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Arts, Music

A Joyful Noise for Christmas

Ron Matthews

Conductor Ron Matthews

For most orchestras, it’s just about the music. For the Jubilate Deo Chorale and Orchestra, a large non-profit classical ensemble founded in 1991 by two Catholic priests in the Camden diocese, it’s also about faith. And that means a Jubilate Deo Christmas concert—like the group’s Sunday, December 2, Celtic-themed extravaganza at the Kimmel Center—celebrates Christmas as something much more than just a commercial holiday.

“We try to integrate faith into the arts and common culture,” says Ron Matthews, Jubilate Deo conductor and music director. “The spiritual aspect is part of our mission. The orchestra is about 21 years old. (Msgrs.) Louis Marucci and his brother Carl were the founders. Louis was the executive director, and he took over more of the administration and creative planning. Carl was one of the primary directors.”

After 10 years, Carl stepped down. Matthews took over the helm after reading about the job opening in a music union newspaper, and passing a rigorous interview and review process.

Jubilate Deo performs year-round, of course—but Christmas is special. Matthews explains, “In one sense, the season facilitates our mission. We can be who we are because it’s the nature of the season.”

The theme of this year’s Christmas concert, billed as “A Celtic Christmas at the Kimmel,” also ties in with the group’s inherently spiritual mission. In case you’ve somehow missed all of the Black Friday advertising, in many quarters Christmas has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. In Celtic lands, Matthews says, Christmas historically is a more subdued affair, with a far greater emphasis on the Nativity.

This is not the first time Jubilate Deo has integrated Celtic culture into a performance.

““We actually had done a Celtic theme, I think it was two years ago,” Matthews says. “We had some young local Celtic dancers, and we had a penny whistle and Celtic harp. This is a theme we have used periodically, but this performance is the first fully intentional and integrated one.”

Celtic music has been much more popular over the last decade or so, probably beginning with Riverdance, but you also have to give credit to all of the Irish and Scottish bands and performers who took the ball from Riverdance and ran with it. Matthews understands the appeal.

“There’s a grounded energy and authenticity to Celtic music,” says Matthews, who also serves as chair of the Fine and Performing Arts Division and Music Department at Eastern University. “Because of the interest in world music over the last four or five years, with some prominent groups playing Celtic music, there are some great arrangements out there that feature high-energy, Celtic themes. It’s a good bridge to the classical.”

The Kimmel concert features many holiday pieces that come from—or stem from—the Celtic tradition, such as The Wexford Carol, I Wonder As I Wander, A Celtic Silent Night and Celtic Christmas Celebration. The performance also includes many non-Celtic holiday classics, both sacred and secular, such as The Little Drummer Boy, O Come Let Us Adore Him, and It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. There will also be three new pieces, including one by Matthews. If you like Irish-style dance, there will be plenty of that. And if you want to join in on some of the best-known Christmas carols, you’ll have a chance to do that as well.

The Jubilate Chorale will be joined by the Eastern University Ensembles and Church of the Saviour Festival Choir, bringing the number of singers in the overall choir up to 200.

The concert begins at 3 p.m. on Sunday, December 2. You can learn more and get tickets by visiting the Jubilate Deo website.


Arts, News, People

Setting Art to Music


Judy Brennan, John Brennan, and L.E. McCullough, playing among the art.

About a month ago, fiddler Bette Conway, who is also a geologist, metalsmith, and jewelry maker, decided to add a fifth simultaneous job to her resume: gallery owner.

She’s co-owner of Water Elemental Crafts and Fine Art in the Dresher Arcade, 319 W. Main Street in Lansdale.

And the show she’s mounted for her first attempt is also an exercise in multi-tasking. “Music & Art: Artists what are Musicians,” which runs through August 26, features works by fiddlers, guitarists, balladeers, harpists and pianists who, when they’re not making beautiful music are making beautiful things.

Like Philadelphia’s John Brennan, fiddler, guitarist and teacher, who is also a metalsmith and jewelry designer who creates timelessly classic necklaces and earrings using silver, chrome, and gemstones. And harpist Ellen Tepper, whose clay dragons—made and fired using kitchen utensils and a regular oven—prowl the gallery shelves and guard her glass Celtic knot windows. And Pat Egan, originally from Tipperary, a professional guitarist and singer late of the critically acclaimed group, Chulrua, whose photographs capture Ireland, the musician’s life, and the natural world around him.

