12th annual Irish Festival
at Stonehill College,
Easton, Mass. (7-9 June 2002)

Celtic Clan • The Cottars • The Fenians • Gaelic Storm • Anthony Kearns • The McCabes • Patrick Street • Pulse • Seven Nations • Derek Warfield • The Whole Shabang • and more!

Rain put a damper on the first day of the 12th annual Irish Festival, a product of the Irish Cultural Centre of Massachusetts, but while Friday evening's activities were drowned out by the weather, Saturday cooperated with sunny skies that quickly dried the mud at Stonehill College and left a gorgeous day in its wake.

My first visit to this friendly New England festival made a great impression. Variety is a big part of the event, giving patrons a hearty selection of Celtic traditional and Celtic rock music on three stages, with a fourth for stepdancers. An extra bonus is the author's tent -- music isn't the only thing in the spotlight in Easton, where local and international authors had a chance to discuss their work.

Old Brigade got the festival off to a lively start in the dance tent, working up the crowd with a selection of familiar Irish pub songs and fiddle sets. While David O'Docherty explained the history and demonstrated the technique of the wooden Irish flute in the bard's tent (at times competing with the bagpipers at the Ancient Order of Hibernians tent next door), Oiston MacBride discussed the political climate in Ireland in the author's tent.

MacBride's book, Family, Friends & Neighbors, is packed with personal and national experiences in Northern Ireland, and his lecture put a human face on the issues. "This book is not a story of yesterday," MacBride told his audience. "The stories that are written here are still going on. People are being killed today."

Things got moving on the main stage with the Whole Shabang, a band from southeast Ireland with a rockin' blend of mixed traditions. The set included an Irish variation on "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," its sequel "The Devil's Return," a couple of bass-heavy fiddle and accordion sets, a rockin' "Fields of Athenry" and "Nobody Loves Like the Irish," a song explaining how the people from such a tiny island have spread so far. "Dirty Old Town" was arranged with such a western swing flair that it inspired a group of young, giggling girls to attempt a line dance on the grassy slope.

This festival certainly kept me moving. A quick stop by the author's tent gave me some background on Irish bard Turlough O'Carolan from Art Edelstein, whose book Fair Melodies was a labor of love. "When you're obsessed, things like this happen," he said. Meanwhile, the Boston duo Bedlam was serving up traditional sets in the bard's tent while the Alfie O'Shea Band kept up an ambling pace in the dance tent.

O'Connell Street was the name given to a bustling marketplace of shops offering the usual array of Celtic wares. A few carnival rides and the standard carnival food stands were tucked at the far end, distracting little from the Celtic focus of the event. There was, alas, a shameful lack of beer lines (only two!), and too few vendors offered anything other than heavily fried edibles.

The sun was beating down on the grassy field by the time the Cottars, a young quartet from Cape Breton, took the main stage. The sun drove many into an overgrown but shady patch to one side of the lawn, but it couldn't take them away from the music.

Fronted by 11-year-old fiddler Roseanne MacKenzie, the band goes far to show that the future of Cape Breton music is in good hands. Sharing the stage are Roseanne's 14-year-old Jimmy MacKenzie and siblings Ciaran and Fiona MacGillivray, 13 and 11. All four are talented multi-instrumentalists, singers and stepdancers who shared a selection of Gaelic love songs, ballads and tune sets. The Cottars show excellent poise and talent for their youth, and their talent is unmistakable.

In the author's tent, it was Peter Stevens' turn to recount the riveting tale of The Voyage of Catalpa, a daring Australian prison break in 1876. At the neighboring stage, young Irish stepdancers began showing off their skills, while at the bard's tent, the crowd overflowed from a performance by the O'Carolan Group. Then it was back to the main stage, now running more than 30 minutes behind schedule, where Toronto's Chanda Gibson and Pulse were exhibiting some fiddle and footwork. Led by the former principal dancer from The Needfire, the group worked through a series of French-Canadian fiddle tunes, waltz clogs and more. The tireless Gibson, just two weeks from her wedding day, also took a turn on the Middle Eastern drum for a fiddle duet.

