The McDades
at the Whitaker Center,
Harrisburg, PA
(6 February 2009)

We arrived in Harrisburg just a few minutes late, and with my cane slowing us down, my wife and I got to the Whitaker Center 10 minutes after the McDades started their show. I mourn the minutes I missed, but I quickly got over it as I was wrapped up in yet another fiery, intense set of music from this family band from Canada.

As we walked quietly into the back of the theater, the band was just beginning "The Bounty Hunter," and this song about a Wild West confrontation between a bad man and a badder man is almost cinematic in its presentation. Jeremiah McDade led the way on this one, both on vocals and low whistle. His sister, singer and fiddler Shannon Johnson, was next in the spotlight with a light and jazzy reinterpretation of the Irish classic song "Rocky Road to Dublin." Shannon's quick, clipped vocals and soaring fiddle work are matched by Jeremiah's alto sax -- an unlikely but highly successful instrumental pairing.

The McDades are a trio of siblings -- Shannon and Jeremiah are joined by their brother and upright bassist, Solon McDade -- enhanced by the addition of a guitarist and drummer. On this 10-gig tour of the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, the band is rounded out by Simon Marion on guitar and Bucky Wheaton on drums.

It's clear that this is a band that truly enjoys its work.

Although they are often billed as a Celtic band, that's only by people who haven't heard the McDades lately. They got their start performing with well-known Celtic harper Terry McDade, but Solon and Jeremiah have both earned degrees (with distinction) in jazz, and that deeply informs their music -- particularly through their heavy use of improvisation.

So, when you take a family steeped in jazz as much as Irish traditions, old-time and Canadian folk, you get quite the mix of music. Throw in a strong French-Canadian flair -- the band, with the exception of Edmonton resident Shannon, lives in Montreal -- and you've got an energetic mix that is intoxicatingly unique. And that doesn't even take into account the various world music influences they've added to their sound, such as Shannon's gypsy fiddling and Jeremiah's artistic brand of Tuvan throat-singing.

The next set in the show was "The Whistle Blower," a tireless composition by Jeremiah that sets fiddle against low whistle in a blend of ethnic flavors. Hey, you want diversity? How about "V'la l'Bon Vent," a French song about a boy and his duck. Despite the upbeat pace of the song, it has a sad ending when a prince passes through the woods, sees and shoots the tame fowl. "Hey," the boy yells, shaking his tiny fists at the prince. "You're mean. That's not cool." At least, that's how the McDades explain it. Don't blame me if that's wrong, 'cause I don't speak French. So it was fortunate the band taught the audience to sing the chorus as a series of "blah blah blahs." It sounds like French to me.

The show takes a wistful turn with a cover of Ian Tyson's "Smuggler's Cove." Shannon and Jeremiah join voices, fiddle and whistle for this lovely, homesick song. The pace picks up again with a pair of original fiddle tunes by Shannon: "Dance of the Seven Veils" and "The Silver Platter," a sweeping and sensual piece that is enough to draw your attention away from Shannon's red superheroic "Made in Canada" boots. The music builds to a frantic pace, driven by fiddle as the alto sax adds an exotic, Middle-Eastern layer.

The show includes a lot of sibling banter, much of which surrounds their habit of not naming their tunes. Solon introduced one ambling piece as "Yum Yum Yuengling," after the Pennsylvania-based lager he'd just discovered that day, and a later tune blast -- penned by Shannon and performed that night for the first time -- was dubbed "Yuengling, So Good." Between them, Shannon sang the moody "Pull the Anchor," one of my favorite songs from the band's most recent album, Bloom.

"All French songs are deep," Solon informs us as he introduces a song about three sea captains who go to bar, drink a lot and tip their waitress. "Cafe Hubertus" was a waltz named by Shannon for a chef who pleased her palate at a restaurant on Saturna Island, off the coast of British Columbia. This tune included a bass solo that had Solon's fingers dancing over the thick strings. Jeremiah then switched to the wooden flute for "Robin Song," a peaceful tune inspired by a kayaking trip.

The untitled final tune began with Jeremiah's amazing mastery of throat-singing, with maybe a hint of scat in his signature approach to the Asian tradition. The lengthy piece was largely improvisational, and the spotlight was tossed around the stage to give each musician his or her due.

It couldn't end there, and the band returned to stage for "McKinley Morganfield's," an Irish tune written by Jeremiah with a blues feel.

And that was it. The show was over, and it seemed far too short. Fortunately, we knew an Irish pub close by that was just the place to take a band that had worked up quite a thirst!

by Tom Knapp
14 February 2009

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