“This was the first time I was putting a show together and this seemed so natural,” said Conway, at the gallery opening last week on Lansdale’s First Friday. And not only were the artists’ work under the lights, so were they.

Along with featuring their art, Conway wanted to feature their music. So there were Brennan with his sister, Judy, flutist E.L. McCullough of Woodbridge, NJ, pianist and artist Donna Long of Baltimore, MD, and bodhran player George Fairchild from the Lehigh Valley, playing tunes as visitors sipped wine and perused the art.

There will be three more live concerts at the gallery. On July 28 you can see the old time music band, “Hobo Pie,” featuring Ray Frick, a ceramic artist, as well as Barbara Johnson, Carl Baron, and others. On Friday, August 3, there’s an open Irish music session featuring harpist Tepper and Iris Nevins, a jewelry maker whose work, on display at the gallery, recalls ancient designs.

On August 4, Wildwood, NJ radio personality Rick Rock will host a singer/songwriter night with local singers Eugenia Brennan, Teri Rambo, and others.

Other musician-artists represented in the gallery are:

Linda Hickman, who is a silversmith and jewelry maker who plays flute and tin whistle in the New York area and has performed with Celtic Thunder as well as at the White House.

Paul Tooley, a watercolor artist, who is an old-time fiddler.

Lillie Hardy Morris, a painter who also does mixed media collage, is also an Irish fiddler.

We’re going to be getting up close and personal with some of these and other Irish artisans in the Philadelphia area in the coming months. Stay tuned.

Check out our photos from the show opening.


Definitely Not the Whole Truth

A scene from "The Walworth Farce."

A scene from "The Walworth Farce."

Tom Reing, artistic director of the Inis Nua Theatre Company, recalls the moment when the curtain came down on one of the earliest performances of Enda Walsh’s dark comedy, “The Walworth Farce.” He looked at his four actors and thought to himself, “it looked like they had just run a marathon.”

“The Walworth Farce” is a study in complexity. It is a play within a play in which an Irish father and his two sons, who left Cork for a dismal life in a London council flat, daily re-enact the stories behind that flight … stories that are not all true. This bizarre performance is interrupted by the arrival of a supermarket employee toting a bag of groceries one of the sons left behind at checkout.

To hear Reing tell it, it’s easy to understand why this play exacts such a toll on the actors. Bill Van Horn plays Dinny, the father; the sons are played by Harry Smith as Blake and Jake Blouch as Sean. Hayley is played by Leslie Nevon Holden.

“‘Farce’ is very quick. If it’s slow, the comedy doesn’t work. And you have these eruptions in the play within the play. There’s very high emotion, and very high-tension themes. The actors are running around and moving from room to room to do different scenes. One of the actors (Harry Smith) has to play all three women, and he has conversations with himself.”

Even the set is complex, he says.

“It takes a lot of work to make their flat look decrepit. These guys don’t clean… it’s three men. The set has a working sink and a working refrigerator. It has a tape recorder that they use on stage. There is a wireless signal in it, and it’s connected to the computer that is connected to our light board and sound.”

There are plenty of props, too, courtesy of Reing and a March trip to Dublin. While there, he packed a bag with Tesco (a supermarket chain) bags, spreadable cheddar, Mr. Sheen (a floor and furniture polish), and Pink Wafer biscuits.

Reing regards “Walworth” as a natural for Inis Nua, which presents contemporary works from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. The company previously presented Walsh’s harrowing “Bedbound.”

“Enda Walsh is really hot right now,” says Reing. This play seemed like another great example of his work. It happened serendipitously. He (Walsh) was just nominated for a Tony for his stage adaptation of ‘Once.’”

Reing finds the theme of “Walworth” fascinating. We all tell ourselves stories about our lives, but those stories don’t necessarily reflect the whole picture. “You embellish,” he says. “You tell the story so it’s favorable to yourself.”

So maybe it isn’t the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The complete, unvarnished truth about ourselves might just be too hard to live with. One line from the play sums it up best for Reing:

“‘It’s my truth, and that’s all that matters; it’s what you do to keep going on.”

