Sharon Shannon and
the Woodchoppers
at the Cameron Church,
Denver, Colorado
(9 October 1999)

You know it's going to be a good show when the promoter announces that the cookies during the break will be free. It's also clear that you're in for a fun-filled evening when a 7-year-old child stands up from his front-row seat, starts stepdancing, and is applauded by the musicians onstage.

Both of those details were featured early on at Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon's Denver stop, the last appearance on her fall 1999 North American tour. Accompanied by her band, the Woodchoppers -- consisting of her sister Mary on banjo, mandolin and fiddle, sisters Liz and Yvonne Kane on fiddles, Jimmy Murray on acoustic guitar, and Tony Molloy on electric bass -- the band served as not only back up to Sharon's accordions but also were featured on their own individual solos. Sharon also occasionally added fiddle and tin whistle to her own repertoire.

Sharon opened the evening playing one of her two Castignari button accordions, however, when she and her band launched into some reels. The audience immediately started to clap in time; Sharon's grin seemed to indicate that she was pleased to have hooked us so quickly. Her accordion and Murray's guitar led off their second song, "The Magic Foot," which was composed by American Russ Barenbaugh. Murray held guitar almost upright, as if he were hugging it to his chest like a baby. He truly set the piece's rhythm against Sharon's lead and the fiddling sisters' harmonies.

The introduction for her third number turned the mood somber as she dedicated the next set of tunes to the late Micha Russell, who was killed a couple of years ago in a car accident in County Clare. Russell, she explained, kept thousands of old Irish tunes alive for years. Murray's solo guitar led off the set, this time in a very gentle, peaceful melody. I know it sounds incredibly corny, but his playing really reminded me of water flowing easily in a mountain stream. Sharon's accordion eventually took over and changed the pace to set the audience's feet stamping to Murray's wild guitar crescendos.

The band covered a number of tunes learned from and/or written by various artists, including Russell, Johnny and Phil Cunningham, Stephen Cooney and Carlos Nu–ez. The Cunningham contribution, "Living in Brittany," was enjoyably rhythmic in its Breton-flavored pace. When they reached Cooney's "Every Little Thing," I found myself wondering if an accordion could take on a blues twinge. Yes, indeed, it could. The Galician feel of the Nu–ez song added yet another culture to the mix. (Sharon has been known to blend cultures as diverse as Celtic and West Indian in her sound.)

Sharon herself changed the mood as she switched instruments, moving to the tin whistle for the reel, "Rathlin Island," and fiddle on several other tunes. While she clearly led the band, all of the musicians earned their own spotlights. Early in the evening, Mary Shannon took center stage and played some reels on her banjo, with, as Sharon said, "a bit of help from the boys" on guitar and bass. The Kane sisters, again with a "little help from the two boys," led the band in fiddle tunes, as Shannon rocked in time on her accordion. Unfortunately, Molloy's bass sometimes seemed lost when mixed with the entire band, but Murray's guitar, however, always stood out.

One of the evening's highlights was when Daniel, a 7-year-old, spontaneously jumped up from his front-row seat to stepdance. Murray was in the middle of a guitar solo, and the rest of the band was watching him attentively until Daniel caught their eyes. Murray continued playing while Daniel danced, and the remaining band members' eyes were riveted on the young man by the front row. Sharon promised to have him onstage with them, and indeed, she did. They cleared room on the stage during the encore so that both Daniel and his slightly older sister could join them and dance. All four women stood behind the children and played fiddle on the tunes, collectively called "The Bag of Cats," with Molloy and Murray once again providing backing rhythm.

Whether playing reels, jigs, Kerry polkas, or even hornpipes more-or-less converted to reels, Sharon kept a smile on her face the entire time. She clearly was enjoying herself and, as an audience member, it was just the more pleasurable to see the entire band enthusiastically embrace two children into its fold. What more could I want besides free cookies, good music and musicians who truly seemed happy to share their music and skills with an grateful audience? OK, maybe a dance area in the venue would have been nice, but other than that, Sharon Shannon and the Woodchoppers wrapped up their North American tour with a show clearly appreciated by fans of all ages.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]

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