Friday, September 19, 2008

ICONS Finale: Friends old and new

Really, was there any better way to close out ICONS?
Liam Clancy has done this sort of thing how-many-thousands of times for decades, and for all that at the Compass Stage Sunday night he was clearly relishing the chance to once again sing songs and spin yarns -- which he did as if he was sitting in an easy chair in the parlor with just a few close friends, instead of in front of several thousand people on a good-sized stage in the middle of a field south of Boston.
There was a surprise or two along the way, like his rendition of The Pogues' "The Majestic Shannon." But no, Liam wasn't about to transmogrify into Shane McGowan before our eyes.
It's sometimes easy to forget that Liam had a pretty good grounding in theater before this whole Irish music revival took off, and he used that background very effectively at one point, telling about the sinking of a ship that took more than lives -- it also meant another loss to the eroding knowledge, expertise and experience of sea-faring. But instead of launching into a lament, Liam used his introduction as a point of departure: Out came "The Mary Ellen Carter," Stan Rogers' classic tribute to perseverance and solidarity in the face of certain disaster.
Rise again, rise again
Though your heart it be broken or life about to end
No matter what you've lost
Be it a home, a love, a friend
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again

There was a certain poignancy at work here, because Liam had indeed lost a friend, and a dear one at that, the year before: Tommy Makem. But Liam honored his memory the way Tommy no doubt would've loved, reminiscing about their days of yore in 1960s Greenwich Village, and their unlikely friendship with one Robert Zimmerman, AKA Bob Dylan, who was wont to fashion a song or two from the folk tradition. Accordingly, Liam brought on his son Donal and Robbie O'Connell to do "Rambling Gambling Willie," with Liam doing a side-splitting Dylan imitation for a verse.

Next was another Makem-Clancy standard, "The Wild Colonial Boy," and an encore with "Those Were the Days," sung with just the right amount of winking-eye humor to keep it from getting way too sentimental.
Liam et al temporarily made way for a huge contingent of festival performers, including members of Crooked Still, Solas, Lunasa and Footworks. Taken as a whole, this was one impressive spectacle.

But if you narrowed your focus here and there among the assembled multitude, you could catch some other diverting scenes, like Sean Smyth (Lunasa) and Winifred Horan (Solas) having a fiddle-off:

Or Crooked Still's Aoife O'Donovan, obviously enjoying herself far too much, alongside hot-picking Alison Brown.

Or fellow Crooked Stiller Corey DiMario and John Doyle, who had that whole "we-be-getting-down-with-our-bad-selves" head-bobbing thing going on with each other.

Liam, Robbie, Aoife Clancy and just about everyone else came out for the finale of the finale, "Wild Mountain Thyme."

...and Liam made sure to compliment the audience on their singing of the chorus.

The last "Will you go, lassie, will you go?" resounded in the misty air, there were hugs all around on stage, and the audience gathered up jackets, umbrellas, back packs and other belongings, ready -- if not entirely willing -- to trek back out to the parking lot and begin the drive home.

The Littlest Postcript
That young lady in the pink shirt and galoshes in the photo below is Alison Brown's daughter Hannah, who during the weekend showed herself to be lacking little in stage presence: On Saturday, she made a cameo appearance in her mom's set and belted out "California, Here I Come," and then at the finale joined Liam Harney and some of the Footworks folk for a bit of hoofing.

After "Wild Mountain Thyme" was over, Hannah could be seen (barely) amidst a Redwood Forest of grown-ups as they mingled on stage before going off to pack away instruments, check messages and relax -- or in some cases, head to the airport and their next gig.

I don't know how many festivals or concerts Hannah goes to with her mom, whether any of them stand out in some way, shape or form, or if it just becomes routine after a while -- but hopefully she enjoyed herself at ICONS at least as much as the grown-ups did.
--Sean Smith

(Note: Honestly not trying to be self-aggrandizing here, but I'll mention that the above photo was an honest-to-goodness happy accident. I was standing near one of the rear stage entrances, and just held up and pointed my camera toward the crowd on stage without looking through the viewfinder. It wasn't until later that I saw the photo I'd taken. I think the only similar experience I had was at the 2004 Red Sox victory parade, when as the cavalcade passed by I snapped a picture of Curt Schilling and wound up including unofficial Sox mascot Nelson de la Rosa in the shot.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

ICONS Day 3: Not hard to get through a "soft day"

Early Sunday evening, ICONS Director/Grand Poobah Brian O'Donovan looked out from the stage at the misty dusk and told the audience, "As you can see, we imported some soft Irish weather just for the occasion."

Although somewhat warmer and more humid than one might usually expect in Ireland, the last installment of ICONS 2008 did indeed have the feel of a "soft day" in the Auld Sod. Fortunately, Footworks had the appropriate footwear.

Of course, ICONS seeks to recreate aspects of various Irish life, history and culture, such as offering tea and various goodies:

Or displaying documents and exhibits and providing expertise on Irish ancestry in the Genealogy Tent:

Or inviting four-footed friends with Irish connections:

Not to mention other kinds of creatures:

* * *
While Sunday still felt somewhat summery, the drive to Canton revealed more than a few leaves beginning to change their colors. So it was quite appropriate for ICONS to feature a program of songs, dances, stories and other customs related to harvest time from American, Irish and Breton traditions, presented by Revels Repertory Co.