The play runs through May 27 at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom St., in Philadelphia.

Tickets here:


Philadelphia, Here They Come

Leaving Ireland, with regrets.

Leaving Ireland, with regrets.

Philadelphia is already blessed with one theatre company, Inis Nua, dedicated to presenting Irish and Celtic works. Perhaps as proof that you can never have too much of a good thing, we now have another: Irish Heritage Theatre, which presents its first play, Brian Friel’s well-traveled (but well-loved) “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” May 5-May 20 in Walnut Street Theatre’s cozy Studio 5.

Of course, some people may ask: Do we really need two companies? The answer, from actress and Irish Heritage Theatre spokesperson Kirsten Quinn, is an unequivocal “yes.” The reason? Each company takes a different approach to Irish theatre.

“Inis Nua does contemporary pieces, but we try to stick to the classics,” Quinn explains. “We’re interested in presenting classical Irish plays. This play we’re doing now is as recent as we will get. It was written it the 1960s. We probably won’t go further forward.”

Quinn also points out that Tom Reing, artistic director of Inis Nua Theatre, is an honorary IHT board member.

The Irish Heritage Theatre has been a long time coming. Founding member and artistic director John Gallagher came up with the idea for the company about a year and a half ago, Quinn says. Other Philly theatre people quickly came on board.

“John had worked for the Irish Repertory Company here in Philadelphia. (The Rep ceased operations in 2006.) John really felt like he wanted to continue that (the Rep’s work), but to bring the focus on looking at Irish heritage, and what that means. We want to introduce younger audience members to these plays, and reintroduce older audience members to plays they haven’t seen them for a while. Since there is no other company in the vicinity doing this, we really felt that there was a gap to be filled.”

After Gallagher came up with the idea, planning began, and non-profit status was secured. One of the biggest challenges, Quinn says, was finding a theatre space IHT could afford. Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 5 proved to be ideal.

“There’re very few spaces in Philadelphia for theatre, believe it or not. The Walnut is subsidized, so they don’t have to worry as much about the overhead, and they can rent the space out to companies for less than other buildings in the city, which is great. They’re really supporting small local theater doing that.”

Evidently not content merely to launch a new company, IHT decided to debut with “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” a particularly ambitious work, featuring 14 actors.

Friel’s landmark tragicomedy was first performed in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre in 1964, and it’s been a popular offering ever since. “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” follows the last moments of protagonist Gareth (Gar) O’Donnell in Ireland—specifically the fictional village of Ballybeg in Donegal—before he departs for America. Much of the action focuses on the relationship between Gar and his father, who evidently have spent a lifetime together without connecting emotionally—even though it’s clear they love each other. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

Quinn plays the part of Gar’s one-time girlfriend Kate Doogan.

“The play is a lot of fun,” Quinn says. “The are comic moments to it, but also sad ones. It has very rich characters. There are so many characters, and yet they’re still very well constructed.”

“Philadelphia, Here I Come!” is the first of what the company hopes will be two plays produced this year. Two seems like a nice round number for future years, as well, says Quinn. From this point forward, expect to see productions drawing on the works of Yeats, Casey, Synge, and more of the classical Irish or Irish-American dramatists.

For now, though, Quinn relishes the launch of a grand new theatre company and the debut of its first play.

“For me, it’s huge. We’ve been in the works for such a long time, so it’s exciting to get ready to move into the space, and watch all these actors work, and see this thing coming to life. We’ve certainly undergone a lot of changes, and we’ve hit road blocks, but we just kept moving. It is incredibly gratifying, it really is.”


Drawing Inspiration

Susan Kelly Von Medicus

Susan Kelly Von Medicus, with an icon of St. Patrick she created for Ireland's Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

The morning is overcast, so available light is hard to come by. The only light in Susan Kelly Von Medicus’s studio comes from a few small table lamps that surround her studio workspace.

Well, maybe not the only light.

Compelling, Byzantine-style paintings of Jesus and the saints are everywhere you look, hanging on walls and lying flat on top of a couple of tables. Many are finished; others are works in progress. Finished or not, they are remarkable for the evident level of detail that goes into their making. Design elements such as saints’ flowing robes, bishops’ mitres, flowers and rolling waves, shine with deeply pigmented color. Precisely circular halos gleam with 22 karate gilding. Each image seems to cast its own heavenly light.

