Grey Larsen and Kevin Crehan, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington, Indiana, USA, (May 18, 2003)
An Early Music Festival isn't the sort of place where you'd expect to hear Irish music, but there it was. Was it because of long-held connections between Early Music and various folk traditions? Was it simply that the organizers decided that good music is good music? Either way, this debut of the duo of Grey Larsen and Kevin Crehan did not disappoint. Grey Larsen is a flute player and multi-instrumentalist of some renown. In the past, he has shown good taste in musical partners, and continues that trend in his work with fiddler Kevin Crehan. Crehan is the grandson of legendary County Clare fiddler Junior Crehan, and ably carries on the musical traditions of West Clare.
The setting was simple -- a bare stage except for two chairs, with a piano bench in between providing a place to set small instruments. Microphones were present for the performers to speak into, but these were pushed aside during the playing, demonstrating the hall's fine acoustics. They began with a set of reels on flute and fiddle. The tunes were fleet, yet subdued, until an unexpected drone kicked in. Larsen had set a harmonium between his feet, with the bellows resting against the side of his leg. By moving his knee from side to side, he provided air to the reeds, and small weights held down the desired keys. This harmonium drone would turn up frequently throughout the evening.
Larsen stood to play "The Blackbird", a slow air performed on solo flute. This segued into "The Gold Ring", a six-part jig, where the fiddle joined in. The tune was given added drive in certain passages where the notes pumped out of the flute, sounding like the regulators of a set of uilleann pipes. A song was next, "Bhrid Og Ni Mhaille", a tale of unrequited love, sung by Crehan in Irish. Crehan happens to be a very good singer, with a clear tenor voice (he should consider singing more). He also played some nice whistle in interludes between the verses, and changing whistles at the end of the song, played "Cuckoo's Nest" as a whistle duet with Larsen. A set of polkas were next, on concertina and fiddle, followed by "The Drunken Gauger", a tune from Junior Crehan's repertoire. The first half of the program ended with a set of reels composed by the late Ed Reavey. These tunes were so lively that I found myself gripping my pen like a bodhran tipper, and tapping rhythms on my knee.
The second set provided a rare treat in the form of traditional West Clare low-pitched playing. In West Clare, there is a practice of tuning instruments low for the more mellow sound. Crehan returned to the stage carrying two fiddles: one at (modern) standard pitch, and another tuned down two whole steps. During the break, Larsen had changed the reeds in his concertina, allowing him to play along with the low-tuned fiddle. There were hitches, though; throughout the set, Crehan kept picking up the wrong fiddle.
The set began with Crehan singing another song, "Anach Cuan", about a boating accident and mass drowning, after translating the rather gruesome lyrics. A set of schottisches learned from melodeon maestro Michael Kennedy was played on concertina and low-tuned fiddle, followed by some slip jigs (and an explanation of how to count in 9/8 time) on fiddle and flute. An Early Music connection was made via a tune by the Baroque-influenced O'Carolan. Who says you can't play Baroque music on a concertina?
The set concluded with more reels composed by Junior Crehan. These were played on the standard pitched fiddle, so Larsen exited the stage to change back his concertina reeds. Crehan told stories of his grandfather, and otherwise stalled for time; "Grey said he could do this in five minutes. I can't talk for five minutes!" Larsen returned with a re-reeded concertina to close the set.
The pair left the stage, but returned quickly for a brief encore. "It's Sunday night; some of you have to work tomorrow," Larsen pointed out, "so we won't keep you long." Indeed not, but a lot of foot tapping was packed into those few minutes. The performers stood, and bowed, and the house lights came up.
This was the duo's first public performance, and it was mesmerizing. The low-pitched
pieces, in particular, were riveting; I think I could have happily listened
to an entire evening just of them.
GMR's review of a recent CD of Grey Larsen can be found here. You can find more information about Grey Larsen at his Web site and about Kevin Crehan at his Web site.