Aggie Whyte, grandmother of FullSet fiddler Michael Harrison, was a widely known Irish fiddler in the East Galway tradition.
"That style of fiddling is very lively, with a strong bow hand, not overembellished," her grandson explained by phone from Ireland last week, on a snowy day in Tipperary.
Whyte won the All-Ireland Fleadh title in 1954, and put her name on any number of Irish tunes—"Aggie Whyte's Reel," "Aggie Whyte's Chattering Magpie"—that are now part of the standard repertory.
Harrison didn't know Aggie. He's just 27, born in 1986, and his grandma died in 1979.
"I never met her," he said, "but her music lives on."
It lives on most distinctively in Harrison's own East Galway playing, which he'll bring to Tucson this Saturday night with the band FullSet at the Berger Center for the Performing Arts. With a full complement of Irish instruments—uilleann pipes, bodhrán, button accordion, guitar, flute and that fiddle—the six young musicians will deliver "innovative traditional" Irish music.
"We all come from very traditional backgrounds," Harrison said, noting that a number of the musicians graduated from the respected Irish arts program at the University of Limerick. "We like to keep the beauty of the tradition."
Yet they try to innovate by "showing off the tune with our own energy. It's important to give the old music new life."
In a twist, Italian-born Martino Vacca plays the uilleann pipes, the "oldest and most traditional Irish instrument there." Raised in Ireland since the age of five and a graduate of Limerick, "he's a fantastic piper."
The young step and soft-shoe dancers from Tucson's Tir Connail Academy will leap onto the stage as well. "It's nice to have local Irish artists, and if there's anyone else in the audience who dances they can hop up onstage too," Harrison joked.
During a trip to the Old Pueblo in 2012, FullSet was promoting their first record, Notes at Liberty, which won an Irish "breakthrough" music award in 2011—not to mention wide attention at home and abroad.
This time they'll be playing tunes from their second CD, Notes After Dark, whose title, Harrison said impishly, suggests the nighttime fun of an Irish music pub session mixed in with a "bit of mischief."
The CD's traditional pieces share space with two new works by Harrison, "Sleepy Ned of Newport" and "The Ginger Nut." And Dark reworks a few tunes from other genres. Singer Teresa Horgan does an Irish-inflected version of "The Roseville Fair," an old-timey-style song by American singer-songwriter Bill Staines. The band has even tackled a 1915 ragtime two-step, "Reindeer," by Joseph Lamb, a contemporary of Scott Joplin.
FullSet has nurtured at least one love story. Harrison and button accordionist Janine Redmond fell in love as young teens at an all-Ireland music festival in County Kerry and have been together almost ever since. Both from musical families, they were married Dec. 27. Musical matriarch Aggie Whyte no doubt would have been pleased.
FullSet plays at 8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. $20 adults; $18 students and seniors older than 60; available at Antigone Books (792-3715), The Folk Shop (881-7147) and inconcerttucson.com; 981-1475.
Tucson's Irish season is long this year, extending all the way to the Celtic Fiddle Festival on April 17. Most events are musical, though if we stretch the definition of Irish a wee bit we can include The Glass Menagerie running at UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre through March 2. Kathleen Cannon, praised by M. Scot Skinner (see review this issue), for her portrayal of the damaged Laura, grew up in Tucson's Irish community, the granddaughter of Winnie Ryan Nanna, an Irishwoman who organizes annual Bloomsday events. Playwright Tennessee Williams may be all about Southern despair, but surely Menagerie's melancholy and regret is a tad Irish.
Not convinced? Then move on to the list below for certifiably Celtic craic (Irish for fun) in the O'Pueblo. As always, check the Weekly's music listings for bar and pub music.
Powerhouse traditional Irish band Danú comes to the Fox Tucson Theatre at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 4, courtesy of UApresents. Named for an ancient Irish goddess, Danú got its start 20 years ago at a traditional festival in Ireland's County Waterford. Seven members strong, the band plays all the usual Irish instruments, including fiddle, bodhrán and uilleann pipes. Lead vocalist Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh sings in Irish and English. $15-$23; 621-3341; uapresents.org.
Competing with the Tucson Festival of Books, the 27th annual St. Patrick's Day Parade and Festival frolics forth on Saturday, March 15, two days before the saint's feast. But never fear, book lovers. You can begin your morning at the book festival with Rhys Bowen, author of the Molly Murphy mysteries about a clever Irish immigrant in turn-of-the-20th-century New York. She'll be in the UA Mall tent for the 10 a.m. panel session Dreaded Anachronism. If you dash, you might still catch the last half of the one-hour parade downtown. The procession begins at 11 a.m. at 16th Street and Stone Avenue, winds north up Stone to Ochoa, then east on 12th Street to Armory Park. Sure and it's like Mardi Gras, only with green beads.
The St. Patrick's Festival at Armory Park goes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but it gears up at noon, after the parade, beginning with a blessing in Irish and growing more raucous throughout the day. Live music, dance and food—try the Irish stew—are highlights, along with "cultural booths," with arts and books regaling the regal Irish literary tradition. Keep an eye out for more sunburned redheads than you'll ever see anywhere else in Tucson.
Cherish the Ladies, a traditional Irish band five women strong, partners with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra for concerts at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 22, and 2 p.m., Sunday, March 23, at the Tucson Music Hall. The Ladies take their name from the title of an Irish jig, and play the full roster of Irish instruments. A mix of Boston Irish, New York Irish, Irish Irish and Scottish, the musicians have played with James Taylor, Joan Baez and Emmylou Harris. The band got its start in New York in 1985. $27-$70; tucsonsymphony.org.
Celtic Woman, an institution with a changing team of glam musicians, tend toward Irish schmaltz, though fiddler Mairead Nesbitt of Tipperary is an All-Ireland fiddle champion. Organized by a former musical director for Riverdance—the show with a glitzy take on Irish stepping—the hugely successful all-women group produce a sound some wags have called "Riverdance for the voice." 7 p.m., Monday, April 7, at the Tucson Music Hall. $43-$105 in person at the TCC box office (791-4101, tucsonaz.gov/tcc/eventcalendar) and at Ticketmaster, for a hefty fee.
Don Gest of In Concert! gets the last Irish word with the Celtic Fiddle Festival at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 17, at Berger. The Celts once lived throughout much of Europe, but by modern times they lived mostly in western Europe: in Brittany in France, and in Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Ireland. Each region had its own distinct—but related—language and traditions. The concert brings together three fiddlers to play three distinct Celtic styles. Kevin Burke, born in London of Irish parents, plays Irish. Christian LeMaître represents northern France. French-Canadian André Brunet performs the Celtic music that evolved in the French-speaking New World. Guitarist Nicolas Quemener of Brittany plays with all three fiddlers; step dancers add to the fun. $20 adults; $18 students and seniors older than 60; available at Antigone Books, The Folk Shop and inconcerttucson.com.