Johnny Cunningham
& Susan McKeown,
Swallow Hill Music Hall,
Denver, CO (26 September 1999)

The promotional material for this concert contained the following disclaimer: "Due to sad songs, Johnny's legendary wit, and Susan's magical charm, a handkerchief is recommended."

Well, I forgot my hankie, and when I saw all of the unlit candles lining the stage as I entered the hall, I had a feeling I might regret it. It was going to be an intimate and emotional night; I just knew it. Of course, I didn't realize that my first emotional reaction would be laughter. After Susan McKeown (vocals, bodhran and guitar), Johnny Cunningham (fiddle) and Aidan Brennan (guitar) took the stage, former Silly Wizard member Cunningham commented that the 7:30 p.m. start seemed early. "It's only 7:30. So what we're going to try to do is to get this over so we can go watch 25 years of Saturday Night Live." McKeown laughed as she suggested checking out the season premiere of Felicity instead.

Neither of them meant it. Looking relaxed on stage (the set indeed was casual -- all three were seated, and Cunningham kept his coffee mug on an end table), they showed no signs of wanting to leave early. The first half of the show, Cunningham announced, would consist mostly of McKeown's traditional material. After the break, they planned to perform highlights from Cunningham's soundtrack to the musical, Peter and Wendy.

McKeown, a Dublin native now living in New York City, decided to open with a "cheery, little song" called "A Mhaire Bhruinneall." While its melody indeed was light and airy, she informed us that the Gaelic words were not. Once translated, we learned that the chorus contained such "upbeat" lines as "You killed me forever" and "You broke my heart." She intimated that while the song was supposed to be from the North of Ireland, it might have originated in Scotland. Scotsman Cunningham concurred. "Oh, I'm sure it is," he said with a snicker, after hearing the chorus in English. His fiddle accompanied McKeown's voice and bodhran, along with Brennan's guitar. I hadn't seen him perform in years, and I quickly remembered how well and with what ease he can fiddle.

McKeown sings with as much ease as Cunningham fiddles. There are times when her vocals become so soft that only her strong vibrato, which cuts right to the soul, stands out. As she lit in, a capella, to the second number, her strong voice struck an emotional chord as she promised the audience that "all true lovers will meet again."

After two sad songs, Cunningham announced that it was time for some jigs. While introducing them, he initially said "the worst one is" and stopped to laugh as he caught what he termed a bit of a Freudian slip. He and Brennan went on to play a couple of Scottish jigs, as McKeown tapped her foot and watched before reaching for her bodhran. The audience stamped their feet and clapped their hands; we were hooked already.

McKeown had been asking Cunningham all evening if he was happy yet. Before she introduced her next song, she informed him that it would not make him happy. Indeed, "The Morloch Shore" has such depressing subject matter -- woman finds the dead body of her betrothed on her 21st birthday, she drowns herself, and later, others discover that their deaths had been foretold -- that it might be hard to make any jokes out of it, but Cunningham found a way when he brought up H.G. Wells' Morlocks.

Cunningham managed to keep the audience in stitches most of the night. Almost anything could be the subject for one of his jokes, but he was careful not to go too far. He didn't make any cracks about the to-be-released Ripples of Hope (for Ireland) CD to which McKeown contributed a song. (He did, however, mention the television series Chicago Hope and, upon learning that the Chieftains do not appear on this particular compilation CD, he wondered what they might do on a Chicago Hope episode.) Breaking into the levity (McKeown matched Cunningham wit for wit), she informed us that the imagery for her song, "River," was inspired by Chief Seattle's writings. Her chorus began with "Bathe me in the waters of..." and continued as she named various Irish rivers, starting with the Lagan, the Boyne, the Shannon, etc., and used the flowing waters to symbolize hope and healing. Her voice was so honest and compelling on this song that it was hard not to be captivated by her earnestness nor believe in her words.

