Six Ladies Playing, at Monmouth U

A cherished tradition at Monmouth University for several years running, Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies get a crucial jump on NEXT St. Pat’s Day by way of A CELTIC CHRISTMAS, Saturday night at the Pollak.

(Originally published in the Asbury Park Press, December 17, 2010)

As someone who’s eternally grateful to be “making a living doing what I love,” Joanie Madden seems happy to just be at whatever airport or lodging she happens to find herself in, as she dashes hither and yon on a typically busy tour itinerary.

At some point, however, it surely occurred to Madden that Cherish the Ladies had become bigger than the personal happy zones of she and her bandmates in the long-running Celtic musical group — had become, in fact, a family tradition that spanned generations, geographic regions and seasons of the calendar year.

Prominent among those seasons is the Yuletide interlude; a time of year in which the band (the current core of which comprises bandleader Madden on tin whistle and flute, plus Scottish pianist Kathleen Boyle, guitarist Mary Coogan, Belfast-born fiddler Roisin Dillon, and County Galway accordionist Mirella Murray) plays to packed houses of kids, parents and grandparents — with audiences singing along to such Christmas classics as “Silent Night,” “O Holy Night” and “Angels We Have Heard On High.”

“The Christmas show is my favorite time of the year — the family time, when we treat the concert hall like a big living room,” says the champion musician, under whose stewardship the unassuming tin whistle becomes a dynamic centerpiece to a whirl of often raucous sound and motion.

“This all started when a promoter hounded us to go out on the road with a Christmas show — I told them sure, we’ve got a Christmas show, no problem,” recalls Bronx native Madden, who together with fellow New Yorker Coogan marked a quarter century of membership in the band this year.

“I hung up the phone and told everyone, okay, now we’ve gotta get a Christmas show together!”

That first seasonal tour was a surprise success, as was the 2005 album “On Christmas Night” — a set that was hailed by the New York Times, USA Today and others as among the year’s best, and a release that represented another milestone for the internationally lauded band.

“Our record was sold in Costco,” says Madden with a laugh. “You know you’ve made it when you wind up in Costco!”

Now on their seventh annual Christmas excursion, Cherish the Ladies is touring behind a second album of seasonal standards, “A Star in the East” — jaunting from Alabama to Connecticut to Arkansas to New Hampshire, with the five instrumentalists augmented onstage by returning vocalist Deirdre Connolly and four Irish dance specialists (including Canadian stepdance champion and fiddler Dan Stacey).

It’s an expanded show that brings the Shore area favorites back to the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University for the first time in 2010 — their previously scheduled appearance having been snowed out in the wake of last February’s blizzardly blitzkrieg (weep not for the Ladies this winter, as they’ll spend late January and early February on their nineteenth Caribbean Cruise of Irish Stars).

For the 8:00 p.m. performance on Saturday, December 18, Madden promises a mix that reflects the spirit of the new record; an eclectic set that juxtaposes spoken word and centuries-old folk favorites with a new Boyle original and Madden’s own lead vocal on the African American spiritual “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow.” In addition to which, Madden says, “we’ll get the audience involved; teach them new things; take some old classics and ‘Celticize’ them, if that’s a word.”

All in a night’s work for a musical institution that’s keyed in to an affinity for the warmth and intimacy of traditionally arranged Irish music, in audiences that range from Monmouth U (where the Ladies have established themselves as an annual signifier of the Performing Arts schedule) to China, where the band played five dates last September.

“Irish music is the basis of so many American musical traditions — old timey pop, folk, bluegrass,” Madden observes. “It’s a music of emotional highs and lows…it’s breaking your heart one moment, then ripping your head off the next.”

Prior to Saturday night’s show, dancers from the Celtic Christmas program will conduct an “Introduction to Irish Step Dancing Workshop” inside Anacon Hall (at the Rebecca Stafford Student Center) on the West Long Branch campus. Participants are invited to “bring some leather soled shoes” as they “learn the rudiments of Irish dance, including the basic threes and sevens” and the form’s Canadian cousin, Ottawa Valley Stepdancing. The 6:00 p.m. event is open to students and general public alike, with separate admission available for $10 (the session is free to holders of tickets to Saturday’s show).

Tickets for “A Celtic Christmas” and the Step Dancing workshop are available by calling the Monmouth University Performing Arts Box Office at 732-263-6889, or online at http://www.monmouth.edu/arts.

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