Friday, December 28, 2007

The Boston Celtic Music Festival, 11 and 12 January

The Boston Celtic Music Festival is coming up on the 11th and 12th of January, with venues around Harvard Square and a Friday night ceilidh in Medford. Performers this year will include Matt and Shannon Heaton, Kieran Jordan, Emerald Rae, Laura Cortese, and Flynn Cohen. It's a gathering which intended to showcase, celebrate, and share Irish, Scots, and Cape Breton traditions through the work of musicisian based in the Boston area. There's more about all of this at the festival's website, where you may find ticket information (hint: it's a real bargain), a schedule of performers, and notes about the places the concerts will be held.

Meanwhile, here's a taste of what things are like at BCM fest, through a look back at the events of 2005. Photos above are of Hanneke Cassel and Shannon Heaton, below, Hanneke Cassel, Flynn Cohen, and Matt Heaton. Matt and Flynn will team up for a really unusual gig at this year's festival...

 Hot Celtic music heats up Boston winter days and nights at BCM Fest
"Totally snowing!" one musician exclaimed, laughing, as she held her harp under one arm and lifted her free hand to cup snowflakes while stepping out of the Winter Hill Bank Building near Davis Square in Somerville. She was right. Winter weather had come to decorate the streets of Somerville and Cambridge for the Boston Celtic Music Festival, not an unexpected event when you plan concerts for early January in Massachusetts. Though it caused a few schedule changes among the players and some snow covered dashes along the streets for performers and listeners alike, spirits were high as packed crowds enjoyed music from and by many of Boston's finest Celtic-based players. FolkWax readers will know the music of singer Aoife Clancy, flute/guitar duo Matthew and Shannon Heaton, and fiddler Hanneke Cassel; pianist Jacqueline Schwab, whose work is heard to memorable effect on many of Ken Burns' projects, esteemed singer and songwriter and former member of the Clancy Brothers, Robbie O'Connell. Traditional uilleann piper Phil Ferguson, the many fiddlers who make up the ever-changing cast of Childsplay, renown Cape Breton fiddler Joe Cormier, and Americana/Celtic fusion banjo player and guitarist Eric Merrill were also among the more than one hundred artists who shared their music during the two days of the festival.
The Hanneke Cassel Band (Cassel on fiddle, Christopher Lewis on guitar, and Rushad Eggleston on cello) started things off with a combination of impeccable, passionate playing and off the wall humor that immediately connected with the sold out crowd at Club Passim just off Harvard Square. They invited their listeners on a lively journey through a handful of Cassel's original tunes and a fine selection of traditional material, including the crowd pleasing "Strathspeys o' Death," a medley of "Running Around the Tree" and "Colonel Thornton," and a slip jig, with Eggleston helpfully demonstrating the finer points which define slip jigs by dancing and then falling down to introduce the tune. It's a measure of the musicianship and stage presence of the trio that they were able to carry off this, as well as a good bit of other joking, keeping things in good fun without being silly -- or at least, not too silly for the circumstances. Cassel switched things up a bit with a lovely, lyrical slow piece called "Jasmine Flower," which she explained she'd learned on a recent trip to China, "and I think it must be the Chinese equivalent 'Danny Boy,' because everywhere I play it where there's anyone with any Chinese connection they get very emotional." The three closed out their well-received set with "a blast of reels," including one which Cassel had composed for another festival event which was just getting started, the Boston Urban Ceilidh.

 That high energy event, which fiddler and festival organizer Laura Cortese described -- accurately-- as "contra dance meets mosh pit," was cranking up over at the Canadian American Club's dance hall in Watertown. While the callers were getting dancers to try out new steps (when things slowed down enough for them to be heard, that is) at the dance hall, singers from across the range of Celtic tradition were keeping things equally lively back at Club Passim. Michael O'Leary invoked both the season and reflections on the passing of time with "January Man" and Caera Aislingeach did a rewrite of the familiar "Shule Aroon" with the twist that the lovers actually get together in the story. Renown Irish songster Bridget Fitzgerald taught the crowd some choruses to the songs she was singing in Irish, and Kyte MacKillop and his student Jennifer offered a variety of songs in English and Gaelic from Cape Breton. As music circled round and round again, the singers joined in duos and trios and got many of the crowd singing along in a fine take on the traditional song swap. The singing session was followed by another excursion into traditional, original, and rambunctious music from Noel Scott on accordion, Chris McGrath on fiddle, and Ted Davis on guitar.

