Irish singer Mary Black returns to Valley on final American tou

  • “By the Time it Gets Dark,” released in 1987, made Black a huge star in Ireland and opened doors for her in America. The album has been remixed and remastered for a 30th anniverary edition.

  • Celebrated Irish singer Mary Black, who intended her American tour a few years ago to be her last, is having one last go this summer. She comes to Northampton’s Academy of Music Sunday, July 30. Photo by Gavin Leane

  • Mary Black performs Sunday at the Academy of Music in Northampton, on her last U.S. tour. Photo by Gavin Leane

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2017

A few years ago, Mary Black played in Europe and the United States on what she was calling her “Last Call” tour. The Irish singer, who had been touring worldwide since the 1980s and had sold millions of records, was looking to wind things down as she approached her 60th birthday.

But on the U.S. leg of the tour, Black wasn’t able to get to a number of places where she’d wanted to perform — so she has extended that tour to this summer, including a stop at Northampton’s Academy of Music on Sunday at 7:30 p.m., her first show ever at the venerable theater.

And she’s not coming empty-handed, so to speak. This year, Black has released a remixed, 30th anniversary version of her 1987 album “By the Time it Gets Dark,” a record that made her a huge star in Ireland and also helped build a substantial American audience for her.

Along with a few traditional Irish tunes, the album featured the songs of some up-and-coming Irish songwriters of the time, as well as songs first popularized by other artists, like Australia’s Eric Bogle and Texas folk/country singer Nanci Griffith.

“By the Time it Gets Dark” began to build Black’s reputation as a strong interpreter of other artists’ songs, as well as a good judge of new material. More than that, the record showcased her crystal-clear voice — what one reviewer called “simply one of the loveliest in the world.” 

In a recent phone call from her home in Dublin, Black said she’s thrilled with the remixed version of “By the Time it Gets Dark,” an album whose songs she always liked but which she felt suffered from a few production flaws, like too much reverb. And she said she’s happy to get another chance to sing in the U.S.

“After the last tour, I was feeling a little guilty that we didn’t take in all the places we would have liked,” she said. “It’s a big country, you know.”

“Afterwards we heard from a number of people — you know, emails, ‘Why didn’t you come here,’ that sort of thing,” she added. “So it’s lovely to go back now.”

The tour began yesterday, in fact, in eastern Massachusetts; Black says she has always gotten a good reception in the commonwealth, particularly in the Boston area, given its significant Irish-American population.

All in the family

 Black, born in Dublin in 1955, grew up in a musical family — her father was a fiddler, her mother a singer — and first honed her voice on traditional Irish songs. She later sang in a number of Irish folk groups, and she was also part of another — The Black Family— with her sister, Frances, and brothers Shay, Michael and Martin.

She made her way in her own career, though, by blending a mix of fresh versions of older ballads and her interpretations of songs by newer writers and singers.

“By the Time it Gets Dark” offers a good example of that. The album includes cuts by Irish songwriters such as Jimmy McCarthy and Johnny Duhan who were beginning to make their mark at the time. Then there’s “Farewell, Farewell,” written by Richard Thompson when he was with Fairport Convention, and the title song, written by the late English folksinger Sandy Denny, who had also been in that band.

Denny “was a huge influence on me, especially as a teenager,” said Black. “I still think of her — her spirit continues to follow me.”

Around that time, Black also met Nanci Griffith, who was in the early stages of her career and was building an audience in Ireland; Black sang backup vocals for her when Griffith performed on Irish television. That led Black to record “Once in a Very Blue Moon,” an early hit for Griffith and the title song to her third album.

Over the years, Black developed connections to a number of other American singers such as Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter, performing and recording with them. She says she has long had an affinity for some types of American country music, particularly the ballads and other songs associated with Appalachia.

“There are some real connections between that music and our own, because a lot of [Irish] emigrants ended up settling in places like that,” she said. “We can hear that in American music.”

Overall, the new version of “By the Time it Gets Dark” has a rich but lean sound, built around delicately picked (and occasionally strummed) acoustic guitars, bass, piano and a bit of accordion, saxophone and strings.

The emphasis is always on supporting Black’s vocals, which can be alternately heartbreaking on songs like “Schooldays Over,” a tale of teenage boys sent to work in northern England’s coal mines, and more optimistic on cuts like “Katie” and the title song.

“It was a strange but still a good feeling to be back in the studio for the remix, hearing all these songs and remembering how it happened,” said Black. “Suddenly you’re there all over again, and the memories come flooding back.”

Black won’t be singing all the cuts from “By the Time it Gets Dark” on her tour, but she says she’ll highlight several of them while performing songs from some of her other best-selling records such as “No Frontiers,” “Babes in the Wood” and “The Holy Ground.”

And though it’s uncertain if she’ll be joined onstage by any of her American musical friends, she will be making time for family on the tour: Two of her brothers now live in San Francisco, where she’ll do her final U.S. show, and will likely get a call to join her on some numbers.

And notably, her daughter, Róisín O, a singer-songwriter in her own right who won a number of Irish music awards last year, is opening her shows and also performs with her mother on some of Black’s songs.

“It’s great to have her with me,” said Black.

After her tour, Black is looking forward to spending time with her two grandchildren, painting, and doing some travel unconnected to touring — visiting places in a more leisurely way. “At my age, time is precious,” she said.

But she’s still planning to leave time for some occasional performing, at least in Ireland. “I can’t imagine giving up singing entirely,” she said. “It would be like cutting off my arm.”

Mary Black performs at Northampton’s Academy of Music Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Róisín O opens. For tickets and additional information, visit www.aomtheatre.com.






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