By Dan Accardi
I’d never been to the tiny cottage before, at the Irish Cultural Centre of New England in Canton. It lives up to its name: seating for 30 people, if they’re all good friends with each other; a fine timbered roof and plastered walls; farm implements hanging next to a polished platter with Leonardo’s Last Supper on the face. It’s a charming, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, venue for Irish music, and it’s where Finvarra’s Wren delivered a masterful Saturday night concert earlier this month.
If you’ve never heard of the tiny cottage before, it’s likely because Canton remains something of an outlier as regards the Boston-area Irish music scene, and because the Tiny Cottage Music Series is only just getting off the ground – although it’s taken to the air quite robustly, considering that the previous performance was the Sliabh Luachra powerhouse of Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly. If you’ve never heard of Finvarra’s Wren, on the other hand, it’s likely because they’re Michigan-based, and have their hands full touring, teaching, and generally nurturing the extant scene in the Detroit area. The members make their way east a few times a year – Allison Perkins and her husband, piper Nick Brown, are almost always to be seen in East Durham for the Catskills Irish Arts Week and the Northeast Tionól – but it’s a rare treat to have the whole family out at once, for the express purpose of performing.
Finvarra’s Wren is the Perkins family band, and as you’d expect from a family band, they’re quite comfortable with each other and deliver an incredibly tight musical package. On the one hand, parents Jim and Cheryl are clearly folkies: Jim with his graceful and deft guitar-playing, Cheryl with her tasteful drum-playing and vocals. On the other, Allison and Asher are bold, hearty instrumentalists with plain technical mastery of their craft and a well-trained musicality. Boston has a very high standard for its Irish music, having so much of the thing; that night, the whole audience – musicians, dancers, and enthusiasts alike – was thoroughly impressed with the offering. The group roused the audience to vocality with a few favorite old songs, and tackled some deliciously knotty tunes at a brisk but graceful clip.
Before the show, a few of us (musicians and dancers both) were discussing the groove of the music, and how particular that can be – to a region, to a session, or to a single person, and how two different grooves can meet one another. The idea of defining a groove and fitting into it, with your instrument or your feet, can be a difficult one to navigate. It was at the top of my head as we went into the concert, and it quickly became clear that, at least in the context of a Finvarra’s Wren performance, there is a distinct groove to the music, be it particular to Detroit or to the Perkins family. A lot of music in Boston is fairly sprightly, bouncing along the top of the rhythm, whether it’s a relaxed bounce or a skipping lilt. Finvarra’s Wren, driven largely by Allison’s tight, crunchy fiddle-playing, gives tunes a completely different feel. You can see a lot of it in her bow: Sometimes, it nibbles at individual notes down near her hand; at others, a great maw of a stroke will swallow up whole phrases in one smooth go, without any warning. Overall, the motion is much more horizontal than vertical: a powerful, relentless drive, with less bounce but plenty of lift.
At times, we forget that Boston boasts an incredible variety of high-quality Irish music in endless combinations of instrumentation and style. Whether it’s an enthusiastic and jovial group playing old favorites at the Green Briar, the tight and brilliant sessions at the Druid, or a few swift and steady tunes for the set dancing classes at the Burren, you can always find something to suit your taste. As such, it’s quite nourishing to receive an infusion of talent from farther afield – an indicator of just how much variety exists in Irish music as a whole, and how well the rest of the country is handling that variety, but also a reminder of how special Boston is, with its armies of musicians, young and old and all mad for tunes. There are few musical experiences as satisfying as hearing something very different, and almost new, but totally familiar and deeply comfortable at the same time. Finvarra’s Wren manages that balance admirably.
–Dan Accardi plays fiddle and concertina and is a member of The Ivy Leaf (he’s also a helluva swing dancer)