Another magical Catskills Arts Week

Thunder and lightning followed by drenching rain may have brought the neighboring Grey Fox Blue Grass Festival to a halt on Saturday evening, but it didn’t deter the hardy crowd of musicians who populated the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham last week.

A furious session in the dining hall of the Shamrock House went on unabated, raging well past midnight with many of the week’s teachers stopping in for a quiet tune on their own before disbanding for home.

Furlong’s Riverside Pub held its usual custom through the night and morning both in the tented roadside area and inside the colorful rectangular roadhouse with the dual sessions that characterized its week-long hold as the true crossroads of the week.

There were other private parties and BBQs around catering for those who couldn’t let go of another magnificent week in the Catskills Mountains, where the Irish have convened for decades to celebrate their culture and, more importantly, to share it with friends old and new. Exhilaration far exceeded fatigue for another year anyway.

The 16th Annual Catskills Irish Arts Week once again proved a magnetic force attracting students from 30 states (including Alaska and Hawaii), five Canadian provinces and five European countries to rural upstate New York.

Hundreds of musicians of musicians fueled over 50 music sessions in a variety of Catskills resorts and roadhouses all week inspired by over 65 classes and five talent-laden weeknight concerts in the open-air Quill Centre Festival Pavilion, while dancers delighted to eight ceilithe again enhanced by all-star musicians who are brilliant players for dancing.

With the thoughtful insight of interviewers like Earle Hitchner and Larry McCullough, we gleaned more about the music-making process that composers Martin Mulhaire and Liz Carroll brought to their music, the later celebrating the U.S. launch of her new book of 185 of her own compositions at the Weldon House last Friday.

Remarkably, 10 new CDS were heralded during the week which made for some marvelous evening launches that also signified both the creativity of the artists assembled in the mountain retreat, and their recognition that this was an audience where they would get a great hearing.
Looking back from the rather jaundiced eye of the person who saw this trend developing early on (I am the artistic director of the event), it seemed a central theme that would help frame the week. But programming live music often has different results than laying it down on paper, and expectations were greatly exceeded.

The first of the launch nights signaled that this would be singular week because it was an historic night in Furlong’s Pub to mark the new CD that Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly produced called The Flowing Stream.

For seven years Matt and Jackie have been at the center of the Catskills craic on stage, session or dance floor, carrying the banner of the dance music of Sliabh Luachra, and this album confirmed their reputations the leading guardians of those exciting musical genre from the Cork, Kerry and west Limerick region.

As I walked in Furlongs that night to say a few words on their behalf, I was struck by the number of people who had crowded inside in orderly and almost reverent fashion to listen to the Cork duo who also invited flute player Conal O’Grada and singer Jimmy Crowley (also Corkonians) and Tralee resident Paul deGrae to sit in with them.

Two hours of gorgeous music ensued, with a hush never heard before in the popular pub known for bustling trade, chat and non-stop tunes at all other times.

It was an audience that respected the veteran musicians who in equal measure treated the Listening Room crowd with a well-paced program that held everyone’s attention as well.
On Wednesday night down in Bernie O’s Steak House, the eager listeners went the extra mile to salute the recordings of Liz and Yvonne Kane, Side by Side, and Edel Fox Chords and Beryls paired on a longer tour this summer to promote the two recordings.

Theirs is a musical friendship that has been built in their yearly pilgrimages to the Catskills week for the past five years as they throw themselves wholeheartedly into the teaching, sessioning and performing that characterize it.

Along with their top-class music, their youthful enthusiasm has drawn a younger crowd of musician/student every year so that the demographics were charting in the right direction for an Irish organization like the Quill Centre that boasts about keeping the tradition alive.

Along with Mayo harpist Laoise Kelly, who was making her first visit to the Arts Week (and whose new CD Ceis is nearly ready) and singer Aoife Clancy, who recorded a new CD called The Clancy Legacy with her cousins Donal Clancy and Robbie O’Connell, the night went late thanks in large measure to the hospitality of the innkeeper Terry Patterson, who opens her doors specially for this midweek soiree.

Thursday night found a huge throng at the Blackthorne Resort in the large bar for the celebration of Irish music, Madden style, with the release of A Galway Afternoon by Joanie and the late Joe Madden.

The tragic fall and death in November of 2008 took box player Joe Madden too soon from his family and friends. His music will always be there for us to enjoy because of this new recording, and more importantly because he imparted it to his daughter Joanie who lovingly carries it on.
The gathering of musical friends was impressive, with Mattie Connolly, Mary Coogan, Mike Rafferty, Willie Kelly, Monsignor Charlie Coen, Liz Carroll, Felix Dolan, Martin Mulhaire and Billy McComiskey all playing at some point. Taking it all in were the Madden family, including mother Helen and six of their seven children in the packed ground floor pub.

Friday night’s CD launch was back at Furlong’s again because a year ago in the same place, four masterful young musicians struck lightning with their own music in an early morning music session.
Catching that lightning in a bottle produced Home Away from Home: Irish Traditional Music in Ireland and America, a CD recorded in Baltimore, Maryland and Co. Clare by Bernadette and Caitlin Nic Gabhann, Sean McComiskey and Sean Gavin.

Their fathers, Antoin MacGabhann, Billy McComiskey and Mick Gavin, opened up for them to give us a taste of where the youngsters’ music came from. The talented quartet then gave a vivid display of their own devotion to Irish music that revealed more than just breeding going into their music that was full of tuneful heart and soul.

Earlier that evening Joanie Madden and her expanded Cherish the Ladies ensemble nearly took the roof off the center pavilion on the grounds of the Michael J. Quill site.

Marking 25 years as a performance band, they produced an amazing two hour show that featured 22 performers, all of whom had performed with the band at one point or another as musicians or dancers.

Making an impressive debut in the Catskills was their new singer Marianne Knight from Mayo, who joined newcomer Grainne Murphy (fiddle). Galwegian singer Don Stiffe made a big impact right away with his booming voice that sent listeners scurrying to the CD booth to take away more of his music.

The fiddling Kanes, Liz Carroll and Rose Flanagan all joined in the fun, as did former Cherish singers Deirdre Connolly and Aoife Clancy.

The coup de grace was provided by dance master Donny Golden and his team of dancers John Jennings, Dan Stacey and Nathan Pilatzke. They were joined by Knight and Connolly for an impressive finale.

And a visiting sean nos dancer from Cree in Co. Clare, 70-year-old Tom Browne, added a special flavor to the concerts all week.

Is it any wonder that people come from near and far to revel in the Catskills every July? Where else would this array of traditional musicians and dancers fill every moment all week long in North America?

A lot of people will catch up on their sleep this week while dreaming of another magical week in the Catskill Mountains. Next year you have your chance from July 10-16, 2011.

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