Eileen Ivers is, as one of her record labels notes, “the most successful American-born competitor in the history of the All-Ireland championships….” In short, she is a nine time All-Ireland Fiddle Champion and has the musical chops to prove why every time she steps out onto the concert stage.
Ivers has passed through Western New York many times in her career, as a founding member of the Cherish the Ladies, with the Riverdance phenomenon and leading her own ensemble, Immigrant Soul. As a result, her on-stage profession of love for “Buffalo” as a stopping point on the tour rang true even though she was playing in North Tonawanda.
While she is the focus of attention on her tours, Ivers has gathered a well-honed set of musicians to surround her. This latest edition of the group is a multitalented batch who’ve played gigs in a wide range of styles with resumes featuring gigs with Rodney Crowell, the Klezmatics, Bill Frisell, and B.B. King, to name a few. The band was professional without being slick; every note was “in place” and the rhythms sparkled with verve.
From the moment she stepped onto the stage at the Riviera Theatre, Ivers captivated the audience. It wasn’t a high-pressured “rah-rah” type of performance but more of an assured and neighborly presence that invited you into her world. While she acted as the emcee and gave her sidemen plenty of room to impress, there was always an awareness of who was the main attraction, a fact that was reinforced every time she whipped her bow across the strings, coaxing sweetness and fire in equal measure from her instrument.
The concert was Christmas-themed, an exploration of carols celebrating the season, delving into Celtic traditions from Ireland, Brittany and Denmark, with a few wrinkles tossed in for fun. Chestnuts like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” meshed seamlessly with Edwin Hawkins’ gospel classic “O Happy Day” and an interesting take on Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” This last piece was one where Ivers prefaced the performance by taking time to justify turning the solemn beauty of the tune into an Irish jig by pointing out that the Bach piece and the folk form shared a common time signature (6/8).
Throughout the evening, Ivers and the band were augmented by local forces. The choir from St. Jude the Apostle joined the group on stage for a couple tunes, including the aforementioned “O Happy Day” and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” while a quartet of young Irish stepdancers tapped with exuberant skill in key spots in other songs.
While Ivers was the star and the instrumental focus of the evening, percussionist Tommy McDonnell was the sidekick with the most audience-pleasing oomph. While Ivers introduced tunes and talked to the audience with a well-reasoned approach, McDonnell went for the funny bone. He was the one who got the audience to sing along to “The Holly Tree,” making sure that the appreciative audience clapped in all the right places and sang on cue, and sang the lead on “Mrs. Fogerty’s Christmas Cake,” a tale of baked goods and alcohol blended together in a well–preserved state.
But back to Ivers, the ringmaster, the leader around whom the action revolved. Without her, the show would have been pleasant but lacking a certain instrumental joie de vivre that she brought to her playing. While everybody else was allowed spotlight sections to show off their talents, she was the one who spearheaded the evening. When Ivers stepped out for a solo, there was no real doubt as to whose name was deservedly on the top of the bill. When she comes around again, check her out.