It’s St. Patrick’s Day, in the quintessential town of Groton, distant enough from the big city to be considered rural here in Massachusetts. Various members of Groton’s roughly-hewn elite chat around circular tables in the expansive lodge that is serving tonight as the space where seasoned Nashville recording artist Maura O’Connell will be making her appearance. It’s my first encounter with this native Irelander, knowing only that she must be here to somehow celebrate her homeland and that she’s fairly well-known.
Stuart Shuman of Windchime Productions, the concert’s organizer, makes a few announcements and throws a skewed bit of sarcasm in the direction of the audience members from Boston—something about being at least 30 minutes from a Whole Foods. Then two chaps and a woman with a tousled nest of hair leap to the stage. The guys grab their spare instruments (acoustic guitar and electric bass) and begin to strum. And Maura’s voice bellows out through the din like a hurricane, welding everyone firmly in place for the next two hours.
It’s a funny thing about live music. At the various concerts I’ve been to over the years, particularly in the rock ‘n’ roll genre, my experience has often been—to put it politely—underwhelming. Something has been lacking from the experience: either the sound is muddy, or the show is bereft of personality, or the whole thing feels like a workingman’s night on stage, the musicians stiffly churning out song after song for the minimal necessary time to warrant keeping an attendee’s twenty dollars without risking complaint.
But this time, shock and delight were the key words. During the first four songs, I heard enough spine-tingling vocal tones to more than make up for my last several disappointments. Maura’s voice ebbing and flowing, singing tales of love, loss, guilt, and hope, I recalled how people used to listen to recordings as a mere approximation, a reminder of the face-to-face experience. A live performance was the de facto representation of an artist’s capabilities. But with today’s impeccable recording and playback technology, we now can have our very own Maura O’Connell concert alone in the comfort of our living room. Or at least that’s what Sony, Pioneer, Bose, and the lot would have us believe.
Formerly a member of the traditional Celtic group De Dannan, Maura emerged as a solo vocalist in 1989 with her first recordings of gentle pop. She does not write her own songs, opting instead to pluck the most moving of other writer’s pieces and record them in her distinct style. During this concert, she explained to us how she resisted for years the label “folk singer” because in her mind, that meant singing 50+ verses, after which “at least one person is dead.” But the record industry, as well as her potential audience, needed a way to fit her disparate hallmarks under a recognizable umbrella. And folk was it.
Listening to her most recent CD, Don’t I Know, I’m reminded of the live experience’s supremacy. Maura sounds best when she’s belting, and here we find her wonderful voice mostly hushed or buried under the electric instrumentation of a full band. The songwriting is what really shines. From simple celebrations of life (“Trip Around the Sun”) to unfailing commitment (“Love You in the Middle”) to compassion for those in the margins of society (“Phoenix Falling”), we hear tales that provoke reflection on our most basic level of humanity. Just make an effort to go hear these pieces live. I promise you won’t miss the drums.