Celtic Classic 2001
in Bethlehem, PA
(28-30 September 2001)

The Celtic Classic is a musical buffet. This annual music festival, now in its 14th year, always offers plenty of choices and, unlike some festivals, it's not just local talent, either. The Classic always brings top-notch entertainment to the big tents in downtown Bethlehem -- the only downside is deciding who and what to see. Fortunately, most performers have several time slots during the three-day weekend, so patrons have more than one chance to catch their acts.

This year, I missed the Friday night festivities (darn the office, anyway!) but managed to spend the bulk of Saturday and Sunday making my way between the various stages. And, just like every year, I came away fully sated after sampling a wide array of Celtic musical styles. While I often opted for short samples of various performers rather than extended stays at any particular shows (with a few exceptions), I certainly got my fill of the festival's many talents on display.

First on my agenda Saturday was Charlie Zahm, a big man in a kilt who belts out traditional songs like nobody's business. Zahm was joined for the sing-along fete by Tad Marks, who added fresh fiddle layers to Zahm's giant sound.

There was only a short time to catch Aoife Clancy -- a soulful Irish singer with newly cropped hair and a paired-down backing band taking the place of Cherish the Ladies with Aoife on stage -- before dashing across the grounds to hear the tail-end of Raglan Road, a wild, jammin' performance by rock stars with a traditional heart. Then I mellowed out a bit with Scots fiddler Alasdair Fraser, who mesmerized the crowd with a heart-touching interpretation of "Neil Gow's Lament for His Second Wife" before picking up the pace with some livelier dance tunes.

After a series of short sprints through the festival grounds, I was ready to sit down for a bit of relaxation. The wrong place for relaxing was the Grand Pavilion, where the Wrigley Sisters from the Scottish Orkneys were showing off their distinctive styles on fiddle and guitar. Jennifer and Hazel, twins separated by a mere five minutes, have an easy, symbiotic relationship on the stage, and both gave very expressive performances. Their facial interpretations of the music they play are a treat to watch. The set ended with an amazing blast of tunes, a medley lasting more than 10 minutes -- ending with Hazel on only five strings after snapping a string.

Next, Maggie Drennon, who earned quite a following fronting SixMileBridge, unveiled her new project, the Maggie Drennon Band. Still partnered with her husband, Anders Johansson, on "traditional Irish electric guitar," and adding Jared Pollack on drums, Maggie led the way with powerful, bluesy vocals, underscoring the sound on bass. SixMileBridge fans will of course notice the absence of bagpipes, and Maggie's fiddle is woefully underused. (It will, she promised later, return more as the new band finds its feet.) The new trio showcased a mix of 6MB standards ("Black is the Color," "Witch of the Westmorelands," "Rising of the Moon") and new material ("Brand New Legacy," a Maggie original, and the racing "Galway Farmer"). Maggie even brought new life to "Broom of the Cowdenknowes," employing a driving edge to transform a song I usually find dull into something exciting.

Next was Seamus Kennedy -- just a voice, a guitar and a man who never fails to please an audience. He kept the crowd laughing with songs such as "American Beer," "I Wanna Be a Dog" and "Old MacDonald's Deformed Farm," as well as a host of Murphy and O'Brien jokes -- believe it or not, he can even make a DUI arrest funny. Then I was off to the Bairn Yard to play a few tunes at the anything-goes seisiun (which may have actually yielded some future gigs for my own Irish band).

The highlight of the day was a two-hour blast from Clandestine, a Texas quartet that always puts on an exciting show. This one kept me for the duration, and I wasn't the only one -- the Tavern in the Glen tent was packed to bursting with enthusiastic fans, and moshing efforts were started (and quickly squashed) fairly early. But that didn't keep Jen, Gregory, E.J. and Emily from putting on a nonstop, kickass performance.

Only the packed conditions (and the presence of Gregory's wife, mother and daughter in the front rows) prevented the full-scale frenzied dancing that usually accompanies a Clandestine appearance in Bethlehem. Still, the crowd didn't seem displeased, and the two-hour slot just flew by. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it back to the Grand Pavilion for the conclusion of Solas' end-of-the-night performance.

Sunday provided more chances to see this year's featured performers, including additional sets by Alasdair Fraser and the Wrigley Sisters. Next up was the Glengarry Bhoys, an Ontario folk-rock band. The band has added a ghirl, fiddler Shelley Downing, since the last time I saw them; her presence seems to have inspired new energy into their show, and they gave a majorly high-energy performance, with pipes and fiddle bouncing and ricocheting all over the stage. There was only time to hear a few minutes of the strong, traditional sounds of Morning Star before other obligations took me away; rest assured, I made it back in time for Clandestine's final show, which closed the festival.

The Celtic Classic never disappoints. I recommend this festival highly to anyone with a passion for Celtic music, old and new. I can't wait 'til the 15th annual.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 3 November 2001