New York band the McCabes were next, ripping through songs like "Spanish Lady," "Donegal Joe," "Dreaming of You" and "I'll Tell Me Ma" -- utterly failing to get the audience singing along on the last one, a failure I'll chalk up to the mid-afternoon heat. But the band, untouched by the sun-induced lethargy, maintained high-volume pep with "Have a Guinness Every Day," a tale of an unrelenting love for the black.

The McCabes' next jammin' fiddle tune followed me to the bard's tent, where Aideen O'Donnell held a rapt crowd with lovely harp tunes and songs. But my goal was further along. Armed with a platter of Irish munchies, I sat down in the dance tent as singer/accordion player Dermott O'Brien led a packed dance floor crowd through the paces while playing karaoke-style over a canned drum and bass line.

The Fenians turned the Celtic rock energy up a notch -- and took credit for bringing a bit of their southern California weather along on their plane. Their set included songs like "The Rare Oul Mountain Dew," Andy M. Stewart's "Take Her in Your Arms" with a bit of saxophone for style, "The San Patricios," "I'll Tell Me Ma," "Star of the County Down" combined with "The Fighting 69th," "Go Move Shift" and a rousing "Young Ned of the Hill." Oh, and who can forget their rendition of that Johnny Cash favorite, "Burning Ring of Fire," to say nothing of an unexpectedly operatic "Danny Boy"?

Next up was the Bard's tent for some lovely set pieces by Joe Derrane, John McGann and Seamus Connolly. They were followed by a round robin seisun featuring members of the Irish Cultural Centre.

Derek Warfield, a 38-year veteran of the Wolfe Tones, held court on the main stage with the Songs of Erin at about the same time extra shirts and jackets started popping out among the crowd. Warfield evoked strong feelings of Irish nationalism with trademark songs including "Black and Tans" and "The Roll of Honor," a tribute to Bobby Sands and others who died in a 1981 hunger strike. "Our monuments are in our songs," Warfield said. "Our monuments are in our ballads."

Warfield was joined onstage by Dublin native Derrick Keane of the Boston band Inchicore, whose Friday evening show was rained out, for "The Streets of New York." Warfield's show continued with more nationalistic fervor, ranging from "The Irish Volunteer" and "Go On Home, British Soldiers, Go On Home" to "Broad Black Brimmer" and "The Ballad of James Connelly." Other songs in Warfield's set were less political, including "Dirty Old Town," "On the One Road," "Big Strong Man" and "Some Say the Divil is Dead" -- but Warfield brought it all back home at the end with a stirring rendition of "A Nation Once Again."

By 8 p.m., exposed fingers were starting to freeze, but Gaelic Storm cranked up the heat with an incredible set. From the rollicking "Go Home, Girl!" and the cautionary "Johnny Jump Up" to the nippy "Swimmin' in the Sea" and the nautical "Bonny Ship the Diamond," through traditionals like "I'll Tell Me Ma" and originals such as "Johnny Tarr," the former Titanic band kept energy levels high. Only the growing cold could mar the performance as more and more people packed into the grassy amphitheater, huddling together to share body heat, blanket bopping and clapping with finger-warming enthusiasm.

The wild set of tunes that ended their set wasn't enough for the crowd, so Gaelic Storm obliged with a distinctive interpretation of "Little Beggarman" all the way to its twirling climax.

Seven Nations jacked up the volume with an electric mix of Celtified rock to close the evening, but a muddy mix and muffled vocals seemed to drain the last bit of enthusiasm and the crowd began drifting away.

That wasn't it for everyone, though -- diehard music-lovers joined a fair number of performers in the pub at the Brockton Holiday Inn for a late-night singsong, with standards such as "Wild Rover," "Red is the Rose," "Spancil Hill" and even "Danny Boy" kept time with offerings such as "New York, New York," "Those Were the Days" and a sean nos rendition of "My Way." A set of uilleann pipes and a bodhran made an appearance for a few tunes, too.