Revels is well-known for its annual Christmas show in Harvard University's Sanders Theater, but in recent years has become quite the movable feast: They also put on events to commemorate the arrival of spring and summer, and their autumnal "River Sing" will be this Sunday (Sept. 21). Revels Repertory Co., or "Revels Rep," brings Revels programs to public venues and schools throughout southern New England.

* * *

Besides featuring individual acts in the conventional stage manner, the festival also is in the habit of organizing once-in-a-lifetime-type events that pull together various performers. These include "summits" for various instruments: banjo (Alison Brown, Louis McCarthy, Solas' Seamus Egan and Crooked Still's Greg Lizst); guitar (Tony McManus, John Doyle, Donal Clancy -- that's him in the photo below -- and Lunasa's Paul Meehan) and fiddle (including Tommy McCarthy, Solas' Winifred Horan and Sean Smyth of Lunasa).

One of the most anticipated of these was the pairing of Cape Breton fiddle legend Jerry Holland (a native of nearby Brockton) and John Doyle. Holland's battle with cancer over the past few years has been a point of great concern for his many friends and fans, but by all accounts he seemed fit as always – and enjoyed himself immensely.

John looked like he was having a good time as well.
(Disclaimer: I wasn't able to attend the Jerry-John duet; this photo was taken by Paul Wells.)

* * *
For me (and I suspect I'm not alone), a good music festival needs a really wide-ranging volume control. It can't always go up to 11. Yes, I love the pulse-pounding stuff that a Lunasa or Le Vent du Nord offers up.
Le Vent du Nord, staying dry

(L-R) Cillian Vallely, Sean Smyth and Paul Meehan of Lunasa

But I also like the more "middle-range" spectrum inhabited by the likes of say, Liadan (particularly when all of them sing together), or Chulrua.

And for quiet intensity, it's hard to beat Tony McManus, or a tentful of harps, AKA Harpalooza, one of ICONS' perennial favorites.

So, with all due respect to Nigel Tufnel: No, not everything needs to go up to 11.

(Coming up next: The ICONS Finale)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

ICONS Day 2: As a matter of fact, we are having fun

(NOTE: Sorry for the odd text-photo combinations further down; a bit of a formatting problem which I'll try to resolve as soon as possible.)

You know, this business of playing music -- especially of the folk/acoustic variety -- can be awfully serious, what with traditions to maintain and preserve, artistic style to develop and, yes, CDs to sell. Fortunately, there are seem to be plenty of people who have fun when they play music, and ICONS had a bunch of them in sight on Saturday.
For starters, there's the fine people in Boston's Hanafin-Cooley branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann under the benevolent leadership of Larry Reynolds (in photo below right), who keep the ceilidh fire burning bright inside their tent practically all day long, and a good portion of the night, too. They certainly have fun.

Scotland's Tannahill Weavers have been having fun for way too many years, but just try and stop them. Especially Roy Gullane (below right), YouTube's No. 1 NSFW cult favorite.

ara Dillon certainly seemed to have fun. She and her husband and fellow band member Sam Lakeman brought along their 20-month-old twins on tour; this day they sported matching red t-shirts that read "Thing 1" and "Thing 2."
(Incidentally, she'll be back in Boston -- along with her entourage -- for the Christmas Celtic Sojourn show in December.)

Of course Crooked Still was having fun: This was their first visit to ICONS with their new line-up, featuring Brittney Haas (fiddle) and Tristan Clarridge (cello). They get into one of their justly famous grooves, like with Nathan Taylor's "Did You Sleep Well?," no way they don't have fun.

Seamus Connolly seems to have as much fun talking about music as playing it. He noted that at a gig in Portland, Me., the other week, his accompanist Barbara Magone played a piano whose most recent user had been none other than Sir Paul McCartney. "So now," said Seamus, "Sir Paul can say that he played the same piano as Barbara Magone."

OK, here we go: The David Munnelly Band. How can they not have fun, churning out the tunes in that wild West Mayo style?

And their guest step dancer Nic Gareiss? He has more fun than any three people put together.

Well, almost any three people. After all, these are three people who know how to have fun: Robbie O'Connell, Aoife Clancy and Donal Clancy, performing as The Clancy Legacy.

Footworks (below left) and the Harney School of Dance. Fun? Fun.

Certainly the acts performing at the Boston Celtic Music Fest Showcase were having fun, like The New Tyme Sisters.

And Laura Cortese, who at various times brought up guest stars such as Kristin Andreassen, Hannah Read and that one-man fun machine Nic Gareiss.

Annalivia had great fun closing the BCMFest Showcase, mainly because they trotted out their newest member, New Tyme Sister Emerald Rae, as well as special guest John Whelan, who is absolutely incapable of not having fun.

It must be fun to be Luka Bloom, when you can listen to your audience sing the chorus to "Sunny Sailor Boy" -- and you don't have to do anything but keep playing your guitar.

When you come down right to it, of course, most people have fun when they play music. Or they should, anyway -- why do it otherwise? But it's always a treat when you have so many of them enjoying themselves in one at ICONS.