It was Thursday night and I was driving up to Rangeley through a hellacious rain. My radio was tuned, of course, to Steve Bull on WKTJ, as he reported the local weather. He was explaining the rise in tornado watches, as a part of recent Maine weather reports. Seems Doppler radar has sharpened meteorologist’s ability to detect energy in thunderclouds that could predict such phenomena. Not that there was an actual increase in tornados in Maine, just a clearer picture of the potential for one.
Well, Doppler radar completely missed at least two tornado strikes, landing 24 hours apart in two towns. In both cases people were blown away. And oddly, both times the tornado was actually inside a building trying to blow its way out. The tornado was the David Munnelly Band from County Mayo in Ireland. This raging storm had, in just two weeks, wandered 4,000 miles from Arkansas to Maine, tearing the roofs of more than one theater, concert hall and pub.
I was able to catch the second Maine show at the Rangeley Lakeside Theatre that very Thursday night. The simplest statement would be that David Munnelly plays the button accordion, as well as the melodeon. Ancient instruments, like the bagpipes, that seem designed by committee, they’ve gotten a bad rap over the years, relegated to stereotype and dismissed to hokey Lawrence Welk impressions. Let’s Polka!
David Munnelly came to Skye and Lakeside Theatres, toyed with the prejudice and then blew it apart. Starting the concert off with “simple” jigs and reels, Munnelly eased the audience into what would turn out to be a night of musical exploration and discovery, taking us from County Mayo, to New Orleans, and Quebec (and I think I heard a little Venice and Paris in there too). The accordion is a world instrument, borne through many cultures over centuries, as Annie Proulx so brilliantly demonstrated in her book “Accordion Crimes.” The David Munnelly Band gave us a fevered world tour in just under two hours of masterful musicianship.
David is a compact man, one who looks like he’d be very comfortable playing rugby, or tossing back a stout beer in your local pub. Sitting, hunched over his instrument, he gets into a space that is purely his own and he and the band begin. The songs start out as easy expressions and then the band begins to break them down, with swing and jazz sensibilities, into something beyond a reel or a jig, a ballad or a lay. Munnelly can’t seem to help himself, as he riffs through a melody, coloring way outside the lines. It has been noted that he was influenced by the early jazz explorations of guitarist Django Reinhardt, and David has that wonderful ability to stay on melody and yet playfully riff all around it, switching tempo, bending time. Notes are stretched and clipped, the band wanders joyfully into solos and then with barely a shrug, blend back into the main theme, as if nothing really happened. As the audience and David stomped time with their feet, every once in awhile, Munnelly looked up from the accordion and in a conspiratorial, piratical push from his lungs came a hearty “AARGGHH”. The audience stomping more fervently, the song would take a train-like cadence and the band and the folks in the seats would start to push each other down the track. Faster faster, and then another “Haaaaa” from David. It felt a little like racing down a dark forest path and then suddenly leaping off, floating floating into a cold splash of lake. And then doing it again. Yeah, it was fun!
The most recent incarnation of the David Munnelly band is made up of stalwart younger brother Keiran Munnelly on snare, bodhran, flute and backing vocals. A very talented Paul Kelly on fiddle and mandolin, playing Stephane Grappelli to David’s Django, and Seanan Brennan keeping everyone in sync with his steady guitar. Recent addition Shauna Mullin has broadened the band’s repertoire with her perfectly timbred Celtic vocals. I’m taking Phill McIntyre’s word that she’s a contralto, all I know is that her voice is exactly right for longing ballads (“Follow the Heron”), hearty tales (The King’s Shilling”) and perfectly matched a cappella duets with Kieran (the “unusually happy” song “Wee Weaver”). Her vocals break the cycle of instrumental works and allows David to take more of a backing role, although he still will slip in a tweaky solo here or a melodic riff there. He’s a bit of an imp, that man.
I have to say it took The David Munnelly Band a little time to break down that stiff Yankee reserve that criminally keeps us in our seats and barely clapping. But he persisted and soon had people whooping, hollering, stomping in time and, heaven forbid, enjoying themselves. They were even dancing in the aisles. How dare they?
This concert continues the summer collaboration between Phill McIntyre’s Skye Theatre in Carthage and Rangeley’s Lakeside Theatre, where musicians scheduled to play Skye have added a weekday show in Rangeley as well. The concerts have been very successful, with sold out performances at both venues now a standard occurrence. Sign up sheets for future dates are available at both venues and are strongly encouraged. It’s not a bad idea to get on the sell-out waiting list as well, or calling the day of the performance to check for cancellations, as folks do change plans and seats could be available.
The next Rangeley performance is on Monday August 11th at 7 p.m. The Dave Rowe Trio, consists of Dave Rowe on guitar, Kevin O’ Reilly on bass, and Ed Howe on electric and acoustic violins. They’re Maine musicians who perform energetic folk songs from Canada, France, Ireland Scotland and Wales, well-delivered in pitch-perfect three part harmony, You may remember Ed Howe from my review of his performance at Skye Theater last year. Dave Rowe is son of the late Tom Rowe of Schooner Fare and is carrying the family legacy of excellent folk music with his own skillful vocals and musicianship. It should be an excellent night of roots music.
Check out the full schedule for both venues at www.necelticarts.com.