthony Da Costa (especially during “The King of All Birds”). That resulted in an Americana sound dressed with an attractive ambience led by the more plaintive clarity of O’Donovan’s singing. Drummer Steve Nistor was as imaginative as Da Costa in designing the mix of atmospherics and understated Celtic rhythm that fleshed out the music. But quite often, the most delicate moments of the show were overpowered when Nistor’s playing turned rockish. You tended to notice that more when the drums were absent, as on “Donal Og.” Without such anchoring drive, the lighter textures of O’Donovan’s singing seemed to float.
This double-bill concert began with an hour long set by Willie Watson, who continued to perfect his persona as a modern day troubadour of very traditional folk music. Armed with six string guitar, five string banjo and a high tenor voice that switched out antique Americana’s prevalent sense of woe for an clear, almost sinister sense of cheer, Watson sounded unexpectedly gleeful in his slow-opening treatment of Leadbelly’s “Take This Hammer” and the largely murderous retribution staple “Rock Salt and Nails.” That the song’s very dark extremes were sung with the same temperament and gusto of the horse racing staple “Stewball” or the otherwise ribald “Keep It Clean” spoke directly to the kind of high spirits Watson employed to fashion such vintage music for modern ears.
O’Donovan and Watson joined forces for an encore to honor Bob Dylan, who made history earlier in the day by becoming the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The headliners traded verses with Da Costa on “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” making all three sound like eager disciples of a suitably ageless folk muse.