Category: Archive

Washington festival celebrates 23rd anniversary

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

"Last year I was walking down the midway with Brendan Begley," said Washington Irish Festival Director Chris Williams, recalling the stroll he took with the accordionist and singer at the festival site of Montgomery County Fairgrounds, "and he elbows me in the side and says, ‘It’s just like being at home. I grew up on a farm in Kerry, and this is what we would see at a summer fair or festival.’ "

With sheepdogs, Irish draught horses, Connemara ponies, and wolfhounds on display, the agricultural setting of the festival certainly fits in with both rural Maryland and rural Ireland. But animal magnetism aside, what truly separates this Irish festival from most others in America is the consistently high quality and remarkable diversity of its music and dance.

Sponsored for the last four years by the not-for-profit National Council for the Traditional Arts, the Washington Irish Festival will mark its 23rd anniversary this Labor Day weekend, Sept. 4 and 5, by hosting over 150 performers from Ireland, Canada, America, and the Orkney Islands on six concert stages.

Among the bands from Ireland are Lúnasa, Moving Cloud, Beginish, Calico, and Danú. "It’s Calico’s first time in America, it’s Lúnasa’s first time at our festival, and Danú, who are based in Waterford, will also make their festival debut, though one of its members, fiddler Jesse Smith, grew up in Baltimore and has played here many times in the past," said Chris Williams.

"We also have the Pride of New York Céilí Band coming. It’s an all-star assemblage: Joanie Madden, Billy McComiskey, Michael Fee, Felix and Brendan Dolan, and Brian Conway. In the past 18 months, they’ve played three or four big events, and we know they’ll be a special treat for all the dancers."

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Teaching traditional dance will be Dublin’s Pat Murphy for sets and Clare’s Paddy Neylon for sean-nós (old-style) steps. Dance performers will include Neylon, Donny and Eileen Golden, Kevin Broesler, Deirdre Goulding, John Timm, Heather Donovan, and Jillian Boucher and John Pellerin, both of whom are stepdancers and fiddlers from Cape Breton.

The U.S. contingent of musicians also features Jimmy Keane, Robbie O’Connell, and Mick Moloney. "We will be doing something special on stage Saturday afternoon to honor Mick," Williams said of Moloney, winner of a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship this year. Other stateside performers include Cherish the Ladies; the Eileen Ivers Band; Brendan Mulvihill, Billy McComiskey, and Zan McLeod; and Solas, with whom Deirdre Scanlan of Nenagh, Tipperary, will sing. A 1985 All-Ireland champion vocalist, Scanlan lives near Drogheda, Louth, and recently released a solo album, "Speak Softly."

Also appearing will be Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley, twin sisters on fiddle and guitar/piano from Scotland’s Orkney Islands, and Mary Jane Lamond, a Gaelic singer from Cape Breton with a rock-and-roll bent to her music.

The festival runs on Sept. 4 from noon to 10 p.m. and Sept. 5 from noon to 8 p.m. at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Gaithersburg, Md. Tickets and further information: (301) 565-0654, 877-278-0655, and www.ncta.net.

Moving Cloud tour

Based in County Clare, the talented all-instrumental quintet Moving Cloud will be doing a short U.S. tour leading up to the Washington Irish Festival. Paul Brock (button accordion), Kevin Crawford (flute, tin whistle, bodhrán), Manus McGuire and M’ve Donnelly (fiddles), and Carl Hession (keyboards) will be performing their only New York./New Jersey area show, on Thursday, Sept. 2, at 7:30 p.m. at The Turning Point, 468 Piermont Ave., Piermont, Rockland County, N.Y. ([914] 359-1089).

Moving Cloud will also be appearing at the Cleveland Irish Festival ([404] 684-0450) Aug. 27-29; The Burren, Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. ([617] 776-6896), on Aug. 30; the Center for Cultural Exchange, Portland, Maine ([207] 761-1545), on Aug. 31, and at the Pequot Library, Southport, Conn. ([203] 256-8453), on Sept. 1.

O’Sullivan sightings

A member of the Eileen Ivers Band, New York uilleann piper Jerry O’Sullivan pops up on two recordings falling outside the realm of Irish music. One is "Hell and Scissors" (County) by Rafe Stefanini, a Southern mountain-style fiddler. O’Sullivan plays on two tracks, "Featherbed" and "Jake’s Got the Bellyache," thereby returning the favor of Stefanini’s fiddling on the old-timey tune "Mike in the Wilderness" that appears on "The Gift" (Shanachie), the solo album O’Sullivan recorded last year.

