Less is more: a maxim that may apply nowhere better in the world of Celtic music than to Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill.
They gave a mesmerizing performance last evening at the Unity Temple on the Plaza in Kansas City, sponsored by the Missouri Valley Folklife Society and 90.1 FM KKFI.
There is a classical, even symphonic quality to their approach to Celtic music. Their sets are long, often combining five or six or more tunes in a single set, where most Celtic groups will use three. You find yourself taking a journey with them in each set, discovering a syntax in the combination of tunes that is more intricate than the relationship of rhythm or key that might tie the pieces together. Also, while reels and jigs certainly have a prominent place in their sets, they typically begin with a slower piece, a single melodic line, that asks you to listen rather than tap. Simplicity and directness are without doubt themes of Martin Hayes’s approach to fiddling.
Just two musicians on stage all evening. No singing. A good sprinkling of understated humor between sets. But this was more than enough.
Martin Hayes, from County Clare and now residing in Connecticut, has received numerous awards, including six All-Ireland fiddle championships. His style is spare, but intense. His ear is extraordinary, and a collector of Irish tunes from an early age, his memory is prodigious.
Dennis Cahill is a Chicagoan whose parents are natives of County Kerry. While his guitar and mandolin playing were featured in a couple of pieces during the evening, he primarily offers accompaniment to Hayes, but in a unique and original way. A jazz-trained musician, he plays a nylon-string classical guitar with a cutaway. He picks, plucks (using fingers 3 & 4 while holding the pick), and strums in a style that I can only compare to harp playing. I closed my eyes for a good portion of the second half of the concert and felt I was as close to hearing an Irish harp as I could be without seeing one on the stage. He uses a standard tuning and plays a wide range of unique chord combinations, deftly throwing in harmonics to complete his chords. We got a taste of his picking ability in one mandolin-fiddle piece of his own composition and in one guitar-fiddle piece. His playing is exceptional by any standard, but perhaps as much for what we don’t hear as what we do.
Hayes and Cahill have developed a style and approach to this music that is at once traditional and at the same time unique.
Kudos to the Missouri Valley Folklife Society and KKFI for bringing them to Kansas City.