Irish-American singer-songwriter Aiofe O’Donovan summons all the whirring, humming, soaring, straining sounds of the cosmos in her latest solo project, Bull Frogs Croon (And Other Songs).
The swoop and plumb of the strings, the poetry in the lyrics, left palpable vibrations in the air in her live performance at The Kate in Old Saybrook on a mid-March Wednesday night, in a set that drew from European classical repertoire, through bluegrass, through O’Donovan’s own compositions.
It was a poignant show. The first event of O’Donovan’s U.S. and world tour, the audience responded enthusiastically to a generous set of songs. It could also sense, on the cusp of the COVID-19 spread in New England, the wider cultural implications – how precarious and precious the evening really was. Indeed, The Kate halted performances the next night, and O’Donovan’s tour is now almost entirely cancelled.
In The Kate’s smartly renovated, sweetly old-fashioned auditorium, the evening began with a solo set by Taylor Ashton, a Canadian now living in Brooklyn. Singing original songs in luminous spare arrangements on guitar and claw hammer banjo, Ashton set a contemplative mood with his carefully crafted lyrics. In one song, “Nicole,” he bared a raw, fierce passion riding over taut ironic lyrics. He introduced the song with, “This is a song about things that are gone, but are so vivid they seem real.” In another song, Ashton sang both parts to a love duet with such funny theatrical flair that the audience laughed and cheered.
After an intermission, the string quartet gathered in a warm semi-circle onstage. The keystone was O’Donovan, holding rhythm and pace with her voice and guitar. Around her were Jeremy Kittel on fiddle leading the quartet, Alex Hargreaves on fiddle, Mario Gotoh on viola, and Ethan Jodziewicz on upright bass.
The songs seemed to pierce prophetically into a near or distant future. Mid-way through the set came the title track from the album, “Bull Frogs Croon,” a suite of three songs, created to lyrics by Peter Sears. The lyrics to the first section, “Night Fishing,” began: “The water is a glaze like loneliness at ease with itself. I cast and close my eyes for the whir out across the water, the line striking the surface and sinking.”
O’Donovan looked back, too. She described childhood summers growing up singing with extended family in Ireland, and walking beaches alone. Her own songs seemed infused with an Old World hushed urgency, joy mixed with sadness, and lyrics that drifted above and below the sonic surface. While many songs lay in a soft folk waltz timing, the tempo picked up in some rousing country reels too.
O’Donovan has traversed a lot of musical ground, spending much of her career in the Americana and new folk movements. She toured a bit with Prairie Home Companion, has played with Chris Thile on Live from Here, and has worked with many other bluegrass, alt-folk and even jazz artists. She plays with neuvo-bluegrass group Crooked Still and the all-female folk-noir group Sometymes Why.
Her voice, unfailingly sweet and true, brings to mind with a number of other singers: Allison Kraus and Joni Mitchell. There is also, tucked in there, some Ricki Lee Jones, a brilliant artist who used her uncanny vocals and unconventional song arrangements to tease songs into highly unusual shapes.
There were some interesting compositional shapes at play in O’Donovan’s set. Her earthy guitar playing laid the foundation for most songs. The other string instruments moved in and out of the spaces in O’Donovan’s bassline guitar fingerpicking, slanting through the openings in her rhythm, sometimes taking over. In fact, the most interesting songs were the ones where O’Donovan let go of a folk guitar grounding entirely and delved deeper vocally. In these the string quartet had unchained sonic range, and the songs themselves seemed to become something more free, unusual. They took flight.
Some of these songs were covers by way of 19th century French art songs that fit into the set seamlessly. In “Villanelle” from 1841’s Les nuits d’ete by Hector Berlioz and Théophile Gautier O’Donovan morphed easily into a soprano songbird, extending her range and style in a comically-rendered song about spring lovers, and another meditative song by Gabriel Faure, sung in French, “En Priére.”
Ranging through the American songbook, O’Donovan sang the Civil War-era traditional “Lakes of Ponchartrain,” and also “Pretty Bird” by bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens. Dickens was a social activist and singer-songwriter who helped blaze trails for women in bluegrass from the 1960’s onward. In the lyrics, Dickens dreams herself beyond her own West Virginia coal-mining family heritage: “Fly far beyond this dark mountain, to where you’ll be free ever more – fly away, little pretty bird.”
A most powerful late song of the evening was “Jupiter” from O’Donovan’s album In the Magic Hour – a visionary set of lyrics over an astral wash of cricket-hymn strings, evoking night skies and the primordial reach toward the stars. It was also a clarion call about our late-stage calamity climate, the great grief-hope of our times.
I think we’ll make it
Another seventy years
and that a hundred and one the only color we’ll see is clear
This future is blacker than a black hole
And I know it’s hard to get a read on when’s the right time to fold
If you keep on keepin’ on and keep your eyes fixed on the road
You’ll make it home
Tell me of star stuff
Steady in a cold night sky
Wherever you go I go I
Hit Jupiter and hang a ride
It’s a slow ride it’s a slow ride
The image lingered on Wednesday as the audience filed out of the theater and headed out into the night, and home.
Clare Byrne is a dancer-and-choreographer-turned-songwriter who has performed and taught in New York City and environs, Burlington, VT, and around the world. In addition to songwriting via guitar, harmonica and piano, her multi-art projects have included Weekly Rites, an improvisational dance blog, and The Poor Sister Clares Traveling Dancing Monk Show, an experiment in gospel dance and gardening in Vermont.