Those at the Lied Center on Friday night were treated to a little bit of Irish dancing, some bluesy guitar, a touch of flamenco and some smokin' fiddlin' by Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul.
The Bronx-born daughter of Irish immigrants, Ivers comes to her love of traditional Irish music naturally. But her inspiration comes from Ireland by way of American blues, bluegrass and rock 'n' roll. Ivers is a nine-time all-Ireland fiddle champion and, as the program notes attest, she "will change the way you think about the violin."
Opening with a set called "Flowing Tide," Ivers introduced some of her signature style - the casual traditional sounds of an Irish tune morphing into a foot-stomping dance number. Her particular musical interests are rhythmic and stylistic parallels among musical traditions, and the next sets reflected some of that blend. "Afro-Jig" revealed that the rhythms of traditional African music are highly compatible with a Celtic sound. Then a haunting Danish tune, "The Time is Approaching," segued to Breton and Irish reels.
Ivers' sound also depends heavily upon the multitalented performers who surround her on stage: Gregory Jones on bass; James Riley on guitar; Isaac Alderson on uilleann pipes, whistles and flute; and Ivers' cousin, Tommy McDonnell, on percussion. They were joined on some numbers by talented dancers from Christine O'Riada's Academy of Irish Dance in Kansas City.
A former member of The Original Blues Brothers Band, McDonnell is the vocalist for the group, and his onstage enthusiasm was infectious as he led the audience in sing-along accompaniments to some soulful ballads.
A hauntingly beautiful number in the program's first half was "By-Gone Days," inspired by Ivers' Irish-American upbringing and in memory of her parents' struggles. Here she abandoned her electric violin for the acoustic one, and featured Alderson's skilled playing on the strange and difficult uilleann pipes.
The final set of the first half cemented what makes Ivers' sound so unique and her style so contemporary. In "Gravel Walk," a faintly Irish-sounding tune is transformed by way of New York City. As Ivers set her electric blue violin to wailing like a steel guitar, this Irish rock number had the audience on its feet.
Traditional Irish music is so often about the immigrant experience that the main set of the second half featured Ivers' take on that tradition with some laments and reels that ended with rousing west Ireland polkas. But the number that had people literally dancing in the aisles was "Whisky and Sangria," an Irish jig inspired by flamenco in which Riley got to strut his stuff on the guitar. The concert ended with a rousing blues version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" with McDonnell as vocalist in the best Blues Brothers tradition.
It was inspirational to watch these musicians spend two hours onstage in such joyous performance that the audience loved them. Ivers is as gracious as she is talented, a true performer whose mission is to bring the joy of music to others.