Mary Black
at Chautauqua Auditorium, Boulder, CO
(24 July 1999)

"We left Ireland three, four days ago. We left our hotel room at half five this morning," said Irish singer Mary Black, probably the most prominent member of her performing family (including siblings Frances, Michael, Shay and Martin) and former member of the traditional Irish group De Dannan. Of course, Black and band were in Pittsburgh and needed to be in Boulder for an 8 p.m. show. Due to delays at the Pittsburgh airport, they only reached Boulder at 4 p.m. "But we're here!" Black smiled.

Their frustrating day didn't make a dent in their show at Boulder's Chautauqua Auditorium. The energy level was high as Black poured her emotions into the microphone and the Latin beat of "Carolina Rua," her opening number. As Black leaned into the microphone, her eyes wide open, she snapped the fingers of her left hand and almost developed a marching stance as she moved to the music, her body showing none of the exhaustion she must have felt.

And her voice definitely exhibited no wear and tear. Her strong, vibrant vibrato shone on her second song, Sandy Denny's "One Way Donkey Ride," and two songs later on Dougie MacLean's "Broken Wings," a selection from her forthcoming release, Speaking with the Angels. Black, while promoting the new CD, promised to throw to the audience only a couple of new songs, "since you haven't heard the album yet." She waxed enthusiasm, however, not only for "Broken Wings" but also "Bless the Road," a blessing for someone leaving penned by Steve Cooney, a song she said made her cry the first few times she'd tried to sing it.

Black tends to cover other songwriters‚ materials, and she is quick both to credit and admire those writers. She introduced the writers as much as the songs, stating, for instance, that she'd "always wanted to be her (Sandy Denny)." She went into background about the writers' origins and contributions to the Irish music scene. "He moved from California to Ireland -- can you imagine?" she remarked of Thom Moore, prior to performing his "Still Believing." Steve Cooney also earned the same question; he'd left Australia for Ireland.

Not only did Black credit the authors of her songs, however, but she also praised her band. Their synchronization showed, particularly on the band's showcase, "Ellis Island," a song about immigration. In particular, Pat Crowley on keyboards and accordion, who performed a duet with Black on the chorus of "I Will Be There" and has been a member of Black's band since 1986, stood out during the entire show. However, during "Ellis Island," Black literally stepped back and gave the floor to the musicians. Frank Gallagher's fiddle solo towards the end transformed the song from a poignant pop-type ballad about two lovers who would never see each other again into more of a 19th-century style and gave the song its closing finesse.

However, it is Black's voice that shines over even these consummate musicians. Her voice is stylized yet real. She can take any song and make it transcend its roots, however rich or humble. I was quite impressed when she dug even deeper for more resonance and power on the already heartfelt "Song for Ireland," which she dedicated as an apology to the "two girls in the loo -- when I was pounding on the doors, saying, 'I have to be onstage in two minutes!'"

Indeed, her earthy sense of humor only added to the evening. The Boulder Chautauqua is one of a handful of still-functioning chautauquas in the United States. The auditorium itself is a historical site (concerts only may be held there during the summer; winterizing the large wooden barnlike-structure with light spilling in between the roof beams, but sans the acoustics of a barn, would destroy its historical authenticity). However, it is not without its flaws, which perhaps is one reason she played two forty-five minute sets with a break in between. When she announced the break, she told everyone to "have a pee," and since there were no loos in the building, we would have to go outside and maybe find a tree, she laughed. (In actuality, the restrooms merely are across the way by the dining hall.)

Jokes about being Irish abounded in the second set. Noting how there are approximately 56 million more people of Irish descent than actual residents of Ireland today, she intimated how the Irish "got around."

The all-too-short evening did come to a close, however, with Eleanor McEvoy's "A Woman's Heart" as Black's final encore. "I want to hear you singing," she announced. "It would be nice to raise this lovely wooden roof and let everyone living around here know we're having a brilliant time." After she approved the audience's solo on the third time the chorus came around, she segued into reggae with "Oh Woman, Don't Cry." Her big, bright blue eyes seemed to capture the audience in her mind for all time. Literally bouncing onstage with a tambourine in her hand, her energy never waned, not even by the finale.

As fatigued as Black must have been from her travails on the road, she indeed was not a woman whose "heart is low." "It's always brilliant in Boulder," she proclaimed, as she thanked her appreciative audience. And indeed, the departing crowd, many flooding to the stage door to meet their idol, left with smiles on their faces. Or, as the folks sitting behind me proclaimed, "That was a really good show!"

[ by Ellen Rawson ]