Joanie Madden, founding member of the traditional Irish singing group Cherish the Ladies, is chockablock full of folksy colloquialisms. She actually used the word "chockablock" in a telephone interview, as well as phrases like "only the strongest trees survive" and "pulling my leg." Madden is a singing, flute- and whistle-playing blend of Irish wit and New York no-nonsense, and this dichotomy is not lost on her. In fact, it may very well be the key to her success.
"I was a girl from the Bronx playing Irish music," said Madden. "Now I'm part of the most successful Celtic musical group in the world."
Celebrating its 25th year, Cherish the Ladies went from playing 100-seat-venues to filling symphony halls. The six-woman band - Madden, Mary Coogan, Roisin Dillon, Michelle Burke, Mirella Murray and Kathleen Boyle - will be at the Mahaffey Theater this week, performing with the Florida Orchestra for one night only. Then it's off to New York, Rhode Island, Michigan and Oklahoma, with a pond-skip to Scotland. They're all over the place, but it all started in a crowded home in the Bronx.
"My father was a fantastic musician. He passed music down to us kids. I'm the only one of seven who plays traditional Irish music, and my mother says she's glad because one lunatic is enough," Madden recalled.
Madden took lessons from Irish-American flutist Jack Coen and went on to win world championships in flute and whistle. She became the first American to win the Senior All-Irish Championship on the whistle. Her fellow band mates - both American- and Irish-born - share equally impressive musical backgrounds, all of which will be showcased at the Mahaffey concert.
Accompanied by the Florida Orchestra and traditional Irish step dancers, Cherish the Ladies will perform songs from their latest Christmas album, "A Star in the East," as well as classics such as "The First Noel" and "Silent Night."
"We have some new charts being made that we're christening in St. Pete. I love performing with the symphony behind us. It never fails to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck," Madden said.
The same could be said of audiences when these women harmonize vocals with the accordion, fiddle, piano and flute.
But no matter where they are in the world or how many accolades they receive - and there have been plenty - their talent, pride in heritage and busy schedule keep them grounded.
"We're chockablock through May, and summer is filling up. A lot of good things are coming. When the Celtic boom happened, we were part of it. We rode the Celtic wave. Only the strongest trees survive. We're there and we love it," said Madden.
Cherish the Ladies: A Celtic Christmas
WHAT: Special concert with Cherish the Ladies
WHEN AND WHERE: 8 p.m. Wednesday at Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S., St. Petersburg
TICKETS: $25 to $70; call (727) 892-3337 or 1-800-662-7286, or visit www.floridaorchestra.org