In fact, as I type this, I am a mile above the earth on a plane ride home and I have just asked the stewardess for band-aids for my blistered feet.
I am not joking. For 24 years, the first weekend in August has been reserved for what is now the world’s second largest Irish celebration. Think of an Irish party genetically engineered into the cotton candy of a state fair and you start to get the vibe of this unique weekend.
More than 100,000 guests crowd seven stages to see 65 acts and more than 535 performers. Getting to the stages means wading through a sea of Irish and Celtic vendors, food merchants, and craftsmen. I know this will sound like a cliché, but there is truly something for everyone.
Covering everything that transpires over more than a half dozen stages (never mind the half dozen tents dedicated to spontaneous Irish seisiuns and storytelling) is impossible; ingesting it all is akin to drinking from a fire hose.
I attempted it nonetheless and was promptly rewarded with two blisters on each foot. Yet another hardship that the Pulitzer Prize committee will overlook, but I’m not bitter!
In these pages I have railed numerous times about the bland, unimaginative entertainment offered by Irish festivals I have attended throughout this fine country. I mean, how many versions of “Fields of Athenry” and “No, Nay, Never” can a human being endure in one day?
Hats off to this festival committee in Ohio. They had a fantastic assortment of music for every palette along with the standard fare that are such crowd pleasers.
Here’s an example of something you wouldn’t see anywhere else. A totally unique presentation in Celtic music was given by Robert Mouland, who performed on a number of period and antique instruments. These include the cláirseach (wire strung harp), the baroque flute (c.1795), the baroque violin (c.1760), the English guitar (c. 1770), and the union pipes (an early form of the modern uilleann pipes).
His music explores the transition from the dominance of the wire-strung harp tradition to the more modern songs and melodies that comprise the traditional music of today.
And one other thing before I get off my soap box – organizers welcomed the Scottish in this community under the Irish festival tent, and that encouraged some spirited Highland gamesmanship and drew crowds that probably wouldn’t come to a regular Irish festival. Well played! I was so inspired that I bought a kilt -- more on that next week!
The committee spared no expense assembling the cream of the crop from across the nation under the hangar-sized Celtic Rock tent. Our old pall Keith Roberts from the Young Dubliners represented the West Coast, and his band delighted the crowd with a rarity -- they played their classic album With All Due Respect: The Irish Sessions in its entirety.
His voice ragged from the road, Keith gave everything he had and the band matched him as he ran through a furious set that included “Tell Me Ma,” “McAlpines Fussiliers,” “Streams of Whiskey” and Weila Wallia.” In an impossible feat, the Dubs claimed Shane MacGowan’s “A Pair of Brown Eyes” as their own and have created a version that far eclipses the original. Hear it for yourself by logging onto youngdubliners.com.
The band barnstormed through their catalog that included “Whiskey Maid,” the title track to their brilliant album (and Irish Voice album of the year) Skulduggery Street, the lonesome waltz “Prettiest Girl at the Fair,” and the mischievous “Rocky Road to Dublin.”
The set highlight was “Weekend Irish,” a caustic track that pokes fun at the cheesy Irish festival rituals of drinking green beer and wearing cheap plastic shamrock necklaces that are made in China.
One of my favorite acts of the weekend was Goitse, a group formed by students of the traditional music and dance at the University of Limerick that combines traditional melodies, modern rhythms and new compositions to create a sound that is vaguely jazzy and definitely Irish!
Áine McGeeney is a vibrant fiddle player and a gal that could give the Corrs a run for their money in the looks department. She has a sweet voice that some may recognize from her time touring with the Lord of the Dance show.
She is joined by James Harvey, who has claimed four All-Ireland banjo titles in a row and a further three on the mandolin, Tadhg Ó Meachair, a gifted keyboardist, bodhran player Colm Phelan, and multi-instrumentalist Conal O’Kane from Philadelphia.
The band meshed well together and delighted the crowd with funny stories from their road trips. For more information on the band, log onto www.goitse.ie and check out their YouTube and Myspace links while you are at it! Mark my words: this is one to watch!
To beat the heat, I retreated to the shade of the Whiskey and Dart tent. You wouldn’t think those things go well together and you would be wrong!
Whiskey sommelier Robert Sickler walked us through six shots of Bushmills finest. Drinkers got an education on single malts and why whiskey manufacturers borrow their barrels from bourbon and sherry makers to get those smooth fruit and vanilla textures.
We were treated with spirited Scotch-Irish bagpiping and sing-alongs of traditional Irish and Scottish ditties with each sip. I could have stayed there all night, but I let my liver talk me into taking a rest and checking out Liz Carroll’s spirited tent at the Dublin stage.
She is a fiddler without peer who charmed the crowd with her nervous schoolgirl-like banter. With a bow from her dancer, the roadies wheeled a pair of Irish harps onstage.
A radiant Moya Brennan emerged with her band in tow, which included daughter Ashling Jarvis. With her high cheekbones, spiked hair and alluring dark eyes, Jarvis resembled Chrissie Hynde in her Pretenders heyday as she strummed her guitar and added honeyed harmonies to her mother’s legendary voice.
The First Lady of Celtic Music was in fine form, pleased as punch to show off her great new disc, Voices and Harps. She recorded the album with Cormac de Barra, who anchored the band through a set that included “Down by the Sally Gardens,” “She Moved through the Fair” and “Harry’s Game.” The interplay of the two harps was truly spellbinding and a highlight of this festival.
“Cormac and I have been working together for seven or eight years,” Brennan says of her musical partnership.
“He’s the best Irish harp player without a doubt and we’re just such pals. We started to work in my studio and before we knew it, we had an album.” Seeing the easy musical chemistry between them was a real thrill!
Dressed in matching black hats, Ray Ban sunglasses and punk ska attitude, Chicago’s the Tossers shook the Celtic Rock tent to the rafters with a furious set that included tracks from their excellent release, On a Fine Spring Evening. They mixed old standards like “Rocky Road to Dublin” with originals like “Katie at the Races” and “Teehans.”
The band has been touring with Flogging Molly and revealed during a backstage conversation that they are in pre-production for a new album.
The Dublin Irish Festival will be celebrating its 25th anniversary next year, and the festival organizers are promising to bring the party to new heights to mark the occasion. That gives you 50 weeks to set forth a plan to be there!
You will not want to miss this! Now excuse me -- I must take a vacation from my vacation now!