The twentieth annual Colorado Irish Festival is in the books, and as always, featured some excellent examples of Irish music. There were two main stages this year, the big main stage, and a smaller pub stage. Several local bands were featured, but organizers removed the Cultural stage, which had featured the acoustic, more traditional bands. This meant that most of the music was more in the Celtic rock style, popular with young party-goers, but without much of the history and tradition which has characterized this festival in the past.
In fact, the festival seems to have abandoned much of its educational purpose in favor of merchandising and attracting a younger audience with little knowledge of the culture and history of Ireland. Many of the long-time supporters of the festival stayed home this year, and those who attended expressed disappointment in the lack of any traditional Irish beer and the cancellation of the workshops and presentations that made the Cultural Village so popular. Fortunately, the Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England family history group (W.I.S.E.) put on some nice presentations to partially fill that gap, but the organizations who put up their booths in the Cultural Village seemed to be experiencing far less traffic than ever before.
Despite these deficiencies, the music was outstanding, and featured a number of local bands, some of whom even got to play the main stage. I was not able to hear all of them, but saw quite a few. Here are some highlights:
Heritage Irish Stepdancers
The festivities opened Friday evening with demonstrations by the Heritage Irish Stepdancers (www.heritageirish.com). The performance featured demonstrations of jigs, reels, hornpipes, set dances, and other features of traditional Irish dance, led by Krystal M. Thompson. One of the most popular portions of the program was a Ceili dance. "Ceili" in Irish refers to a party or gathering, and they usually feature group dancing. This one did, as volunteers from the audience joined the costumed dancers on stage and were taught how to participate in one of the traditions of Ireland. They were told, "If you can walk, you can dance this dance." and so they did.
Sisters Ariel Bennett and Alexa King began Irish dancing in Texas in 1983 and competed for many years at the national and international level. In 1998, they founded Heritage Irish Stepdancers in order to share their love of Irish dance with others, and to honor their family heritage, as their parents, Bill and Molly Bennett, run the Bennett School of Irish Dance (www.bennett-school.com).
One of the local bands who performed was Ceol Ceili (http://www.ceolceili.com/), an eclectic group of musicians living in the Colorado Springs area who have come together as an ensemble in the spirit and joy of creating interesting music and drinking fine ales. Though mainly Celtic, the band's musical selection is quite eclectic. The band's current repertoire includes traditional, modern, and original tunes and songs from Ireland, the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands, the Shetland Islands, Northumbria, Brittany, French Canada, and New England.
One of the underappreciated bands was The Commoners (http://thecommonersmusic.com/), based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Music of The Commoners is song of soul. When you hear their music, you travel into the culture and majestic imagery of the Irish glass clinking, lively cheeriness and, for an instant, you are transported into a pub in an Irish village in the beautiful green hills of Ireland. Four distinctive individuals – Mouse, lead guitar and vocals, and who has kept the band name alive through various phases of bandmates and sounds, recently acquired Mulligan’s Pub and Sports Club, the new home of The Commoners and Irish music community. Joining Mouse is Jesse Lee, bassist and vocalist who also plays in Greyweather with fellow guitar player Tyler T, whom we have seen also performing solo acts around town, and Nate Brown, kicking in the percussion sealing this gang of four’s Irish funk with a punk-edge.
Delilah's Revenge (http://www.delilahs-revenge.com/), founded by Justin Lancaster and Karen Lauffer, started as a casual back-porch acoustic band in 2010. Roughly a year after the band's initial formation they changed directions, gradually evolving into the acoustic folk-rock quintet that they are today. The band's unique sound is owed its members' diverse musical backgrounds. Delilah's Revenge's folk element is comprised of Justin's self-taught Irish guitar style and Karen's Celtic training. Dwight Muhlbradt brings in heavy hitting percussion with his metal background. The combination is polished off by Tim Jones, Rebecca Jonas, and Karen's classical instruction. The unexpected fusion of the three styles yields a sound that bridges both style and generation.
