MOTHER Nature has been very cruel to the Gulf and Caribbean areas this hurricane season, and so very devastating in the short and long term for the people who live there.
Complaining about the damp weather that beset the ICONS Festival in Canton, Massachusetts this past weekend would pale in comparison, even though the itinerant event that has moved from June to August to September this year in an attempt to seek the perfect conditions that would allow the weekend event to properly exploit its many assets.
No doubt, the heavy rain on Friday night and its softer showers on Sunday sandwiched Saturday's day of comfortable reprieve dampened the attendance - and the grounds - for the ambitious festival and the bottom line. But it didn't seem to deter neither the performers, presenters nor those who weathered the conditions on all three days at the action-packed event that carried out its full schedule on the large campus of the Irish Cultural Center of New England.
Like many others who attended the ICONS festival, I was drawn by the solid artist lineup this year which was truly exceptional and varied. Having experienced the thoughtful presentation and layout of the various stages and performances areas in the past, this year they made sure that 90 % was under cover of tents which assured that the schedule could be adhered to under hot or foul weather. The Celts have experienced damp climes before, so wet grass and muddy paths could be handled between the stages.
Along with many solid performances over the three days, two things really stood out for me as both a presenter and organizer and also a music fan that are all too rare at many Irish or Celtic music festivals these days. Amazingly they are the most basic and necessary ingredients that any professional or amateur artist requires to be truly appreciated.
First and foremost, you need good professional sound equipment and engineers manning all your stages with the right gear and complete timely transitions between acts. What made this crew or company stand out beyond just meeting the specifications of the job was their ability to highlight what makes acoustic (not electric) music stand out as musicians play with one another depending on close arrangements to set the right tone for their music.
This added to the enjoyment of listening to duets like Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill and Jerry Holland with John Doyle, as well as the more complex multi-instrumental arrangements of Lunasa, Solas, David Munnelly Band and Liadan where vocals are also critical to weave into the mix (sans Lunasa in this regard). This was the best sound that I have experienced at any large scale festival this year outside of the Catskills Irish Arts Week which has more limited sound requirements.
One immediate benefit of great sound is more attentive listeners for sure but given the thriving acoustic music scene in Boston with its lively college atmosphere and varied venues, you already have a well-trained ear and interest in roots music. This festival would have attracted Irish and Celtic music fans that were well versed in the broad Irish Connections theme through weekly radio listenership of Celtic Sojourn (www. wgbh.org) produced and presented by Brian O'Donovan, also the artistic director of the ICONS Festival.
Those elements were key to allowing people to sit enraptured all weekend at the large but exposed Compass stage area (Compass Records was one of the main sponsors whose artists also predominated at the weekend event) while the ground grew dewy, damp and muddy by Sunday night.
All the acts paraded through that well-designed stage were mostly under cover, but they acknowledged the dedication of the audience out there on the marshy grounds. The smaller and protected areas like the Point, Abbey Theater, An Ghaeltacht/Cottage Stage, Hapapalooza and the WROL Marquee swelled as the varied acts and groupings were paraded through each venue on the Saturday and Sunday when attendance was at its pique.
Even the Burren Pub Tent which was a very noisy venue last year was tamed by the sound and audience this year as it made for a very hospitable meeting ground for ceol agus craic and a pint with a Fleadh-like atmosphere.
The Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann tent had great dance music all weekend from urban to traditional ceili music with Larry Reynolds Hannafin-Cooley mates playing much of the time. But they were ill-served by a new dance floor that was more suited to overcoming wet conditions and safety than it was for actual dancing given its composition and smaller size. (Hope they didn't throw out the old floorboards which did the trick for years?)
All the entertainment was first rate, but I'd like to call attention to two acts that really bore out the theme of Irish Connections for me that I observed. Maryland's Footworks Dance Ensemble under the direction of founder Eileen Carson and music director Mark Schatz vividly displayed the dance and percussive threads in two dedicated performances on the Compass stage and intermingled with other music sets there as well. The multicultural presentation was solid and professional and plain just good fun as they complimented the music and musicians in every way.
The second standout was the combination of Cape Breton fiddler Jerry Holland and Dubliner John Doyle, who were teamed up for the weekend at the Cottage, Burren and Point stages where they received standing ovations and great encouragement.
Given the smiles on both their faces through out the duets, it would be hard to know who had the better time, them or those privileged enough to listen to the rare pairing.
Holland played with great verve and attack despite his nasty battle with cancer for the past few years with the form that has won his respect and admiration throughout the Celtic music scene. Once again John Doyle proved he was not just an accompanist but a spark who gets the best out of everyone.
As the festival drew to a close, Liam Clancy performed an iconic set that helped put things old and new into the right context. Some things never change and the beauty of folk and roots music is the spirit and dedication that is at its core.
It was manifest all weekend and tested by the conditions but all those who made their way to Canton came through with flying colors with hopes to gather there again next year under clear or stormy weather.
Solas Finishes Tour
ONE of the groups that garnered a lot of attention at ICONS was Solas embarking on their second decade as a performance troupe with a new singer on board in Mairead Phelan who appears on their brand new recording For Love or Laughter (www.compassrecords.com) bolstering their current U.S. tour.
The northeast phase of their itinerary concludes this week with appearances at the Egg in Albany (18th at 8 p.m.), the Towne Crier in Pawling (19th at 9 p.m.) and the last appearance in New York on the 20th at 8 p.m. at Sullivan Hall in Greenwich Village before finishing that leg in their U.S. base hometown of Philadelphia at the World Caf Live on the 21st.
From looking at the website of their Manhattan gig (www.sullivanhallnyc.com) it is described as a spacious music venue with good sightlines and sound that can hold around 345 people in the music-rich Greenwich Village scene. Perhaps it is a place that will show some promise for Celtic Acts so much in need of a good New York City club to appear in that can satisfy the mutual needs of the listening public paying for tickets and those who do the presenting.
ON Sunday, September 21 there are a couple of things worth noting. The Irish Arts Center celebrates the arrival of fall with the annual September alpine ceili on the Hudson at the Alpine Pavilion from 3-6 p.m. Dancers and musicians gather for a social picnic (bring your own food and refreshments) and contribute to paying guest musicians for the dancing on the timber floor overlooking the Alpine Boat Basin and Hudson River. Call 212-757-3318, ext, 209 . . .
LATER that night Julie Fowlis, the Scots Gaelic singer will be showcasing at Joe's Pub (425 Lafayette Street; 212-539-8777) in New York as part of a brief U.S. tour in support of her new CD Cuilidh. From isle of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides where Scots Gaelic was her first tongue, she has emerged not only as one of the finest singers in her native language but one of its rising crossover stars in the Celtic music scene.
This tour which also includes stops in Boston at Cambridge's Club Passim (Wednesday, September 24 at 8 p.m.) and Philadelphia at the World Caf Live (26th at 8 p.m.) also features her husband Eamon Doorley, the Dublin musician who was one a member of Danu for a number of years as part of her band.