Matt & Shannon Heaton: Fine Winter's Night concert
Light snow mixed with sleet fell outside, Christmas ornaments in the shape snowflakes hung from the ceiling, and holiday garlands wrapped the mic stands. All that set the stage as Matt and Shannon Heaton presented music for the winter season to a warm and welcoming group of listeners at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The pair didn’t really need the holiday decorations to set the seasonal mood, though. Their music, holiday and otherwise, is grounded in both Irish and American traditions. For this show they began things with It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, and continued on with several jigs and reels. Matt explained that “anything to do with animals, stables, or colors” was going to fit their seasonal outlook and the audience, clapping and laughing, agreed.
Matt plays guitar and bouzouki, Shannon plays flutes and whistles, and they both sing and write songs and tunes. Matt taught audience members the refrain of his original song First Snowfall of December, a story which is a glimpse of Victorian Massachusetts at winter and a timeless love story as well. Shannon took the lead on Star Song, with words from seventeenth century English poet Robert Herrick set to a slip jig melody which she had composed. The couple ventured into Catalonian music -- and a funny story about Shannon’s love for watching birds -- for Carol of the Birds, and told the tale of how their friend Andrew Calhoun, hearing they were making a Christmas album, sent them an African American spiritual called De Newborn Baby. They looked at it and agreed “that just wasn’t going to work for an Irish duo,” Matt said. But Shannon felt there must be a reason they’d been sent the song, and kept trying to come up with different arrangements for it. “She’s keep trying to sneak it in on me at rehearsal,” Matt said. “She’d say ‘play these chords,’ and then she’d start to sing, and I’d go oh no, you’re trying to sneak in the African fisherman song on me again!” One day, though, they did hit on something worked well after, as Matt painted out, “changing the chords, the rhythm, the meter -- and the words!” After all that they felt it only right to change the title too. Fisherman’s Lullaby became a lovely mix of African American and Celtic musical ideas, true to both.
In recognition of seasonal fellowship, and of the cold night, free hot chocolate was offered at the break between sets, as the Heatons chatted with old friends and new acquaintances in the crowd. Much of the music they played through the evening was material they’d recorded on their Christmas album Fine Winter’s Night. The album was launched at just such a concert at Club Passim in December of the previous year, in what may have the making of a holiday tradition.
The title track of that album, an original by Shannon which looks at the light and dark of winter, and the crisp instrumentals First Dust of Snow and the slow air Christmas in Mt. Horeb paired with The Naked Feet -- and the stories behind those tunes -- were also crowd favorites as the evening continued. So was the tale of Julius the Christmas Cat, “I’d always noticed there was no cat among the animals at the nativity scenes,” Shannon said, “and I decided that he was wiped out, curled up asleep, after having worked so hard on the preparations.” That idea became a gentle holiday song. Carrying on the animal theme, the couple responded to an audience request with a lively take on If I Were a Blackbird. The Wexford Carol, going back to twelfth century Ireland, and Day Dawn, a haunting New Year’s tune from Shetland, as well as the familiar song O Little Town of Bethlehem, sung as a lullaby, were also part of the mix. When the crowd called Matt and Shannon heaton back for an encore, they surprised with a lively version of Blue Christmas, including a final verse setting the song among Boston and Cambridge landmarks. A fine winter’s night, indeed.
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