Three musical friends: Hilari Farrington, Benedict Koehler & Sarah Blair wax Irish
Fiddler Sarah Blair
Courtesy Plainfield Opera House
Three of Vermont’s leading Irish music players, Hilari Farrington, Benedict Koehler and Sarah Blair, open the Plainfield Opera House’s 2023 Winter-Spring Series at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22. This trio of outstanding musicians are longtime friends and stalwarts of the Vermont Irish music community. The three lead music sessions and also teach.
Farrington, a former librarian at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, plays Irish harp and button accordion. Her husband, Benedict Koehler, is a leading exponent of the uilleann pipes and a fine whistle player. Sarah Blair on fiddle has appeared with a number of Irish-style groups and has the distinction of having performed in concert with former Eagles drummer and vocalist Don Henley in 2000.
As a trio, Farrington, Koehler and Blair will give a very singular sound to the music. As has been the case for nearly six decades, most Irish bands have either a guitar or Irish bouzouki as a rhythm instrument. This trio will carry the rhythm in its playing. This is the traditional way Irish music was performed before the the late 1950s.
“We usually program some world or traditional music for the Opera House concert series and found out that Hilari and Benedict were working with Sarah and asked if they would want to perform at the series,” said series director Steven Light. He thinks the music will fit in perfectly with the five other concerts of classical music and a play.
“People are excited to have Irish music in general, and those interested in the music locally know about Blair, Farrington and Koehler, who are world-class musicians,” said Light.
Light said the pipes, accordion and fiddle were, “a perfect combination of instruments.”
If you are unfamiliar with these three musicians and wonder what to expect from the concert, Blair said you won’t be disappointed. “We share a love for super-traditional Irish music, and we also have different nooks and crannies within trad music that we’re into.” She said the upcoming concert gave them an opportunity to create a set list “that was a blast.”
The three have played together for 30 years. Farrington and Koehler live in East Montpelier and until a year ago, Blair lived in Montpelier. Together, said Blair, “we have an enormous shared repertoire, and it was fun to put together a nice mix of dance tunes and ‘listening’ tunes.”
The band has “unearthed some tunes we haven’t played in years!” said Blair. “Most of all, I hope folks will hear what we hear in this music, that it’s been made beautiful by passing through many hands.”
“We met back in the early 1990s,” remembered Farrington. With a vibrant Irish music scene in Vermont at the time, “We started playing together at sessions and house parties, picking up repertoire from each other over the years. So, this is a long-standing friendship, both musical and otherwise.”
According to Farrington, “Irish music has always been social music, and we hope that this performance will reflect our friendship, as well as the musicians who have influenced us along the way.”
Explaining how an Irish music session evolves, she said, “you never just play tune after tune. Between tunes, there’s always the chat about the music and the people we learned it from. So, we’d like to think that we’ll be inviting the audience into our kitchen session, where we’ll not only share some music, but also the stories behind what we play.”
Asked about the instruments she plays, Farrington said she likes to play accordion, or “the box,” for jigs and reels. Harp is her preferred instrument for music composed in the 17th and 18th centuries, “when harp was king and button accordion hadn’t yet been used in Irish music.”
For those unfamiliar with the uilleann pipes, Koehler explained the difference from bagpipes. “Unlike the Scottish bagpipes, the Irish, or uilleann pipes, are powered by a bellows rather than the lungs. Since the reeds don’t have to withstand humid air from the lungs, they can be more delicate and therefore the instrument is quieter. Additionally, the uilleann pipes have a much greater range (two octaves as opposed to nine notes) and are fitted with additional components that provide chordal accompaniment.” Koehler is an internationally known uilleann pipe builder.
Blair said a highlight of her career was the Don Henley tour. “I was asked to sub for fiddler Liz Carroll for a couple of weeks on his 2000 tour. That was a time when the sounds and flavors of Irish music were showing up all over the place, so it wasn’t that strange that someone like Don Henley wanted to include it. It was surreal, exciting and kind of terrifying. I only played on one song, the second encore — so there was a lot of hanging around backstage playing tunes.”
If you want to hear what the three musicians sound like there are a few tracks on Blair’s lone solo album “Flower of the Red Mill,” on which Farrington and Koehler join her. We are told that in production is an album of Irish traditional music in Vermont, titled “The Wild Geese,” on which all three, as well as other Vermont musicians are featured. It has a 2023 release date.