And that’s precisely the point, says Von Medicus, who has created hundreds of these sacred works. The painting of icons draws its inspiration from the stories of Jesus and the events of his time on earth, and from the lives of the saints. Icons are no mere paintings; the act of creation is a form of religious meditation and devotion dating back to the earliest days of the church.

“It’s just an entirely different practice from the Western tradition,” she says. “There are decorative aspects, but it (the painting of icons) is heavily rooted in church canon. Icons are meant to provide a window or a gateway allowing access to a connection point with the divine realm.”

This creative act of faith goes back a long time. Icons are copied from patterns or inspired by other, older graphic depictions. Originality isn’t the point. Neither is ego; in fact, icons are are left unsigned. What counts is a faithful replication of what has come before, following established conventions, says Von Medicus. “It’s like the medieval monks copying the gospels, with no artistic intent—like being a really slow Xerox machine.”

Everything about an icon has meaning. Icons are created on one side of a plain wooden plank. A base of clay is laid upon the wood, and paints overlay the clay base. The paints are mixed from all-natural materials such as marble dust, plant materials, and metals like lead and mercury. And there’s the gold, of course, a final touch overlaying the clay that gives the paintings their distinctive appearance, says Von Medicus. “Gold represents heavenly light. Gold comes from the explosion of supernovas,” Von Medicus points out. “It is indeed light from heaven.”

This symbolic ascension from the earthly to the divine is the hallmark of the tradition. Says Von medicus, “It’s a symbol of the unity of earth and light in the form of the divine Christ.”

For Von Medicus, one of six children of former Philadelphia councilman and Olympic medal winner Jack Kelly, the painstaking creation of icons is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of her lifelong love of art. Parenthood interrupted her artistic pursuits for a time, but circumstances changed when the kids were older. “I heard of an opportunity to study with Vladislav Andrejev (in 1991), founder of the Prosopon School of Iconology. He was in Philadelphia, doing a workshop” she says. “It seemed to combine my interest in art and faith in one endeavor.”

Lately, iconography has re-opened ties between her art and her family’s Irish roots—County Mayo, in particular.

In April 2011, she accompanied her cousin Prince Albert of Monaco on an official visit to Ireland, which included time in Mayo. While there, she struck up a relationship with Mary Gibbons of Newgrange Tours. Gibbons was extremely pleased that a Mayo man, Enda Kenny, had recently became Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister). Gibbons introduced Von Medicus to Kenny, and she commissioned a an icon to honor him.

What resulted is a lovingly crafted portrayal of St. Patrick approaching Croagh Patrick, Mayo’s legendary sacred mountain. Like any good iconographer, Von Medicus looked for prototypes from which to draw inspiration; she found many, and elements of those works have found their way into her rendering. Religious symbols are incorporated into the painting. For example, waves in the background represent Patrick’s arrival from foreign shores. The mountain, she says, signifies Patrick’s spiritual ascension. “I am trying to depict an active Patrick, striding across the land.”

One other significant Irish connection: From January to April 2013, Von Medicus will serve as artist in residency at the Burren School of Art on Ireland’s rugged West coast.

Even though she now teaches iconography herself and her work is displayed internationally and treasured by collectors, she still takes instruction from Andrejev. And she continues to find inspiration in her work. “It’s a wonderful way of learning complex theological stuff when you work it out on an icon.”

If you want to learn more about iconography—learn by doing, that is—Von Medicus is hosting workshops at St. Thomas Church, Whitemarsh. Workshop dates are Sundays, February 12, 19, 26 and March 4, 11, 18, 2012. To learn more, call the church at 215-233-3970.

Visit Von Medicus’s website at

Arts, Music

CD Review: “Another Side of Town”

Seamus Kelleher

When Seamus Kelleher left what’s arguably the best gig on Philly’s thriving Celtic rock scene—lead guitar for the SRO band, Blackthorn—it was for a rite of passage only those of a certain age can understand.