The other non-Irish album featuring O’Sullivan’s piping as well as tin whistle playing is "The Journey North" (Narada) by pianist Michael Gettel.

For straight-ahead Irish traditional music, O’Sullivan joins John Whelan and others on "Celtic Faire," a first-rate recording to be issued by Hallmark Cards and made available in its shops this fall.

On Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m., O’Sullivan will be sharing a concert bill with Belfast quartet Croabh Rua at Regent Theater, 7 Medford St., Arlington, Mass. ([781] 862-7837).

Making Hayes

Jerry O’Sullivan isn’t the only one to surface recently on a recording not Irish in nature. Fiddler Martin Hayes, born in East Clare and living in Seattle, plays on two tracks on American musician Darol Anger’s new release, "Diary of a Fiddler" (Compass). The two fiddlers collaborate on "Banish Misfortune" and — surprise – -the Lennon-McCartney classic "With a Little Help From My Friends," performed at a slow, somber tempo.

A former member of the chamber-jazz group Montreux, Anger was an exponent of the New Acoustic movement that fused folk, jazz, bluegrass, and a smattering of Celtic in the early 1980s.

Beginish back

The quartet of Brendan Begley on button accordion and vocals, Paul O’Shaughnessy on fiddle, Paul McGrattan on flute, and Noel O’Grady on bouzouki will be returning to the U.S. next month for another tour. Dates and venues follow: Sept. 3, N.C. Museum of Art, Raleigh, N.C.; Sept. 8, Nanny O’Brien’s, 3319 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. ([202] 686-9189); Sept. 11, John Boyle O’Reilly Club, Springfield, Mass.; Sept. 10, Blarney Star, 43 Murray St., Manhattan ([212] 732-2873); Sept. 11, Towne Crier Cafe, 62 Rte. 22, Pawling, N.Y. ([914] 855-1300); Sept. 12, Pequot Library, Southport, Conn. ([203] 256-8453); Sept. 15, The Burren, Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. ([617] 776-6896); and Sept. 18, Philadelphia Céilí Group Festival ([215] 849-8899).

Furlong concerts

To celebrate the release of her first solo recording this fall, Bronx-born button accordionist Patty Furlong, a three-time All-Ireland champion, has two performances coming up: Oct. 1, Blarney Star, Manhattan ([212] 732-2873), and Oct. 3, Towne Crier Cafe, 62 Rte. 22, Pawling, N.Y. ([914] 855-1300). Joining Furlong will be Tyrone-born banjoist and mandolinist Frankie McCormack, piano and flute player Brendan Dolan, and ex-Touchstone bouzouki and guitar player Zan McLeod.

An added treat at the Towne Crier Cafe concert will be Dancing Feet, comprising Irish stepdancers Mairead Powell King, Deirdre McCormick, Kathleen McEnaney, and Kevin Furlong. Patty Furlong and friends will be part of an impressive double bill that night in Pawling with the Christy O’Leary Band, comprising former Boys of the Lough member Christy O’Leary on uilleann pipes, tin whistle, harmonica, and vocals, guitarist and pianist Frank Kilkelly from the Seán Keane Band, and Claire Mann, fiddler, tin whistle player, an two-time All-Ireland flute champion who plays in the duo Tabache.

A voice like no other

Her surname suggests Irish lineage, but that’s not why I’m mentioning Eva Cassidy here. From Maryland, she was a singer who could perform pop, rock, jazz, blues, folk, soul, R&B, gospel, and show tunes — and do it all with a brilliance distinct to each. In November 1996, she died of melanoma at age 33, well before her talent could rise to the level of national and international recognition it deserved.

What partly held Cassidy back was her refusal to be pigeonholed. Why should she sing only one type of music? A&R directors at commercial labels couldn’t find an easy category or genre to stuff her into. Their loss was ours — until Blix Street Records in North Hollywood, Calif., had the taste and intelligence to reissue some of Cassidy’s small, independently recorded output and distribute it much more widely.

There are three Eva Cassidy albums now out on Blix Street: "Eva by Heart," "Live at Blues Alley," and "Songbird," which compiles tracks from those two albums and "The Other Side," a recording she made with soul singer Chuck Brown on CBD Music. "Songbird" and "Live at Blues Alley" have four tracks in common, including Cassidy’s unforgettable live rendition of Sting’s "Fields of Gold" that has garnered radio attention here and especially abroad.

If your record shop doesn’t stock her albums, contact Blix Street Records directly at (800) 851-5825 or (818) 763-9151.

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