The Elders (www.eldersmusic.com) are one of the big name bands counted on by festival organizers to draw crowds, and so they do. I usually don't pay much attention to the big names, but The Elders are an exception. Based out of Kansas City, they are led by the affable and talented Ian Byrne, who always brings his A game to the show. Employing a variety of instruments including guitars, drums, banjo, accordion, mandolin, piano & fiddle, these six gentlemen collectively create music that transcends the stereotypical notion of Celtic music. Powerful four part harmonies, blazing instrumentals and song writing that is unaffected by fads, trends and the giant maw of mind-numbing commercialism mean their songs are mystical, comical, political and cultural, while covering a wide variety of topics such as poverty, civil war, family bonds, spirituality, love and friendship – They tell us stories of people, places and events - some recent, some distant, some real and some imagined. Well worth the price of admission on their own.
Juice O' The Barley
Sometimes, even the festival organizers get personally involved in the music. That is the case, and we're grateful for it, in the band Juice O' The Barley (http://www.juiceofthebarley.com/), featuring Committee Chair Bill O'Donnell on bass, along with Michael Kent: 12-string and 6-string guitars, vocals, Kelly O'Dea: Fiddle, vocals, and Scott Sherman: Guitar, mandolin, and vocals. Altlhough drawing on traditional roots, The Juice is not your mother's typical Irish folk group. They play their music in a style that can only be described as "Irish music with an attitude."
Mark Hill and Pam Gillman, two of my very good friends, form the band "Lougheed" (www.lougheedband.com), named after Mark's ancestral home in Ireland. With diverse musical backgrounds from classical, jazz, big band, pipe band, folk, rock and country, Lougheed infuses dynamic rhythms and strong vocals into their music. Influenced by both traditional and modern Celtic artists and utilizing traditional acoustic instruments along with more modern electric instruments, Lougheed brings a fresh perspective to the music of Ireland, Scotland, Canada and the United States. Having found their soul in Celtic music and a strong synergy with each other, Mark and Pamela are thrilled to bring their unique, energetic interpretations to the Denver music scene. You can find Lougheed at Festivals, private parties and down at your local pub.
At first, it seems strange to see a fusion band like Pandora Celtica (www.pandoraceltica.com) at an Irish festival, but once you hear their music, you begin to appreciate it more and more. Far from traditional, it still seems to reach the Celtic spirit deep inside you. With excellent vocal harmonies accompanied only by tribal drumming, they describe themselfes as a dark faerie Celtic vocal band from the land of dreams and myth. They raised some eyebrows when the won the "Battle of the Bands" put on by the Colorado Irish Festival a couple of years ago, but have since won the hearts of many Irish along the front range.
Searson (www.searsonband.com) was featured on the main stage, as one of the better known bands from outside Colorado. Searson has toured for well over a decade and have the confidence and drive to continue with their musical careers more than ever before. Sisters, Erin and Colleen Searson have developed their own original style of high energy fiddling, passionate vocals and step dancing. Having recorded seven albums to date and composing all their own songs and fiddle tunes have made them the accomplished performers that they are today.
And of course, we can't forget one of the favorite local bands to play the Colorado Irish Festival. Potcheen (www.thepotcheenfolkband.com) is led by Christian Blochinger, with an ever changing array of instrumentalists and vocalists. This year was no exception, but as always, Christian came up with some amazing talents to help him demonstrate his affinity for "Celtic Pirate Rock." Potcheen are always one of the high energy bands, driven by Christian on percussion, accompanied by some outstanding vocals, fiddle, and guitar work. Always a good time.
High energy performance music was not limited to the stages however. In the midste of thunder, lighning, and a torrential downpour, a number of bagpipers gathered in a tradition becoming more popular the last few years, called "Kitchen Piping." Back in Ireland, a lot of the music is shared around the kitchen table, just for personal and family enjoyment. In that spirit, these pipers are challenged not by the usual technical specifications of the formal world of adjudicated competition, but by audience appreciation. The winner is the one who can get the audience to respond most enthusiastically. This year's top honors went to one of the most beloved bagpipers in Colorado, Neil Gillette, who not only helped found the Colorado Youth Bagpipe Band (www.cypb.org), with their Scottish Dancers, but is also the primary organizer of the Elizabeth Celtic Festival (elizabethcelticfestival.com/) . Neil was most effusive in his praise of one of his former students, Sean Thompson, who took second place.