In the 1990s, he and wife both worked at the World Financial Center. When  the towers fell on 9/11, six people from their town, Cranford, NJ, never came home. Then, a little more than four years ago, Kelleher tumbled down a steep staircase, fracturing his skull and suffering a traumatic brain injury.

Apologies to Emily Dickinson, but when death stops for you, even if it’s only as a reminder of your mortality and not, mercifully, the last ride, you pay attention to everything you’ve left undone. Kelleher had some musical wings he needed to stretch and working fulltime, being the father of four, and gigging with Blackthorn didn’t allow much time for writing and singing the songs he knew were in him.

So he took off on his own. His first solo CD, “Four Cups of Coffee,” was not just a musical autobiography, it was a revelation of the eclectic roots of a musician who is equally at home with Irish music—he’s from Salthill, Galway—as he is with folk, rock, black blues, Irish blues (think Rory Gallagher) and the finger-picking guitar style of Chet Atkins.

And while “Four Cups of Coffee” was smokin’, it nearly pales by comparison to Kelleher’s latest offering, “Another Side of Town,” which was recorded at Cambridge Sound Studio in Newtown, PA.

People who know me know that I almost never write music reviews because, frankly, great music tends to leave me virtually speechless or, at least, inarticulate. I turn like rote to just a few words, “wow” being the most common. In fact, if I were to review music for a living, I’d have to use the “wow” the way movie critics use stars and restaurant reviewers use spoons or, like the Inquirer’s Craig LeBan, bells, but without the insightful commentary.

From the first track of “Another Side of Town” to the last, I was wowing all over the place. The first wow was for Kelleher’s voice. Like his guitar playing, honed by years of studying with the masters like finger-picking all-star Pete Huttlinger, Kelleher has polished and perfected his voice until it’s as smooth as a single malt. He sounds a little like Willie Nelson—if Willie had stopped smoking, drinking, and taken a few singing lessons early on. The soul and heart are there, but the roughness is gone. It makes songs like “Reno Winter’s Sky,” about an encounter with a soldier at the baggage claim in Reno, all the more poignant.

“Did he leave behind a sweetheart? Did he leave behind a friend? Did his mother stay awake at night? Did his daddy ever cry?” Kelleher sings in this heart-touching story song.

If you’re a back button hitter like me, you’re probably going to have a hard time getting past the first, eponymous track, “Another Side of Town,” about Kelleher’s brush with death (and why he’s not going there again any time soon). Beautiful melody, great lyrics, that new, improved voice—to me, it’s the single that ought to be getting play on mainstream radio.

He even does a remake of his “Four Cups of Coffee,” from his first solo release, a rocking improvement spiced with harmonies provided by singer Charlene Holloway, a native Philadelphian who has recorded with Patti Labelle, Anita Baker, Teddy Prendergass, Lou Rawls, and Luther Vandross. That you’re not seeing any Irish singers in there is a testament to the risks Kelleher is willing to take to make the music better and better.

Irish country dancers are going to love Kelleher’s take on “Galway Bay,” while Eric Burdon is going to be wondering why he didn’t record “The House of the Rising Sun” in the soulful way Kelleher does it.

Where Kelleher shines—and always has—are the instrumentals. “Guitar Dreams” and “Huttlinger’s Rag” will be the first places where my CD is eventually going to start skipping. The things are plastic. There’s just so many times you can hit that back button.

“Another Side of Town” is available at iTunes and CDBaby.

Arts, Music

Craicdown 2011

Martyn Wallace, your emcee.

Martyn Wallace, your emcee.

The upstairs stage at World Cafe Live regularly shines the spotlight on talented musical artists. The actors, singers and musicians who headlined the 2011 Craicdown benefit for the Inis Nua Theatre Company on Tuesday night had to have been among the most creative.

Inis Nua presents plays from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. The performers who took the stage Tuesday night were in one way, shape or form associated with the theatre company.

Some of the musicians, like actors Jake Blouch and Damon Bonetti, seized the opportunity to claim rock star status, replete with shredding guitar solos. Others, like New Zealander Rosie Langabeer, took a much more theatrical approach, at times verging on cabaret. (The Proclaimers’ “I Would Walk 500 Miles” on accordion—whoda thunk it?)

