Eileen Ivers brought down The Barns at Wolf Trap in an evening of blazing fiddles and holiday classics with her fantastic band Immigrant Soul.
Eileen Ivers is a fiddle player from the Bronx, or as she puts it, the 33 county of Ireland. She won nine All-Ireland Fiddle championships and has played with major orchestras and pop stars around the world. She shot to fame in the 90’s as the original fiddle player for Riverdance. I admit I wore out a VCR tape of that show growing up and it was pretty magical to see her onstage, especially when she did a couple of songs from the show.
This night it was just she and her band. She must have had a time finding four musicians who can keep up with her, but these four do and on at least two different instruments each. Tommy McDonnell plays percussion and takes the lead singing. He was as passionate on a drum set as he was on an egg shaker and washboard – at points abandoning drumsticks to pound away with his hands on his symbols and drums. He brings a polished, bluesy sound even to the Irish tunes he sings and seemed enjoy playing musical director as the audience joined in him a sing-a-long for several songs. During the encore, crowd favorite “May the Circle Be Unbroken,” he had a fun exchange with Ivers singing scat that she mimicked with her fiddle. He got his start in the original Blues Brothers band and just for a moment brought that on stage singing a call and response from the movie.
Buddy Connelly is no stranger to championships, but his chosen instrument is the button accordion, in addition to keyboard and a number of whistles. He played as fast and crazy as Ivers, but my favorite moments were when he seemed to forget he had an audience and just settled back to jam for a bit.
Greg Anderson played the acoustic guitar and bouzouki, a greek instrument that sounds like a neat cross between a guitar and a banjo and is perfect for Irish reels.
Lindsey Horner played electric bass and upright bass that looks like a skinny cello but has as a fast, deep sound. He was never relegated to merely keeping the beat. He had his own crazy solos and his fingers were dancing over his instruments as much as the other members of the band.
It was clear these folks have played together for a while and were at home in many different kind of music, but the evening stuck pretty close to Ireland. Most of the night was traditional tunes and almost every song introduction ended with, “And then we’ll play a couple of reels.” And did they ever. I think Ireland produced the original jam bands. Every reel turned into an improvisation session as each band member traded solos or duets or gleeful call and responses between accordion and fiddle or fiddle and bodhran – a traditional Irish drum that can change tone as well as rhythm. At one point, Ivers was playing her electric fiddle with a pedal, sounding a lot like Jimmie Hendrix. Her eyes were squeezed shut and her bow a blur across the strings. She’s sometimes been compared to that guitar great.
For all the acrobatics, much of the night was slower and quieter. In anticipation of their Christmas tour and in deference to the winter season, they played four or five winter and Christmas tunes from the Isle, which showcased the more haunting, lyrical melodies a violin does so well. They had the audience join them for “The Holly Tree” and “The Wren Song,” an ancient melody of St. Stephens day, the day after Christmas, and then they did the modern “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” in a mellow, jazzier style.
Even when they branched away from Ireland, they drew clear links back. A Sting song, “Soul’s Cake” details the ancient practice of leaving cakes for the dead and for a bluegrass set, they started with the traditional Irish melody that didn’t change all that much when bluegrass musicians borrowed it on this side of the pond. That set ended with the bluegrass classic “Rocky Road Blues.”
For another song she titled “A Paddy in Zulu Land” after one of her tours in South Africa, she made a duet with herself, recording short bursts of playing and percussion and riffing as she played them back on each other.
She and her band repeatedly said how happy they were to be back at the Barns, even singing a shout out to the old building during one song and thanking the audiences around here for following her so passionately. The audience was quickly clapping along in the first song and by the end of it we were all standing and stomping and clapping and singing and dancing the aisles as she whaled away on that fiddle.
Running Time: Two Hours with no intermission.