By Earle Hitchner
23RD ANNUAL WASHINGTON IRISH FESTIVAL, Montgomery County Fairgrounds, Gaithersburg, Md., Sept. 4-5.
The menace of Dennis was certainly felt throughout this Labor Day weekend festival. Lashing rain from the tropical storm turned sod into bog, streets into streams, and plastic bags into impromptu ponchos. But that didn’t stop 150-plus performers from giving the surprisingly substantial crowds who braved the elements some of the finest music and dance in the festival’s proud history.
Making their festival debut, the quartet Lúnasa, joined by Armagh-born uilleann piper Cillian Vallely, were sensational, giving highly charged performances that had audiences in thrall. Backed by electric bassist Trevor Hutchinson and guitarist Donogh Hennessy, a superb instrumental pair who understand how to drive the rhythm without turning it into an autobahn, Kevin Crawford on flute, Seán Smyth on fiddle, and Vallely on pipes played with a swinging abandon and edgy virtuosity, creating a sound uniquely their own.
Two medleys in particular, "The Butlers of Glen Avenue/Sliabh Russell/Cathal McConnell’s" and "Lord Mayo/Gavotte/Maid of Mount Kisco," built teasingly, their intensity gaining like the storm outside, rolling inexorably to a stunning display of instrumental firepower. A huge hit with the crowd, Lúnasa left no doubt that they’re one of the most exciting bands on the Irish scene today.
Also making their festival debuts this weekend were two other bands from Ireland, Danú and Calico. Based in Waterford, Danú is a septet featuring Baltimore-born fiddler Jesse Smith, who has cut his musical teeth on this festival over the years. They played with high energy, and their fine singer, Ciarán Ó Gealbháin, was equally adept at songs in Irish and English.
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In contrast, Calico are a quintet based in Cork who took a more measured, fluid approach to their playing. Calico’s arrangements were often subtle and seductive, but at times their music slipped into a kind of dream state lacking focus.
The American-based band Solas is a perennial festival favorite. Their performances showed a greater vocal interdependence in the wake of Karan Casey’s departure, which has not diminished the band’s refreshing commitment to songs with socio-political bite. John Doyle sang "Miner’s Life Is Like a Sailor’s" with impressive grit, and the warning chorus of "Union miners, stand together / Do not heed the Coal Board’s tale / Keep your hand upon your wages / And your eye upon the scale" featured some fine vocal harmony from all five musicians.
Guesting with Solas this weekend was singer Deirdre Scanlan, hailing from Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, but living in Drogheda, Co. Louth. She has a lovely voice, clear and resonant, and it was heard to impressive advantage on such Solas staples as "I Am a Maid That Sleeps in Love" and "Johnny’s Gone for a Soldier" But where Scanlan truly shone was on "Bruach na Carraige Báine" ("Bank of the White Rocks"), a traditional song given supple instrumental support by Solas.
Based in Ennis, Co. Clare, the quintet Moving Cloud were just hitting their stride in a late Saturday afternoon concert when it was suddenly curtailed by a blown amp linked to rain seepage. Not to be denied by the downpour, Paul Brock, Manus McGuire, M’ve Donnelly, Carl Hession, and Kevin Crawford (who did double duty with Lúnasa) put on a sterling early Sunday afternoon performance that proved again why they are among Ireland’s instrumental elite.
Two bands brandishing a more plugged-in style of music were the Eileen Ivers Band and Mary Jane Lamond’s group. Anchored by a very talented drummer and electric bassist, the band led by fiddler Eileen Ivers offered music straddling trad, jazz, and a host of multicultural sounds. It didn’t always work, but when it did, as on "Jama," her music was transporting.
A gifted Gaelic singer from Canada, Lamond was backed by two electric guitarists, a drummer, a fiddler, and an electric keyboardist who also played a metal rubboard. The trad/hip-hop hit Lamond recorded with Cape Breton fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, "Sleepy Maggie," was a highlight of her early Sunday afternoon set.
Hewing to a sparer sound were two remarkable pairings that evoked the ageless beauty and vitality of the Irish tradition: Mike and Mary Rafferty, a father-daughter combination, and friends Eliot Grasso on uilleann pipes and Patrick Mangan on fiddle. Their performances had an ease and grace that struck to the heart of the music.
Tradition also rang true in the performances of Jimmy Keane, Robbie O’Connell, and National Heritage Fellow Mick Moloney, a trio of long-standing appeal whose vocal harmony on "Annan Water" was stunning; the Pride of New York Céilí Band (minus Felix Dolan, recovering from surgery); the trio of Brendan Mulvihill, Billy McComiskey, and Zan McLeod; the quartet Beginish; and the trio of Chris McLaughlin, Matt Mancuso, and Annmarie Acosta, all former pupils of the late Maureen Glynn Connolly from Brooklyn.
Dancing was another memorable component of the festival. Donny and Eileen Golden, John Timm and Heather Donovan, Kevin Broesler and Deirdre Goulding, and Jordan Dudley all distinguished themselves stepdancing, while Pat Murphy and Paddy Neylon ably taught and demonstrated set and sean-nós steps, respectively.
The festival concluded Sunday night in the spacious Cattle Pavilion with the ever-popular Cherish the Ladies. Their encore included a hilarious sendup of a certain dance "lord" by Joanie Madden, who wore a string headband and strutted about the stage with a peacock conceit that had the crowd roaring with laughter.
Rain, thunder, and lightning were no match for the exceedingly high level of music and dance at the festival, a tribute to the organizational skills and resilience of the National Council for the Traditional Arts that has sponsored it for four straight years. As Irish festivals go, it just doesn’t get any better than this one.