"We've got better days ahead / Many more where they came from/Don't chase 'em all away my friend / 'Til your heart goes numb/It's a long hard road they say / With a fiddler on the way I will swear by better days.”
Memorial Day is less than two weeks away, which also means the kickoff of the busiest season for Irish festivals.
Even before the current economic dark clouds crowded our blue sky this year, Irish festivals were taking a beating. Attendance in many markets was down last year and a couple of organizers who shall remain nameless lost their shirts in the process.
For sure, the tightness of the almighty dollar might be at play here, but it must be said that the lineups for these festivals were paint-by numbers. You would have some cheesy band offering up a Pogues imitation as pale as their own skin in some tent while the same assortment of headliners closed the show.
Don’t get me wrong -- the bands (you know who they are) that have headlined these festivals deserve their place on top of the festival food chain, and I count their members among my close friends, but they have been plying their trade for many moons.
If the same festival you go to every year offers the same entertainment every year, what surprises are in store for the Irish music fan? And so the vicious circle begins.
As our economy begins to rebound, I am pleased to report that the state of the Irish festival appears to be heading in the same direction! This reviewer is giving a standing ovation to organizers this year, particularly the folks running the East Durham Irish Festival this Memorial Day weekend.
They are offering a fresh lineup that imports the freshest Irish talent from cities like Philadelphia, London and Kansas City. The East Durham Irish Festival folks can be reached at 518-634-2286 or at irishvillageusa.com.
The Elders have been making a furious racket out in the Midwest since forming in 1998. They can be counted on to bring a mix of roots rock played furiously and at ear splitting levels, blazing instrumentals and top-notch songwriting to unsuspecting crowds.
They will be headlining the ruckus in East Durham, and they are itching to play in that area again in the midst of friends they have in the Eastern section of New York.
“The communities in western and central New York have hit hard by this recession, and I know our friends up there need cheering up,” says Brent Hoad, fiddler for the Elders.
“We know people that were affected by layoffs at the Remington plant in Utica as an example. Lots of people have lost their livelihoods.”
Despite the economic downturn, Hoad reports that the festival trade is stronger than ever.
“People rally around these festivals,” he says. “It’s a time to get together and they raise money to make sure the festivals happen.
“They get enthused about it because it’s one of the main events that they have to keep that sense of togetherness that keeps people’s spirits up. We haven’t had any cancellations or anyone pulling the plug on their festivals.”
Part of the appeal of these shows in this economic climate is the value it brings for the entertainment dollar, according to Hoad.
“Some of these events you can go for three days for $25,” he says. “There are so many stages and so many groups that these weekends are full of things for just about everyone.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the Elders’ music, pick up a copy of "Gael Day" and be prepared to be wowed. A blend of five Americans who started out as fans of the traditional Irish music who ran into an Irishman who is in love with American rock and roll is how they describe themselves in s press release, and I couldn’t say it better myself. You put those two elements together and you get one hell of a racket!
“We've been beaten, burned, and enslaved/Starved from the lands where our fathers dug their graves/Never losing faith we have fought for every mile/Still no matter where you go you'll always find an Irish smile,” sings Wicklow native Ian Byrne on the anthem “Luck of the Irish.”
It has tentative synth textures that convey a sense of foreboding before the sweet hope of the fiddle pierces through the gloom and the rolling drums ratchet up the Irish pride to brilliant effect.
“It’s got the thundering beat that conjures up the images of a bunch of naked Celts chasing Romans down the hill,” says Hoad with a laugh.
“We don’t really know where that phrase comes from but this is contrary to the written history of Ireland. It is a new wrinkle for us musically because it is this dance groove.”
Songs like “Better Days Ahead” and “Good News” offer positive thoughts that are reassuring in this tight economy without sounding too syrupy.
“I wish we could say we were smart enough to make that economic prediction, but these songs were something we were working on way before this stuff happened,” says Hoad of the "Gael Day" songs.
“I certainly hope that these songs lift people’s spirits, no matter what kind of economic situation.”
The Elders play in East Durham on Saturday the 23rd at 7 p.m. and Sunday the 24th at 9 p.m.
Philadelphia’s own Barleyjuice carry the tradition forward musically, blending clever stories from the early Irish pubs, corner poets and musical composers with the group’s own original tunes.
The band has four CDs under its belt, and has been winning legions of fans at Irish festivals around the country.
Their latest disc is called "The Irish Collection," a compilation of songs from their first four albums that include the classic “What’s Up Yours?,” their ode to the kilt! They will play East Durham on Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3:45 p.m.
Another killer Irish festival is shaping up in New Jersey. On Saturday, June 13 from noon-8 p.m., Celtic Cross, Seanchai and the Unity Squad and the Snakes will play FirstEnergy Park, home of the Lakewood Blue Claws. The park is located right off of Exit 89 off the Garden State Parkway. We’ll be talking more about this one in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!
If you are looking to see other parts of the country this summer, there are plenty of Irish festivals along the way. If you happen to be in Chicago this Memorial Day weekend instead of East Durham, the Gaelic Park Festival is one not to be missed!
It features a limitless range of entertainment that includes American English, a tribute to the Beatles, artists that impersonate Neil Diamond and Elvis, and Irish acts like Mulligan Stew and Teada. Check it out on chicagogaelicpark.org.
The Dublin Irish Festival in Dublin, Ohio runs July 31 through August 2. Along with usual suspects like The Prodigals and The Clancys, the organizers are pushing the limits of Celtic music by adding Salsa Celtica to the mix this year.
As the name would imply, this band blends traditional Irish sounds with Latin elements, creating a refreshing roots music sound. Screaming Orphans bring the alternative rock and Dervish bring the trad, making this enormous festival a one stop shop for all Irish music fans!
In this era of bailouts, buying a ticket to a festival this summer provides a stimulus package to our culture that will reap immediate benefits to your family. Looking forward to seeing you in the crowd!