Fil Campbell
at the Wood Stove,
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
(25 September 2010)

Northern Irish singer Fil Campbell filled the room at the Wood Stove House Concert with a warm and friendly presence -- to say nothing of a wealth of vocal talent and a story to go with every song she sang.

Campbell, who sidelined her own successful songwriting career five years ago to promote Songbirds, an album and DVD celebrating the lives of five pivotal Irish songstresses from the early to mid-20th century, performed a lively, emotionally rich selection of songs during the intimate Saturday evening concert in Jason and Susanne Mundok's suburban Lancaster home. Lancaster area residents would do well to check out their series of Wood Stove concerts.

(Disclaimer: Jason and I were the concert openers as Fire in the Glen.)

Songbirds, Campbell said, consists largely of songs she learned as a child in Ulster's Co. Fermanagh, and she punctuated Saturday's show with several from the album.

Beginning with "Connemara Cradle Song," followed by defiant "Johnny the Daisy-O" and wistful "If I Were a Blackbird," Campbell quickly wrapped her audience in the warmth of her vocals. Swaying as she sang and accompanying herself on guitar, the meaning of the words of each song stood out clearly through her expressive voice and face. It was immediately obvious that Campbell doesn't sing by rote, but feels every word that she sings.

The performance continued with beautiful nostalgia in "The Homes of Donegal" before taking a cheerful turn with "Goodbye Mick, Goodbye Pat," a rare song of emigration that shows someone happy -- nay, thrilled -- to be leaving Ireland's emerald shores for a new start in America.

Campbell herself is not a fluent Gaelic speaker, but she sang it like a native in "Seoladh na nGamhna" ("Herding the Calves"). "The language sits beautifully in the mouth," she said. Then she returned to a more nostalgic mood with "Erin Gra Mo Chroi," sung to the "dear little isle" that will never be seen again.

She got the audience laughing and singing along with "When I was Single," the cheerful lament of an eternally patient wife which, Campbell quickly admitted, "is not politically correct toward women." The merry mood continued with "Let Him Go, Let Him Tarry," a music-hall song that may have come from England. The songs origins don't matter, Campbell told the audience. "If a song comes to Ireland, we keep it. It's ours."

But she wasn't done yet. "Can ye's cope with a sad song before I finish up?" she asked. The audience could. And you could have heard a pin drop during her dramatic, a cappella rendition of Michael McConnel's "The Tinkerman's Daughter," a devastatingly sad song about a farmer on the banks of the Faele River and his love, the red-headed Ann. Leave it to Campbell, a natural-born storyteller, to have an even sadder "sequel" to add to the tale.

Fortunately, she knew better than to end on a grim note, and Campbell soon had the audience clapping and singing along with "The Moonshiner," an old favorite.

Say what you will about stadiums and other big-venue concerts. For my money, a house concert is the optimal setting for getting up close and personal with talented artist. Campbell filled the space perfectly, chatting with guests before and after the show and leaving them with a night of music they'll long remember.

by Tom Knapp
2 October 2010

[ visit Fil Campbell's website ]