at Fado's in Washington, D.C.
(14 April 1999)

There is something pleasantly multicultural about watching an American band from Houston, Texas, play Scottish music in an Irish pub in the heart of Chinatown in Washington, D.C.

That's where I was and what I was doing Wednesday, when Clandestine rocked the house at Fado's of D.C. Adding to the evening's melting pot atmosphere was a rowdy, hard-drinking, table-thumping and floor-stomping contingent of military personnel from around the world. In D.C. for the NATO military alliance's historic 50th anniversary summit, they had stumbled into Fado's because it looked like a good place for a drink.

I had just driven down from Lancaster, Pa., and was there with pal Margaret to see the band. I'd discovered Clandestine quite by accident at the 1997 Celtic Fest in Bethlehem, Pa., an annual festival of music, merchants and games for brawny would-be Scotsmen. Having heard the band once, I left for home with a pair of CDs and plans to return for their second performance the next day. And I made a point of going to Bethlehem the following year to catch all of their shows. But this Texas quartet plays in the Mid-Atlantic region all too infrequently, so when I heard about the D.C. gig, staying at home was not an option. Clandestine, tight and energetic as ever, made sure the drive was worthwhile.

The band is fronted by former art student Jennifer Hamel, who plays a mean rhythm guitar and sings with a warm, strong and dusky flair. Vocally, I think she sounds something like Natalie Merchant would sound if she wised up and learned to sing Celtic songs. Hamel leads the band with a demeanor that is refreshingly unassuming and unpretentious, and a re-occurring grin that seems to hint at a really bawdy joke that she's simply bursting to tell.

To Hamel's right is Gregory McQueen, whose bluff and brawny appearance (rather as I picture the character Blue in Charles de Lint's novel Moonheart) belies a delicate and extremely dextrous fiddler. McQueen's playing is, I think, the backbone of Clandestine's signature sound, uniformly strong whether he's providing light harmonies to complement Hamel's voice or shaking the shingles with a wild set of hornpipes, jigs and reels. He occasionally sits his fiddle aside to add an extra layer of percussion, playing his bodhran with wild abandon.

Dominating a fair share of the instrumentals, to Hamel's left, is E.J. Jones, who rattles the silverware with his Highland bagpipes. Jones accomplishes a mean feat, filling the room with sound without overdoing it (as many well-meaning pipers are wont to do when playing in enclosed spaces). A bonus Wednesday evening was Jones' preview performance on the sidewalk outside; following the distant sound of pipes through the bustle of Chinatown adds a certain spice to the moment.

McQueen and Jones successfully blend fiddle and pipes in a number of sets -- an instrumental combination which works very well despite the obvious disparity in sheer volume capacity. Jones also plays tin and low whistles and the mellower small pipes.

Behind them all, working the sound board as well as a bodhran, congas and other percussion, is Emily Dugas. In addition to some lively beats which set hands and pulses pounding, Dugas adds an ear-catching layer of vocal harmonies to many of Hamel's songs. (If you want to know how much difference a backing vocalist can make, compare Clandestine's first and second albums. Both are excellent, but the addition of Dugas's vocals on The Haunting makes the texture all the sweeter.)

For nearly three hours, Clandestine kept the Fado pub crowd hopping. The band's instrumental sets are nothing short of electrifying and, between tunes, Hamel led the band through some wonderful songs including her lovely original, "Dunlavy's Castle," and a grand duet with Dugas called "Cannonball." At the request of one member of the enthusiastic corps of NATO peacekeepers, Hamel dredged the lyrics to the breathless "Rocky Road to Dublin" from memory, to the delight of the crowd. Hamel's singing alone could satisfy me for a show, and I could easily sit through a few hours of nothing but the band's energetic instrumentals. Combined, it's a phenomenal evening of music.

Of course, live entertainment often comes with surprises, and the band got one when the NATO lads pushed a willing Irish comrade onto the stage, where he soloed for one slow ballad and led the crowd through a lively rendition of "Molly Malone." Band members bore the interruption good-naturedly, as they did also when the pub's willful jukebox occasionally kicked in during their sets.

Glitches notwithstanding, Clandestine is without a doubt one of the best American bands working the Celtic music circuit. If there's any justice in the music world, this band will go far.

[ by Tom Knapp ]