The snowy skies over Boston had taken a break for the evening's ceilidh and concert, but as musicians and audiences gathered around Davis Square in Somerville next morning, the snow returned to blanket sidewalks and steps to the Winter Hill Bank Building, a part of which belonged to a local VFW post, was turned into a Celtic music club as well as festival ticket sales headquarters for the day. Scottish and Cape Breton dancing performances opened the day, for those who still had energy left from the ceilidh the previous night.  Many members of the ever changing cast of players who make up the fiddle group Childsplay took the stage next at the VFW, to be followed by combinations of traditional flute and fiddle, then pipes and electronica, traditional Irish fiddle, and not so traditional Celtic fiddle Rock.
Down the street, two other venues hosted BCMFest events as well. At Johnny Tingle's Off Broadway, a cabaret style theater became an Anglo Irish jam session in the hands of Eric Merrill and the Western Star, then a fiddle and dance hot spot with the music of Laura Cortese followed by Highland Dance Boston. Shannon Heaton offered original and traditional tunes on her flute with Ten Speed Trad, and fiddlers from Irish, Cape Breton, and Scottish backgrounds got together in the round later in the day. At The Burren, a lively Irish pub a few doors down, the front room hosted a continuing flow of acoustic jam sessions, while the back room was the spot for festival goers to enjoy music from a range of main acts. Fiddle player and singer Lissa Schenkenburger, accompanied by Matt Heaton on guitar, offered songs and tunes both Celtic and Appalachian from her upcoming CD release. Galway native guitarist and raconteur Fabian Joyce shared his dry wit along with music, while Scottish style fiddler Lindsay Turner drew a packed crowd. The guitar/fiddle duo Five Mile Chase, who is based in Minnesota, stepped in when weather problems interfered with scheduling and proved an unexpected delight both in musicianship and good humor. Well known solo singer and former Cherish the Ladies member Aoife Clancy closed things out at the Burren with a mix of contemporary and traditional songs, among them the Appalachian ballad "Across the Blue Mountains" and a song of contemporary Ireland written by Robbie O'Connell, "There is Hope."

O'Connell himself was one of the players who performed-when festival action resumed later in the evening-for  a finale concert at First Parish at Harvard Square. The historic church building rang with fiddle, pipes, piano, guitar, voice, and dance steps as nine musicians and two dancers celebrated "music written by Boston area composers, about Boston, based on Celtic themes," said emcee Marilyn Rae Byer. Fiddler Ellery Klein, who had suggested the idea for that theme, played a set of tunes by Matt Heaton, Shannon Heaton, Barbara McGowan, and others, after welcoming the audience to "A weekend of wonderful weather and even better tunes!" Cape Breton dancer Christine Morrison and Irish style dancer Kieran Jordan added their energetic and creative interpretations, as they'd do several times through the concert. Robbie O'Connell sang a song he wrote after a visit to the Blasket Islands, and Laura Risk played a medley of three pieces, including one, "Laura et Marc," which Hanneke Cassel had written for Risk and her husband. Mairin Ui Cheide offered a song in Irish, in sean nos style. She prefaced it by telling that it was a song of two mothers, who each had sons at war on different sides of a conflict, and then revealed that her own son was serving a second tour of duty in Iraq. Pianist Jacqueline Schwab, who'd added innovative accompaniment to others' works, took the spotlight to offer passionate renditions of tunes by Peter Barnes and Larry Unger. Accordionist Susie Petrov, who directed the concert, highland piper Phil Ferguson, who opened the proceedings, Cape Breton fiddler Brendan Carey Block, and uilleann piper Patrick Murray were among the others who added their talents through the evening and to the finale with all joining in a selection of songs and reels to close the celebration of the second annual Boston Celtic Music Festival.
It's a festival run for and by the musicians, about the sharing and connecting of musical styles of the Celtic lands. A conversation between Cortese and Heaton sparked the idea of a gathering which would included artists from Boston and from the Celtic traditions of Scotland, Ireland, and Cape Breton, which flourish in the city but often in parallel rather than connected music scenes. This second year built on the first, seeing increased attendance, more public notice, and more artists participating. There's a compilation CD available containing tracks from the recordings of many of the artists mentioned above, and more information about other ways to support and participate in the next Boston Celtic Music festival may be found at

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