How to spice up an Irish festival

I kinda thought last week’s column that took festival organizers and Irish merchandisers to task for peddling the same old green drivel each year and then wondering why attendance is plummeting would cause a stir.


I was right. A spy tells me that the article was the talk of a book signing at the Glucksman Ireland House at New York University, and there have been a number of emails praising me and damning me in equal measure.

“Yeh can really be a vicious, mad dog when yeh set your mind to it,” my dad (and sharpest critic) said on the day the Irish Voice landed in his mailbox. We were walking around last week’s Jersey Shore Irish Festival when he warned, “I’d lay real low around here if I were you.”

Well, nothing ever got done by just complaining about it; you have to propose solutions to the problem in order to create real transformation.

With that in mind, I would like to offer helpful hints to the music roster for next season’s festivals that might spice up your entertainment offering and paint a more accurate picture of our culture.
I am also mindful of our need to keep younger audiences engaged, and the attendance records of the last few years indicate that we have to change up the tired parade of bands out there.

Now, I’m not suggesting something radical here by going with new, unproven talent. That would be suicide.

Since this is the wedding season, I would like to propose something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue to festival owners eager to bring blockbuster attendance back to their events.

Think now about employing the Facebook and MySpace fans of these bands to further your own fortunes and other ways to think differently this year. And for God’s sake, verify my theories below with some online research about what your market needs. So here’s my list:

Something old: Derek Warfield and the new Young Wolfe Tones. The copyright infringement battles about who owns the Wolfe Tones name are now legendary in Irish music circles, and there are some that think Derek has put together a “scab band” in a desperate attempt to hang onto his legacy.

I say nothing could be further from the truth.

As the name would imply, the Young Wolfe Tones bring a youthful energy to songs like “Some Say the Devil Is Dead” and “Get out Ye Black and Tans.” Warfield was the head cheerleader of Irish culture, waving his hands and encouraging a spirited sing-along through the rebel songs in our culture.

I happened to be in the audience with my parents and two daughters who liken Irish music to Chinese water torture. Everyone enjoyed themselves, and it is a rare feat indeed to keep three generations of Irish people engaged.

Some say this devil is dead, but I say he would be a welcome addition to your festival. Check him out at www.derekwarfield.com.

Something new: I caught Raining Hearts at the sparsely populated Irish festival in Wildwood, New Jersey. They were the supporting act of Barley juice, the powerhouse led by musical madmen Kyf Brewer.

It turns out none of the girls in this band are over 16, and three (Scotlyn, CoCo, and drummer Claire) call Brewer Dad.

Their set was an appealing mixture of old (Bothy Band’s “Do You Love an Apple?”) with an emphasis on the new. Scotlyn led the band through a drowsy, smoky acoustic read of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” before hitting every note above the sonic firepower of the Cranberries’ “Zombie.”

They write some of their own stuff. “Pretty Sled Dogs” proves the girls have their dad’s knack for mixing power chords and storytelling.

It’s difficult to express into words the pride and thrill you get when you see kids this young handle instruments this well as they express their love for Irish culture. What a great example for your own kids!

Irish rock can be cool, and you’re never too young to pick up an instrument and join the fun!
Since Mom and Dad have to drive the girls to the gig, you might as well book Barleyjuice while you’re at it. They were painfully shy during our interview backstage, suggesting that this band of tough young girls are letting the music do the talking.

“I think I like them better than you,” I whispered in Kyf Brewer’s ear as we watched Raining Hearts from the merchandise table.

“So do I,” he quipped.

You can download tracks from their debut CD by logging onto http://store.itsaboutmusic.com/raininghearts.html

Something borrowed: A painter friend of mine described the artistic process thusly: “Nothing is original any more. Creating art is like stealing a bunch of bicycles. You take them down to a chop shop, put pieces together, paint the steel frame purple, and ride around town and call it your own.”

It’s no coincidence that Seanchai and the Unity Squad operates out of Rocky Sullivan’s in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, where the chop shop industry is a brisk business indeed. You can hear it in their music.

In one set, Black 47 founding member (and former New York City cop) Chris Byrne will hanker down on his prized uilleann pipes for a wicked solo as the band nicks Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”

They cool things off with a quaint set of traditional reels before they raid Bob Marley’s rhythm for “Miss Eire,” a run-through of Irish rebel history set to a reggae beat.

Like a gun to the temple, Byrne unleashes a punk rock ethos on “Irish Catholic Boy,” the title track from the band’s last album. He does borrow a number of Black 47 fans that have remained loyal to him, which could result in a boost of attendance if promoted the right way.

Something blue: Irish music fans became aware of Eileen Ivers’ famous blue fiddle during her stint as the Riverdance band leader, where she thrilled audiences with Jimi Hendrix-like solos.

In recent years she has been backed by Immigrant Soul, a band of musicians that match her talent and stretch this Irish fiddler into new global terrain. “Afro Gig” and “Paddy Goes to Zululand” from their 2003 album showcase the band’s ability to mix it up with strong African percussion.

I’ve seen the band plenty of times and they never fail to thrill. Ivers’ face radiates fun as the band challenges her to new musical heights, and the audience members that might have been wary of the mixture of traditional fiddling and global beats are soon hopelessly under her spell.
For more information, log onto www.eileenivers.com.

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