By Earle Hitchner
22ND ANNUAL WASHINGTON IRISH FOLK FESTIVAL, at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, Gaithersburg, Md. Sept. 5-6.
The first 21 years of this Irish festival were productively spent at Glen Echo Park, Md., and Wolf Trap, Vienna, Va. The reasons for the 1998 move to these fairgrounds in Gaithersburg, an agrarian community until the suburban sprawl of the early 1970s, were twofold: to expand to a two-day event and to have more space in which to grow, which it undoubtedly will if the artistic and commercial success of this weekend is any indication.
The paid attendance of 13,000 at the new location and date — shifting from Memorial Day to Labor Day weekend — confirmed the widespread appeal of this Irish festival, probably the best in America and favorably comparing to the multi-genre Tønder festival on the southwest Jutland peninsula in Denmark.
Altan and Solas, the two hottest Irish traditional bands today, each put on spectacular performances during the weekend. But what further distinguished their sets and made them enduringly memorable is the consideration they showed other musicians.
Altan’s encore Saturday night on the Maple Avenue Tent stage featured a former bandmate, fiddler Paul O’Shaughnessy, now a member of the Irish quartet Beginish. The band was already well into a rousing medley of four reels when they gestured for O’Shaughnessy, standing by the stage, to grab his fiddle and join them. He came up and slipped right into his old spot aside Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Ciarán Tourish, their three fiddles blazing away in sync, wiping away the years since O’Shaughnessy departed the band because of familial obligations. It was a brilliant, emotional close to Altan’s set, and the quintet managed to equal this night’s performance the next afternoon on the same stage.
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The throng greeting Altan’s concerts was matched by the same big top-bursting crowds awaiting Solas’ performances. In the three years they’ve been together –and the Washington Irish Folk Festival was a key early launching site for the quintet — Solas have progressed in their music with astonishing yet assured speed. They, too, brought out a guest instrumentalist toward the end of their festival-closing concert Sunday night: Albert Alfonso, a bodhrán maker from Dallas, who sat in with one of his own hand-crafted frame drums. As with Altan, a prolonged, well-earned standing ovation capped Solas’ concert.
Humor, too, was in welcome abundance throughout the weekend. When a passing train blasted its horn during a Saturday afternoon medley by Solas that featured button accordionist Mick McAuley, Seamus Egan quipped, "We’ve finally found an instrument that can play with the accordion."
A spirit of musical generosity infused the performances of other artists as well. Preceding Solas onstage Sunday night was the Green Fields of America, an ensemble marking their 20th anniversary. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Mick Moloney, leader and founder of the group, was joined by past and present Green Fielders: Seamus Egan, Brendan Mulvihill, Billy McComiskey, Kieran O’Hare, Jimmy Keane, and Zan McLeod. Partway through their standout set, Moloney invited Dublin singer Frank Harte to come up and sing a song. And during his own solo concert on Saturday night, Harte invited Solas vocalist Karan Casey, who has acknowledged Harte as a source of inspiration, to sing a few songs, one of which was a spellbinding rendition of "Roger the Miller," on which Harte lent occasional vocal harmony.
By himself, Harte can hold an audience in thrall by both the power of his singing and the piquant introduction he gives each song, putting it into proper historical perspective with his own refreshing insights, many of which challenge the status quo of revisionist history. Drawing from his superb new album, "1798: The First Year of Liberty," Harte sang songs of rebellion in a way that conveyed the humanity of its participants, whether a grieving mother or a defiant insurgent. He put faces on names, and names on places, depicting events and personalities with a master painter’s precision and controlled passion.
Traditional dancing has always been a popular staple of the festival, and on the Grandstand Tent stage Sunday afternoon were eight Irish stepdancers, five Cape Breton stepdancers, one sean-nós stepdancer from County Meath, and three unscheduled Appalachian cloggers. Donny Golden, Cara Butler, John Timm, Heather Donovan, Deirdre Goulding, Sinead Lawlor, Kevin Broesler, and John Jennings comprised the Irish contingent; Mairi Rankin, Mack Morin, Rodney MacDonald, Melody Cameron, and Harvey Beaton represented Cape Breton Island; Mick Mulkerrin did some old-style steps, and Megan Downes, Heidi Kulas, and Matt Olwell, from Footworks, demonstrated America’s own respected clogging tradition. The overflow crowd reveled in the high level of dancing they were seeing, all set to music played by Mick Moloney on banjo, Billy McComiskey on button accordion, Kieran O’Hare on uilleann pipes, Jim Eagan on fiddle, and John Doyle on guitar.
Comprising John Whelan on button accordion, Liz Knowles on fiddle, Robin Bullock on guitar and cittern, and Tom Wetmore on bass, the John Whelan Band gave three exceptional concerts this weekend. A highlight for them certainly came in the Cattle Pavilion Saturday afternoon when Whelan leaped from the stage and, while still playing, mock-chased a young toddler across an aisle. Whelan’s uncanny ability to break the barrier between stage and audience never fails to delight crowds everywhere he and his top-flight band perform.
Notable performances over the weekend were also given by Beginish: singer and accordionist Brendan Begley, from Brandon Creek, Co. Kerry; flutist Paul McGrattan, from Dublin; bouzouki player Noel O’Grady, from Swinford, Co. Mayo, and Paul O’Shaughnessy, from Dublin. Founded in 1996 and named after one of the Blasket Islands off the coast of Kerry, the quartet offered an impressive blend of Kerry, Dublin, and Donegal music.
Of similarly recent vintage are Cimeara, a new band out of Virginia who sport four promising young Irish-American musicians: fiddler Brendan Callahan, Aran Olwell on uilleann pipes and fiddle, Paddy League on bodhrán and other percussion, and Brian Aspey on guitar. Younger still were the "Next Generation" instrumentalists, who included Maryland’s hammer dulcimer player Arjuna Balaranjian, harper Gabe Osborne, and button accordionist Seán McComiskey (son of Billy); New York State button accordionist Dan Gurney and fiddler Patrick Mangan, and Boston fiddler Doug Lamey, grandson of legendary fiddler Bill Lamey.
Inside the Pub venue early Saturday evening, fiddler Brendan Mulvihill, button accordionist Billy McComiskey, and guitar/bouzouki ace Zan McLeod joined forces for a seamless performance. Seeing Mulvihill and McComiskey ease into their past musical roles was a decided treat for anyone who fondly recalls their celebrated tenure in the Irish Tradition trio.
Craft exhibits, lectures and readings, regional dance-school presentations, family activities, and sheepdog herding and Irish horse-jumping demonstrations rounded out the 22nd annual Washington Irish Folk Festival, co-sponsored by Montgomery County and the National Council for the Traditional Arts, who together mounted an event destined for still greater international acclaim in the years to come.