Take Oisín Mac Diarmada, Seán McElwain and Tristan Rosenstock of the brilliant Irish traditional folk band Téada. Add , the highly acclaimed singer from Danú, along with the gifted harpist Gráinne Hambly and Riverdance piper Tommy Martin. Mix in champion Irish step-dancers Abbey Magill and Sienna Hickey. Wrap it all up in a big green bow, and what you have is “Irish Christmas in America.”
Now in its third year, the show swings into the Philadelphia Irish Center/Commodore Barry Club on Saturday, December 15, starting at 8:30. The event is presented by the Commodore Barry Club in association with the Philadelphia Ceili Group.
Quite the Christmas present, eh? Lots nicer than a Chia Pet. Heaps classier than that “Snowy the Singing Snowman” voice-activated Christmas tree ornament from QVC. (Will that damnable thing never shut up?)
Seriously? This is a chance to see some of the finest musicians Ireland has to offer, all in one show. And, just like Christmas, it comes but once a year.
You get the sense that producer and all-Ireland fiddle champ Oisín Mac Diarmada (pronounced O-shin Mac Der-metta) himself appreciates just how cool this is.
Speaking by scratchy cell phone from a car hurtling down a highway somewhere in Georgia—I could hear the talking GPS squawking in the background—Oisín said he was eager to begin the 15-city tour. For one thing, there’s the ensemble itself, which is kind of like the Irish traditional version of the Supremes, the Temps and the Four Tops all rolled into one. In particular, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (pronounced MWI-ren Nick OWL-eve), with a voice like honeyed whiskey and major talent on flute and whistle, adds a major new dimension.
“This will be the first time we’ve done the show with Muireann. It’s great to get the opportunity to have her in the show, she’s such a good fit,” says Oisín. He notes that Nic Amhlaoibh is well known and highly regarded, not just for her singing, but for her singing in the irish language. ”She’ll be doing quite a few Irish language songs,” he says. “And she may have a couple of good stories to tell during the show.”
Working with Hambly, too, is a great pleasure, he says. Hambly has played the show before, and she has toured throughout the United States many times. “Gráinne is amazing on the harp,” he says. I’ve known her for many, many years. I’ve done plenty of shows with her in Ireland. She’s a very natural fit for the show.”
Oisín also find travel through the United States during the Christmas holidays to be fascinating, as well, and having the opportunity to experience all the seasonal variations from one coast to the other. (The tour begins Friday night in Peoria, Arizona.) He also appreciates the opportunity to do something different. “It’s a bit of a break,” he says. “It’s different from the regular Teada concerts we do the rest of the year. We’re bringing in two dancers this year, and some photographic images as well. It’s a varied show.”
What makes “Irish Christmas in America” different from any other holiday show, obvously, is that it blends traditions from the two countries—including some traditions, like the Wren Boys, that some may find a bit strange. It’s a holdover from pagan times, in all likelihood, but the more current legend (one of several) has it that a wren betrayed St. Stephen’s hiding place. And you know what happened to poor St. Stephen. So on December 26, the feast of St. Stephen, boys would dress up in rags, blacken their faces and hunt down one of the poor birds. Then they’d tie it to a pole and go from door to door begging for money and eats. (And you thought Festivus was silly.) In modern times, no one kills birds any more. But the day is still celebrated with music, dance, food, drink … and maybe some funny outfits.
“It all probably seems a bit bizarre to onlookers, but it goes back many generations, ” says Oisín. “It’s sort of a well-known observance in Ireland. We’ll have a bit of fun on stage of trying to capture the Wren Boys tradition.”
At the heart of it all, though, will be good, solid Irish traditional music. Oisín says the band doesn’t try to force Irish traditional music and standard American Christmas music to blend into a weird hybrid that, in the end, turns out to be neither. “The approach we take in the show,” he says, “is that the music itself is all traditional. We don’t play any of the well-known Christmas songs or crossover stuff. We do stuff that has musical ties to Christmas in their titles and such.”
You can see and hear for yourself. (Please do.)
Tickets are $20 in advance, $23 at the door. Call (215) 843-8051 to order.