The ever smiling Sharon Shannon was acting as musician, host and even compare tonight. She started the evening’s proceedings by introducing her support act – the consummate and energetic multi-instrumental musicians The Cartoon Thieves. Their blend of American hillbilly rock and blues, which features heavily on Shannon’s new album, set the tone for the evening. The mature, respectful, and seated audience were treated to two hours of raucous traditional music mixed with pop and rock from both sides of the pond.
Sharon and her accordion always seem to be content to take the back seat for an evening of virtuosos to shine. This went as far as encouraging her guitarist Jack Maher to perform his own Gary Moore style blues track -Don’t Give Up On Me’. Shannon herself has moved on musically since her early trad days: nowadays her set features less accordion tunes and more pop. This is perhaps shown best in her progress from -Blackbird’ to -Galway Girl’. This move away from traditional pub-style playing was obvious even from her own entrance, that had all the razzmatazz of Whitney Houston rather than a folk musician – smoke machines and a band build up.
The eight piece Big Band, including a saxophone, added an extra depth and greater dynamic to the evening’s solid tune selection. However, the band were strangely laid out (in order to fill the large Concert Hall stage?), with Sharon at the centre, surrounded by a distant semi circle, whilst she was joined occasionally in the middle by her guests. She started the evening with the more traditional songs from the current album. -Howya Horse’ and -Hillybilly Lily and Buffalo Benji’ were exciting instrumentals and seemed to please the traditionalists. The older Waltz -Aggie’ followed by -Sally May Melia’ proved popular and the audience seemed to be settling in for the night.
With welcoming her first guest, Carol Keogh, the sound moved to across the Atlantic. With her Reba Macintyre style and country slant Keogh complimented the evening’s sound, complete with an updated version of Nick Drake’s -Northern Sky’ which had more of a barroom jazz sound than the original. This was followed by the dynamic Jerry Fish, a more coherent Tom Waits, adding depth and warmth with his vocal tracks. Crucially he also knew how to work an elderly crowd getting them up on their feet and hand in hand to sing along with -True Friends’.
The very American roots sound from the new album (helped in no small part by The Cartoon Thieves contributions) transcended the whole evening from the support act to Sharon’s saloon style dress. Crucially it was audible in the sound on stage – right down to the duelling banjo (and Spanish Guitar) track part way through the set. But the -let’s all have a barn dance hoe down’ attitude actually made the strange Concert Hall setting work well for this and ensured that the evening never lost the feeling of a jocular living room session. This was confirmed at the end of the main set with the lively sing-along -Blackbird’ (albeit Na na na na na’s), proving jigs, reels and waltz’s were still part of Shannon’s musical base but with a difference, and interspersed with vocal tracks which broke up the set. All this built to an exciting crescendo in the form of two great tracks: the upbeat future single -Mama Lou’ and, amazingly, the sound technician appearing from nowhere for a cameo and note perfect version of -Galway Girl’ to close the show. Perhaps not surprisingly for the whole evening the smile never left Sharon’s face, nor should it have.