Back in Black

Dublin born diva Mary Black provides soothing Irish pop at Laxson

BLACK BIRD SINGIN’ <br>Irish singer Mary Black filled Laxson Auditorium with song during her concert on November 15.

Irish singer Mary Black filled Laxson Auditorium with song during her concert on November 15.

Photo By Tom Angel

Life slowed down for a few hours at Laxson Auditorium last Thursday, when Mary Black and her capable band of Irish musicians paid their second visit to Chico in two years. The Dublin-born diva of song offered up two sets of heartfelt tales that ranged from melancholy to inspirational in subject and traditional Irish folk to contemporary acoustic pop in genre.

Backed by lush instrumentation, most notably Pat Crowley on electric piano and accordion and Bill Shanley on acoustic guitars, Black filled Laxson with soaring vocals that soothed and comforted the almost-full house.

Worthy of all the praise it’s received, Black’s pearly smooth voice, whether offered in a poignant whisper or at full power, rose up, and rightfully so, one layer above her accompanying players.

While some in the crowd commented that this performance was toned down and less rocked-out than her 1999 visit, nary a complaint could be heard as Black pleased the wide-ranging crowd with her sweetly delivered tunes.

A member of the musical Black Family, Mary began performing with her three brothers (and later, sister Frances) in Dublin folk clubs in the mid-'70s.

She lists Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention), Billie Holiday and Bonnie Raitt as some of her influences. While she commonly wears the tag of Celtic vocalist, her show is better described as contemporary acoustic Irish pop. Although Black does not deliver what’s thought of as traditional, Gaelic-style Irish pop music, like the Chieftains or Clannad, her arrangements have an undeniable Irish flavor. And it’s that hint of Ireland that really makes Mary Black stand out.

Extremely comfortable on stage and dressed in black pants and a black sleeveless vest with a smattering of sequins for good measure, Black was the epitome of class. She proved to have a sense of humor as well, when, just before the set break, she encouraged us to “toddle out to the foyer and have a Jimmy Riddle,” which, in Irish slang, pointed us to the bathroom.

On this night, Black, who generally is a singer, not a songwriter, leaned most heavily on her admitted favorite Irish songwriter, Noel Brazil, including opening number “Babes in the Wood” and “Summer Sent You.” Another Brazil song, “Ellis Island,” wove an early 20th-century tale of an Irish couple who said their good-byes as the man was about set sail for America.

Mary Black has reportedly has sold more albums in Ireland than U2 and Enya. She still reigns supreme there, evidenced by the No. 1 chart position of her just-released album, The Best of Mary Black - 1991-2001. It’s interesting to consider that while her album rose to the top in Ireland, the top CD in this country was by a performer named Britney Spears. An ocean apart, indeed.

During the course of the 19-song show, Black offered tunes that spanned her career, from 1984’s poignant “Song for Ireland,” to songs from 1999’s Speaking with the Angel album, including “Big Trip to Portand” and “Don’t Say Okay.” And, not surprisingly, Black and her supporting cast performed about 10 numbers from The Best Of, which spanned a great deal of her career.

The new album, a two-CD collection, is a unique package. The first CD revisits many of Black’s most notable songs of the past decade. The bonus CD, Hidden Harvest, is an added treat for avid fans. It contains previously unrecorded live tracks and extra tracks. On it are duets with Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez and Mary Chapin Carpenter. And Black is delighted to offer some tracks that previously were left on the cutting-room floor.

Other first-set songs tonight included “Another Day,” in which Black struck a tambourine as Shanley precisely picked guitar notes, “Bless the Road,” an emotional outpouring from a man who’d just broke up his partner, and “Flesh and Blood,” an upbeat number that fully explored the dynamics of the five-piece band. She ended the set with one of her standards, which Black says she never grows tired of, “Columbus.”

She ended the show with “Don’t Say Okay,” which included these words of advice: “I’m giving up on TV, it’s not making sense. Gotta trust ourselves, it’s the last line of defense.”

In the end, Black sent us on our way with "Forever Young," a Bob Dylan classic that she said served as a message to people everywhere, especially the children, after the events of Sept. 11. "May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift; may you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift. May your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung; may you stay forever young."