Sharon Shannon and Eliza Carthy
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Sharon Shannon and Eliza Carthy
Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire, UK
February 25, 2005

Sharon Shannon, the 'Queen of the Squeezebox,' seemed shy as she opened the first half of this February show at the Buxton Opera House, letting guitarist, Jim Murray engage with the packed-out theatre, bringing the Irish humor very much to center-stage.

The set was comprised of tunes, from their native Ireland, from Canada, Scottish airs, their own pieces, rearrangements of age-old tunes, and Chris Newman's adaptation of a classical piece. Diversity was maintained through a regular swapping of instruments; Shannon from accordion to fiddle to whistle, Mary Shannon from banjo to mandolin, Murray faithfully keeping the rhythm, sometimes very energetic indeed, with his skilled guitar playing.

It wasn't just the instrumental version of musical chairs that proved the band's musicianship the perfectly executed time changes ensured the audience's toes remained tapping. It was the jigs where toe tapping became hand clapping, and the band was keen for the space in the area in front of the stage to be filled with a dancing audience. However, it wasn't going to happen. The musicianship was near flawlessness, yet the set did not contain enough diversity to keep the audience rapt. Each set of tunes couldn't help but melt into the next, and in retrospect, the performance is remembered as only a forty-five minute-long tune. As Shannon herself said, in true Irish style, "fair play to you."

It was Eliza Carthy who stole the show, with her band, the newly named Rat Catchers, including Bellowhead members and duo Jon Boden and John Spiers, and guitarist and fiddler Ben Ivitsky.

Today, with blond hair, and a skirt I heard a number of people admire out loud, Carthy proved her folk-diva status and launched into "Adieu, Adieu" from Mercury Music Prize nominated album Red Rice, her husky vocals not affected by her energetic dancing. "Huzzar," a song learned from Norma Carthy, saw Boden and Spiers adding depth to the already massive texture with backing vocals before launching into a set of fiddle-driven tunes, three fiddles, in fact. No wonder the Rat Catchers were so nearly called the Cat Stranglers. With rosin flying off her bow, Carthy still managed to laugh, dance and sing, creating an immense rapport with her audience.

Then came the two standout tracks from the gig, "Worcester City," from the CD Angelicana, and "10,000 Miles" from Red Rice, the first a haunting crescendo to outburst, the second exhibiting a fiddle and accordion duel from Boden and Spiers.

The Watersons' song that followed retained an a cappella feel, despite the presence of instruments, this time Jon Boden taking up the concertina, before the band leapt into another set of tunes, "English Choice," on loan from John McCusker. This saw the band really going for it, and a listener could have been forgiven for thinking it was a full-room session given the immense sound produced. John Spiers, too, broke out into a dance, which he made look easy, regardless of his accordion.

On "Pretty Ploughboy," Carthy's bow couldn't quite take the strain, and practically fell apart on the strings. After a quick skip off stage and bow change, we were told that a love of pirates, sailors and highwaymen had influenced the penultimate song; we were told the first verse "is the best verse ever written" and the rest only distinctly average. So only the first verse was played, before a set of reels was performed and the band bounded off stage.

The cries for more were deafening and they offered an encore of "Maid on the Shore" and "325," an a cappella flourish proving the skills of the musicians and their ease on stage. - Sophie Parkes

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