More tunes (in which there were a number of time changes, and I wondered needlessly if Brennan could keep up with Cunningham) and a final McKeown song, her arrangement of "In London So Fair," ended the first set. Now, there was a song with a happy ending. It's reminiscent of other songs (such as "The Female Drummer" or "The Handsome Cabin Boy") in which women dress as men to join the navy, either for their own adventure or to follow their male lovers. However, this version has the couple remaining together and the woman not being sent home from the ship; Cunningham's fiddle only accented the fun.

The candles were lit when I returned for the second set and Peter and Wendy. Cunningham started working on this musical seven years ago when the producer decided the show needed music. Based on J.M. Barrie's novel Peter and Wendy (written seven years after Peter Pan, it is a darker, yet according to Cunningham, a more "truthful and beautiful" piece of literature), the show includes interesting lighting effects, Thai shadow puppets, one actress who performs 28 voices, and Cunningham's music, with vocals by McKeown. Barrie had always thought of Neverland as being somewhere in the Hebrides, hence a soundtrack by a traditional Scottish artist.

The music is thought-provoking and wistful. The opening number, "Two is the Beginning of the End," has a short five-line lyric:

On these magic shores
Children play forever
Still the surf we hear
Though we shall land there
Never, never more.

McKeown's expressive and emotional alto supported Cunningham's earlier narration explaining that at age 2, children know that they will and must grow up. I found myself thinking about the whole concept that age 2 is the beginning of the end, and the darkness of the piece crept further into my comprehension with the second number, "Nana's Walkabout," in which Nana, the dog that serves as the children's nurse, remembers the night that Peter Pan returned. Even with Cunningham's jokes about how could the Darling family have a dog as a nurse and his description of the realistic-looking rag dog used in the full-scale production, I found myself wondering how the magic dies in children's lives and how we all become adults.

I was heartened when prior to "Star Lullaby," Cunningham thanked a child in the audience for the good-luck starry wand she'd made for him; he promised her to take it to Ireland with him. (They were taking the full-scale Peter and Wendy to Ireland shortly after the Denver gig.) The magic was there for that child, and with numbers such as the jig, "Flight to Neverland." Cunningham mentioned that the full show uses a movie to help demonstrate the length of the flight and that a full band, complete with harp, plays. A full band, however, wasn't needed for adults as well as children to appreciate the wit and humor of Cunningham's favorite song, "Crocodile Tango." He explained how he had to cut out about twelve verses because they just were too gory for the children. However, McKeown's kind of combination Greta Garbo/Carmen Miranda (with her rolled r's) accent kept the song rolling, gory verses struck or not. Cunningham's Eastern European-sounding fiddle completed the song as adults and children alike laughed at lines such as "I know you find me... disarming."

Another audience favorite was "The Wolves of Neverland." Cunningham explained how the wolves are a symbol of freedom. They don't dream because they have everything they want and don't need dreams. The band tacked "The Lost Boys" onto the end of "The Wolves." That made an interesting combination thematically, as the latter song is about what the lost boys lose after they were adopted by Mrs. Darling. Cunningham gave a thumbs up to the audience member in the back who let loose a wolf howl towards the end of the number. All three performers, McKeown, Cunningham and Brennan, sang on this piece.

Even the audience was needed to perform on "Light That Beauteous Flame," the song that brings Tinkerbell back to life. We learned the chorus, and so eager was he to have us sing along that we were told that "harmonies are welcome -- even those I didn't write." Cunningham insisted that while the piece is spiritual, it is not religious. He said he based its style on Shaker hymns, but I thought I sensed a Gregorian chant-like feel for a moment.

The trio's encore, an almost-jiglike rendition of "Blue Moon," continued the magical mood created by Peter and Wendy. Cunningham appeared to have great fun with his fiddle solo, while McKeown's voice almost howled/growled out the line "the moon had to turned to gold." As had he done all evening, Brennan's guitar supported McKeown's voice nicely.

The Denver stop on this tour, one of the last gigs prior to Dublin, gave the trio a welcoming and friendly audience as a warm-up for the full Peter and Wendy show. The artists, as well as the audience, seemed to feel it was successful, and as his farewell, Cunningham waved good-bye to us with his starry wand. I didn't need my handkerchief after all, but I left feeling as if I had learned a little something about magic in music.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]

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