Presiding over the night’s festivies was actor Mike Dees in the guise of character Martyn Wallace from “Dublin by Lamplight.”

It was all good. Sorry to say we couldn’t stay for the whole show, but we’ve captured many winning moments.

Arts, Music, People

No Accident That She’s Supporting Inis Nua

Reagan Richards. Photo by Tonette Madsen

At Inis Nua Theatre Company’s fundraiser at World Café Live last year, singer Reagan Richards brought down the house with her finale—an a cappella version, in torch song style, of “Too Ra Loo Ra Loora”—after inviting her listeners to join in “if you know it, and if you don’t know it, I really think it’s considered a mortal sin.”

They knew it, which is how it ought to be when you’re out supporting the region’s only theater company producing contemporary plays from Ireland and the UK.

Richards will be making a return guest appearance at Inis Nua’s “Craicdown” on December 6, an evening of music mainly provided by actors, including some of Inis Nua’s regulars such as Mike Dees, who will be hosting the show in his character of Mr. Martyn Wallace from the company’s hit of last season, “Dublin by Lamplight.” (“Mr. Wallace” is an actor from the seedy “Irish National Theatre of Ireland” in the play, which marries Commedia dell’Arte and vaudeville. The play had a month-long run in New York as part of the city’s Irish Theatre Festival.)

Reagan Richards is the lone professional singer. She’s performed with the Les Paul Band, Lisa Loeb, and many other name acts. The Cranford, NJ, native has a powerful, emotional voice that would make her a tough act for even another singer to follow. But she’s the show’s closer—and worth waiting for.

One of her songs, “There Are No Accidents,” reflects her own “no coincidences” philosophy, which is how this non-actor got her annual “Craicdown” gig.

“I met Jared [Michael Delaney, Inis Nua’s associate artistic director] at a Duran Duran concert in 2007,” she explained in a phone interview this week from her home in New York, where she’s working on a new album. “He happened to be sitting next to me and we started talking. The thing is, we weren’t even supposed to be in those seats. The theater had some problems and the show was moved to Roseland. So he tells me he’s an actor and I say I’m a singer, and eventually we become the best of friends. So when he asked me to do the first year of Craicdown I got on board and I’m 1,000 percent on board.”

Last year’s Craicdown yielded more than just enthusiastic audience participation, which deepened Richards’ belief that everything happens for a reason. “Last year I walked in as the first or second act was on and I heard this girl and I thought, ‘I want to know her.’ PS, she’s now a backup singer in my band.”

That’s Jess Conda, who has served as actor, stage manager, house manager and casting associate for BRAT Productions, another Philadelphia-based theatre company founded in 1996 by Madi Distefano. Dublin native Fergus Carey, owner of Fergie’s Pub and several other local watering holes, is chairman of its board of directors. She’ll also be performing on December 6, along with fellow actors Stephen Lyons, Damon Bonetti, Jake Blouch, Jered McLenigan, Sarah Gilko, and Harry Smith.

Richards has been around the music business for many years. It’s part of her genetic makeup. “My mom was a big band singer and what gave birth to my involvement in music was hearing her and the music she listened to, like Bing Crosby and Judy Garland. Even when I was young I knew all the old standards. When my older sister started listening to the Beatles, I started singing them too. There’s nothing like hearing a 7 or 8 year old singing about ‘Father Mackenzie.’”

She warbled a few of the grim lyrics from “Eleanor Rigby”–“Father Mackenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear, no one comes near. . .”—then laughed. “Not the kind of thing you expect to hear coming from a child.”

Her own style defies definition because it’s evocative of all of her influences from her Big Band mother to Patsy Cline. “I’ve done alternative country,” says Richards, who recently moved back to the northeast from Nashville. “I do new wavey British pop. The truth is, an A-chord is an A-chord, no matter how you play it. Music is what takes me wherever I go and I feel lucky that I get to do it every day.”

Catch Reagan Richards and the actors-turned-singers at Inis Nua’s Craicdown event at 7:30 PM on Tuesday, December 6, at World Café Live, 3025 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Tickets are available online or by calling 215-454-9776 for $20, or pay $25 at the door.

Check out Reagan’s video of her song, “OK,”  with Billy Burnette, formerly of “Fleetwood Mac.”