Cherishing The Ladies On The High Seas
By Gwen Orel
What a loss to Irish music it would be if the Norwegian Pearl capsizes.
Not only Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies, but also Mary Black, Maura O'Connell, Celtic Cross, and Paul Keating, who runs Catskills Irish Arts Week - among others - are on board.
Fortunately, Joanie laughs, although she's sailed with the Italian captain who capsized his boat, this captain is Norwegian. Whew.
So barring tidal waves, we can look forward to seeing Joanie and Cherish at City Winery on February 12th.
So much in demand are Cherish around the world that although they are largely hometown girls, they don't play in Manhattan that often.
Sure you see them there-Joanie's often appearing at 11th Street Bar's session at 3am, livening it up.
When I saw Maura O'Connell at City Winery, I was alone - my friend had something come up-and Joanie waved me over.
City Winery, says Joanie, has taken the place of the Bottom Line - a comfortable, friendly place to see music (it also has, naturally, great wine, and good food).
Joanie was telling me all this after 1am - the only time I could get her - before she sets sail on the first cruise she has produced, the Folk n'Irish Cruise, called the "Big Session on the High Seas."
This cruise has been put together by Joanie, and she brought in an amazing line-up of musicians and friends.
The ship sold out, which Joanie says is too bad because there were many people who couldn't get cabins.
She has about 1/4 of the ship, or nearly 600 people-three times more than she expected.
But seriously, if you had the chance to go on a Celtic cruise in which Joanie was not only playing but also arranging the fun, wouldn't you go?
She has a big energy that makes people want to stay around her.
In East Durham, during Catskills Irish Arts Week, she would come into Furlong's Pub at 4am, as people were about to drift off. They'd change their minds.
"What they should do is lock me out," Joanie laughs (since Furlong's has closed, she has the same effect at the Blackthorne. I left at 5am one night; she was chatting away at the bar).
The band started not too far from City Winery, on Varick Street, on Spring Street.
Their most recent album, Country Crossroads, celebrates 25 years, though on January 5 they celebrated their 27th anniversary.
"It's a long way, a lot of miles and a lot of gigs, but we're still having fun. And it's always great to play a hometown show."
She, Grainne Murphy, Mary Coogan and Deirdre Connelly make their homes in New York (Kathleen Boyle does not).
Not having to get on a plane and drive for hours afterwards is also a plus.
The album, which came out in July, was recorded in Nashville, and includes some bluegrass and country players on it: Nanci Griffith, Vince Gill, Alison Brown on banjo, Dennis Crouch, bass player with T. Bone Burnette and Elton John, and Ron Ickes, the "dobro king."
Of course, there are fab Irish musicians too, including original band members Liz Carroll and Eileen Ivers, singer Deirdre Connelly, Maura O'Connell, Jimmy Higgins on bodhran.
The February concert at City Winery will mark the first time they've played tunes from it in Manhattan.
But though there's a little bluegrass flavor to it, "At the end of the day we get back on the only bike that we know, and that's traditional music," Joanie says.
"We actually took the players over to Scotland last week, and sold out 2500 seat theatre at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, with a roaring standing ovation, and it was great."
She plans to bring the show to Nashville one of these days.
Of course, in 27 years the band has changed personnel.
Joanie and guitar player Mary Coogan are original members of Cherish; Mirella Murray on accordion is in her tenth year with the band; Kathleen Boyle on piano is in her eighth year; Grainne Murphy is in her second year, and singer Deirdre Connelly has been doing a majority of the gigs.
Has the band's philosophy changed since they began?
Joanie pauses to say she didn't really have one - before citing that most successful Irish band, the Chieftains, who also played with symphonies and in performing arts centers and collaborated with all kinds of musicians.
Mick Moloney put the band together in 1985 to do a couple of shows, "never dreaming this would ever become what it did," Joanie laughs.
There were always a handful of women in traditional music, but she remembers that when Mick launched the band, he did research on the Philadelphia irish musicians society.
It had over 3200 members, and not one of them was a woman.
The the first three Americans who won all-Ireland championships were women: Kathleen Collins, Eileen Ivers and liz carroll.
Today, young girls often come backstage after shows.
"It's great to be a bit of a role model and say you can do this too. When we started people thought we were a marketing ploy, but we must be doing something right."
She got help from old timers, including tips from the Clancy brothers, so it feels good to help bring young people along.
She taught Kenny Vesey, whose father plays with Celtic Cross (who are on the cruise).
Kenny recently won the All-Ireland on whistle.
15 albums in, the band has changed over the years, but "at the end of the day if you have a full house and the crowd's in your pocket, you enjoy it, and that's what it's all about, let people forget about their problems and have a good laugh, give them a break."
These days, they also write a lot of their own music, and Joanie even sometimes sings-mostly harmony.
At City Winery, singer Don Stiffe will make a guest appearance too.
The women in the band all come from different places, but Joanie says the have the same background - their dads played music.
Kathleen Boyle grew up in Glasgow, but her dad was a musician from Donegal.
Mirella Murray is from Connemara, but her dad was a great Seán Nós dancer.
Grainne Murphy's father played the whistle and the bodhran, Mary Coogan's father played the accordion, as did Joanie's own father Joe Madden (you can read about the launch of her album A Galway Afternoon with her late father Joe, here). "We had the same jokes, the same Dad stories."
And they all grew up with the belief that music should be treated with respect.
After the Caribbean cruise and a few gigs in February and March, the band goes to China in the spring.
"We'll keep going until the phone stops ringing," she says.
Still, New York is her favorite port of call: "I'd find it very hard to live anywhere else, once you get used to Manhattan. There's always a buzz, there's always a vibe, there's always great traditional musicians living in town, there's always a great session in town. This is my home, I could never leave it."
So offer a prayer for safety on the high seas.
Gwen Orel runs the blog and podcast, New York Irish Arts