LIVE: Cherish the Ladies Celebrated Women, Irish Heritage at Caffe Lena 3/8/20

There is perhaps no better place to have celebrated International Women’s Day (and Irish American heritage month) than Caffe Lena on Sunday, March 8th with Cherish the Ladies, a folk group that honors music, story, and culture through song and dance.

Cherish the Ladies is a Grammy-nominated, Irish American supergroup of talent that formed in New York City in 1985 to recognize and signalize the rise of women artists in Irish music, a predominantly male dominated genre. Together now for 35 years, Cherish the Ladies has recorded over 17 albums and performed internationally.

The group of virtuoso musicians filled the tiny stage at Caffe Lena with their piano, accordion, flute, fiddle and guitar, each one spectacular in her own right, and squeezed together closely so much so that they were often touching one another. Led by Joanie Madden, whose humor and extroverted energy reminded me of a favorite aunt who could poke fun at everyone but still have you leaving her table contently loved, Cherish the Ladies jumped directly into their performance and invited out Irish step dancers to kick off the set.

Madden’s flute and whistle playing skills are well recognized internationally as superior, and her skills have brought her opportunities to play with famed musicians (Sinead O’Connor) and awards. Madden’s joy at being on stage behind the microphone bring a levity to the performance that make it entirely wonderful. Her explanations, jokes, and stories weave through the concert, increasing both relevance for listeners as well as entertainment value.

Madden introduced her colleagues with great pride and her typical humor as well. All the members come from musical families. Mary Coogan, who also is a founding member of Cherish the Ladies, played guitar throughout the evening with a quiet grace, and we learned she teaches guitar in the Bronx. When she did speak, and talked about her composition “Glorious Travels,” written for her aunt who was a passport agent and career lady “ahead of her times,” the room fell into a hushed reverence and absorbed the respect and admiration conveyed in the beauty of the song.

Mirella Murray, the accordionist, grew up in Claddaghduff, on the coast of Ireland, and is also an acclaimed musician in her own right. She joked with Madden about the Catskills and Adirondacks no where touching the beauty of her home country with dry wit.

Rounded out by Kathleen Boyle from Scotland (although her parents are Irish, and she joked she likes to drink – “but not pay for it”) on piano and Nollaig Casey on fiddle, Cherish the Ladies filled the listening room with a warm sound that became even more impressive when Kate Purcell, a bit nervous but singing with a tenderness, joined the band for a number of folk songs.

In the tiny space between the audience and the band strode three dancers, including internationally recognized local Declan Crowley from Burnt Hills, who managed to kick up their heels, floss, and rapidly tap out rhythms while the audience whooped and clapped along. Crowley danced along side Michael Holland and David Geaney, also world class Irish step dancers.

Singing through songs like “Glenties,” and later “Nora Lee” (the original folk song from which “Love Me Tender” is based), Cherish the Ladies cast a spell over Caffe Lena. There were smiles but also sorrows shared as the stories of the work houses were discussed, places where families were sent in Ireland during the famine when they could not pay their rent, and stories of great separations caused by that time.

Cherish the Ladies not only brought the cultural identity of Ireland further in the two hours at Caffe Lena in this performance, but they also suspended reality for a brief time. It felt like spring time with flowers blooming as they played about the green countryside filled with sheep, and other moments it felt like Saratoga had been transformed into an Irish pub with dancers leaping over broomsticks (Madden joked, “I taught him that.”) The longing in Irish folk songs for easier times was also conveyed with deep respect for the suffering the people faced during the famines, as band members also reflected how similar in experience current immigrant stories are to their Irish ancestors.

Cherish the Ladies was so much more than a concert. Unique and aware of their heritage as the venue they played in, Cherish the Ladies provided the opportunity for a brief glimpse into Ireland.

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