Spirits were high, somewhat giddy, as revelers shared a kind of energy you'll never find on stage. This was no polished performance; it was a gathering of musicians, families and friends just having fun. Not everyone who did sing could -- and there were plenty of flubbed lines and missed verses before "The Parting Glass" closed the night.

Sunday dawned hotter, and by the crack of noon the sky was throwing down nothing but sun. While the Noel Henry Irish Showband started filling the floor in the dance tent, young New Englander Calley McGrane showed just what the local youngsters can do with a fiddle. Over on the main stage, Frank Ryan and Celtic Clan fired it up with their Boston-based brand of fast Irish tunes, traditional ballads and various oddities, drawing on everything from Hawaiian lei culture to The Muppet Show for inspiration. One medley of popular songs had the audience singing along with the likes of "A Nation Once Again" and "On the One Road," and fiddler Beth Sweeney joined the band for a rousing "Jig of Slurs" set finale.

It was going to be a hot one.

Patrick Street didn't have the crowd I expected -- it seems these days that bands without a bagpipe and an electric guitar won't get the big draw. It's unfortunate -- Patrick Street is a true supergroup, and the first jig set demonstrated ably just how polished these guys are. There was no flash or glitter about the set, no sound distortions or electronic thingamajigs to come between the acoustic sound and the seamless product.

The band is Kevin Burke on fiddle, Jackie Daly on accordion, Ged Foley on guitars, a bit of fiddle and vocals, and Andy Irvine on mandolin, bouzouki, harmonica and vocals. Irvine has a classic folk voice, a little worn at the edges, but filled with emotion as he sang the love of home that typifies Irish music. Foley's distinctive voice is warmer, deeper and very familiar to fans of his other project, the House Band.

I am, of course, in awe of Burke's fiddling, so very relaxed and assured, always so very precise.

Seats slowly started filling up as the wind kicked up, blissfully cool, and a few clouds started moving in. The show included many fine examples of Patrick Street's craft, from instrumentals like the "Devanney's Goat" set, "The Newmarket Polkas" and the band's trademark "Music for a Found Harmonium" to songs such as "The Dream/Indiana," "Stewball and the Monaghan Grey Mare" and "My Son in Amerikay." Irvine also sang "The Humours of the King of Ballyhooley," a song of sudden romance that's so happy, Burke said he finds it "just a little bit depressing."

Wrapping up with a final blast of reels, Patrick Street earned a standing ovation for the work, the casual showmanship exhibited by all four musicians and an utter lack of pretension in the band.

While the Andy Healy Band kept the dance tent hopping, Irish Tenor Anthony Kearns took the main stage to new vocal heights, blending Irish traditional songs with opera for a devastatingly good performance. Patrick Healy provided the assist, playing piano, singing a few songs and adding witticisms to the show. Kearns' songlist included "The Rose of Tralee" "It's Now or Never" (in Italian), a stirring "Danny Boy" and much more -- for an audience that never seemed to get enough of his exquisite voice.

My day was drawing to a close, as repeat performances by the Whole Shabang, the Fenians and Seven Nations weren't enough to keep me out in the sun. I made one final stop in the author's tent to hear Edward T. O'Donnell expound on his book, 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish-American History. O'Donnell provided a rapidfire discourse on numerous facts and fictions, from St. Patrick (there never were any snakes in Ireland to begin with) to Mother Jones.

Anyone who still wasn't sated by the weekend's music still had an option -- if they were lucky enough to have a ticket for a sold-out Gaelic Storm show at the Blackthorne Tavern in South Easton. The pub was jammed to the shingles with Storm enthusiasts who were treated to a reprise of some favorites from the festival performance, plus other numbers such as "Black is the Color," "The Cobbler" and "A Fairy Story," ending the weekend on another in a series of high notes.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 10 August 2002