Frankie Gavin and De Dannan was an inspired booking by the organisers of Canterbury Arts Festival. The band play all over the world these days – from Spain and Scandinavia to China and the USA as well as in their native Ireland, but sadly English audiences rarely get the opportunity to experience their unique brand of Irish music.
The sparklingly modern Marlowe Theatre, with it’s state of the art sound system, was a fitting venue for the band who opened their first half with the thrilling Wild Irishmen, a blistering set of jigs followed by a reel. Just when you thought the band was playing flat out, they changed gear again and astonished the unsuspecting audience. They followed their opening instrumental onslaught with a jazzy, but no less stirring treatment of the classic hornpipe Golden Eagle. De Dannan’s mostly traditional tunes were led by veteran fiddle player Frankie Gavin, officially the world’s fastest fiddle player, and accordion virtuoso Barry Brady, who plays an eighty-year old Paolo Soprani instrument so as to re-create the sound of Irish-American musicians of the 1920s and 30s – a constant hallmark of the band’s sound over the years. Gavin and Brady sometimes seemed to be in deadly competition but the fact is they complemented each other’s playing perfectly. Rock solid rhythm was provided by the understated but expert playing of guitarist Colm O’Caoimh and the insistent pounding and bowing of double-bassist Dan Bodwell.
Throughout the evening, sets of tunes alternated with songs from the band’s current singer, Bernadine Casserly, who treated the audience to songs which were a perfect contrast, in fact almost an antidote, to the rip-roaring instrumentals which preceded and followed her presence on stage. She lighted up the stage as she teased Gavin and the boys in the band before treating the audience to an eclectic choice of songs. On some of these, Gavin put down his fiddle and contributed gentle flute and whistle sounds. The songs ranged from Edith Piaf’s romantic If You Love Me, to the sad Irish favourite, Gentle Mother, to Paul McCartney’s Calico Skies – a song interwoven with snatches of the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. This was intended to be the band’s last number, but perhaps predictably, the Canterbury audience were not satisfied. They wanted more, so they clapped and whistled until the band reappeared to give us what turned out to be two of the highlights of the evening: their audacious version of Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (in Galway!), in which the interplay between Gavin’s fiddle and Brady’s accordion was a wonder to hear. The evening ended with Bernadine’s cheeky rendition of My Irish Molly Oh, a De Dannan signature song so familiar to some of their fans that they joined in the chorus.
Anyone, like me, who has followed De Dannan over the years will have seen some great line-ups; the current young line-up under the inspiring leadership of Frankie Gavin is certainly among the best. This was a great evening which won’t be forgotten by the Marlowe Theatre audience. Let’s hope that English audiences do not have to wait too long for more opportunities to see this top Irish band at the height of their powers.
Note: Support was from Bof!, a quartet playing traditional French dance music.