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The Galway Girl Comes to Philly

Sharon Shannon is talking on the phone from her home in Galway and she is surrounded by cats. “I have 11 of them,” she says, “and one is a kitten who’s very playful making the rest of them play.”

She also has eight dogs, all of which live in the house. “You can imagine there is a lot of cleaning,” she says.

But she’s waiting for the arrival of her animal minder who will be staying with her menagerie while Shannon, a legendary accordion player, heads off on her US tour that will bring her to the Tin Angel in Philadelphia on Wednesday, October 7. Opening for her is the John Byrne Band, which is fronted by a Dublin-born singer-songwriter who now calls Philadelphia home.

It’s hard to say what Sharon Shannon is best known for. Her 1991 eponymous album remains the best selling album of Irish traditional music ever released in Ireland. When she was only 19, she was the only girl in The Waterboys, the long departed folk rock group founded in 1983 that influenced groups like U2 and the Hothouse Flowers. She performed Steve Earle’s now well known song, “Galway Girl,” with Earle himself, on his 2000 album “Transcendental Blues,” and later with singer Mundy, the latter of which became the eighth highest selling single in Ireland and the number one downloaded in 2008. (See video below.)

Her loose, energetic style—accompanied by a broad, exuberant smile—has inspired some to call her the “Jimi Hendrix of the accordion.”

“No comment!” she laughs. “It’s a lovely comparison, but I wouldn’t compare myself to a genius.”

Of course, others would. She’s collaborated with some of the biggest names in Irish music, including Sinead O’Connor, Christy Moore, Damian Dempsey, Liam O’Maonlai, Moya Brennan, Frankie Gavin, as well as Jackson Browne, John Prine, and Belinda Carlisle.

You’ve probably noticed that not all of those performers are Irish traditional musicians. The Water Boys, for example, were an electric band before she joined them.

“That’s still what I consider myself to be, a traditional musician,” she says. “But I kinda bring other things into the music besides. I like to experiment and collaborate and try to show people how diverse Irish traditional music can be. I love Irish music and I want everybody in the whole world to love it, so I try to make it as accessible as possible to people. What I would hoping, if people liked my music, that they would check out more traditional styles, like the people who influenced me, the likes of [fiddler] Tommy Peoples and [flute player] Matt Molloy of The Chieftains and the Bothy Band.”

They’re not her only influences, and her music reflects it. Until she was in her late teens, all she knew was traditional music. She started performing at the age of 8 with the band Disirt Tola from County Clare, where she grew up. She toured the US with the band when she was 14. But when she left home in her late teens, she moved to Doolin, considered the mecca of traditional music in Ireland.

“It’s a really magical spot,” she says. “Musicians from all over the world visit there and they broadened my musical horizons, shall we say? I got to hear a lot of old-timey American music, Cajun music, Breton music, Scottish music, French-Canadian stuff. So I started to learn all these lovely tunes, new tunes I thought were very exciting. I was beginning to run out of Irish tunes I hadn’t heard before, so it was great to hear all this new fresh new music. I wasn’t really writing any of my own tunes, but I was gathering tapes, learning, trying to sponge up everything.
“If I liked the melody, I tried to learn it. And I met all kinds of other kindred spirits. We would send each other tapes of things to learn. We mighn’t meet for a month, but when we would meet up, we’d have a session and play those tunes we’d learned.”

All of those influences have infiltrated her playing, but, she says, “even when I’m playing with a big band with bass and drums and rocking it up a bit, if you took everything away from it, what I’m playing is very, very straight traditional music.”

She considers the bass and drums and rocking as an entrée for those who consider all traditional music as off-putting as Tibetan nose singing. “It’s a way for them to get to know and love it,” she says simply.

On her US tour, she’ll be accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Alan Connor, who brings with him a boogie-woogie, New Orleans, blues style. They’ll have their new CD/DVD combo of a live gig they did at a pub in Galway.

“I’m really happy with this, it’s a great film with a very intimate vibe,” she says. “It’s in a pub and we’re sitting there in the middle of the crowd—there’s no stage, but there’s sawdust on the floor, a fireplace and a million antiques hanging off the walls.”

It’s like getting two performances for the price of one.

Tickets for the event are $25; only diners at Serrano Restaurant, which is downstairs from the Tin Angel, will have reserved seating. The venue is located at 20 2nd Street in Philadelphia. Order your tickets from the Tin Angel website. Call 215-928-0770 to make reservations at Serrano.

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