Friday, December 16, 2011

Pioneering ensemble lends Celtic spirit to holidays

Cherish the LadiesWhen the holidays roll around, Joanie Madden has plenty to cherish.

Her Celtic music ensemble, Cherish the Ladies, last year celebrated a quarter-century of performances — far beyond what the flutist and award-winning tin-whistle player anticipated.

“It’s great to be accepted and respected,” said Madden, 46, a New York native who speaks with a slight Irish lilt. “We were here before Riverdance, before Celtic Woman.

“I think we’ll still be here when they’re all gone.”

The quintet — whose ranks include longtime member and fellow New Yorker Mary Coogan (guitar, mandolin, banjo) plus accordion player Mirella Murray, fiddler Grainne Murphy and pianist Kathleen Boyle — will offer a Christmas concert on Friday in the Riffe Center’s Capitol Theatre.

Featuring selections from the Ladies’ two holiday albums, whose Irish-inspired arrangements enhance even standard Christmas carols, the night will also include Irish step dancer and central Ohioan John Timm plus several students.

The annual festivities have become routine for Madden, who recalled the group’s first holiday gig 12 years ago — initiated after a venue manager asked whether Cherish the Ladies offered a yuletide show.

Yes, she replied.

“I hung up the phone and said: ‘Well, we’ve got to put together a Christmas show.’ ”

Such pluck is indicative of Madden’s music-business acumen, developed at an early age.

Her father, Joe, an all-Ireland champion on the accordion, initially forbade his seven children from following the same path.

Music “would be over his dead body,” Madden joked. “He thought it could be a dead end, that I’d be a bum on the street. But it seemed like it was meant to be.”

She ultimately disproved her father’s concerns in 1984, winning the same award as Joe — “25 years later, to the day, at the same age.”

Picked as part of a team conceived by Irish musician Mick Moloney to balance gender dynamics of the genre’s male-dominated scene, Madden and the inaugural Cherish the Ladies lineup made their debut one year later.

“I thought that would be a one-night stand,” she said, “but all the shows sold out.”

Still, an all-female lineup — hardly abnormal for a Celtic unit these days — at the time was considered foreign.

“I’d call to book gigs and they’d say: ‘What church are you with?’ ” Madden recalled. “Everybody thought we were some marketing ploy, like the Spice Girls.”

The members, whose faces have changed often throughout the years, won audiences over with their vocals, instrumentation and 15 albums to date.

Their latest work, Country Crossroads, was the spur-of-the-moment studio session the women assembled after a Nashville show, featuring appearances by Vince Gill and Nanci Griffith.

Madden, too, has rubbed elbows with plenty of big names, adding tin-whistle backup for artists ranging from Sinead O’Connor to Pete Seeger.

Although all current Cherish the Ladies players learned music from their fathers — a tradition once passed on among Irish men — Madden is glad she took a risk and paved a path for others.

“I’ve traveled the world, played with symphonies, the finest performing-arts centers,” she said. “It’s just been wonderful.”

Pioneering ensemble lends Celtic spirit to holidays | The Columbus Dispatch

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