Reviews of 1997-98 Concerts

Updated June 13, 1999

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Mary Jane Lamond and Friends with Gordie Sampson November 5 at Great American Music Hall. Mary Jane is an amazingly talented young Gaelic singer from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Her range of singing is amazing, stretching from the most traditional Gaelic songs, to new high energy rock arangements of traditional songs. Mary Jane has a great stage presence and a performance that is simultaneously informal and polished. Mary Jane was backed by a great band including Wendy MacIsaac on fiddle, that kept the place hopping at all the right times.

1998 Celtic Colours Festival , October 9-17 in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. What, you don't consider Cape Breton local? Once again, this was the most extraordinary, joyous, friendly, uncrowded concentration of traditional Celtic music and sleepless nights I have ever experienced (Fleadh Cheoil's included).

Only 25 thousand frequent flyer miles and $6 gets you a round trip to Halifax! (or $600 airfare from SFO) The B&Bs and motels are cheap and friendly. Check out the Real Audio files on the WWW site and the great CD from last year's festival. I'm going; what will you be doing? sitting at your desk? Among the amazing group of musicians appearing this year are:

10th Annual Celtic Fiddle Summit, August 27, Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, Berkeley

Combine Alasadair Fraser, Martin Hayes and Buddy MacMaster on the same stage, and you know there is going to be fiddle music to remember. Alasdair and Martin play frequently in the Bay Area, have large bases of fans, and rarely dissapoint. The only shortcoming of this evening was that the crowd of talent left the audience begging for more.

Also playing were Tony McManus, the great Scottish guitarist; Bruce Molsky, an excellent old-time fiddler, cellist Abby Newton, and Dennis Cahill.

But to my mind, it was Buddy MacMaster, a quiet, 73 year old gentleman from Cape Breton in his white shirt, tie and dark pants who stole the show. This was his first appearance in the Bay Area in three years. After all the flash of Martin Hayes and the fun of Alasdair's playing, I suprised to see they put Buddy last. But once they got the microphone adjusted properly, the music flew out of Buddy's fiddle with all the energy of a 17 year old, but with the experience and complexity of life lived in the center of celtic music. Ably assisted by Barbara Magone on piano, Buddy played with a richness and complexity of tone and impeccable rhythym that raised celtic fiddle playing to a level as high as the greatest classical violinists, but while retaining the vigor and approachability for which Cape Breton music is famous.

In California, Buddy is often best known as Natalie MacMaser's uncle. In Cape Breton, land of superb fiddlers, Natalie is known as Buddy's niece. Of course, those who have seen Buddy perform live before knew exactly what to expect. For the rest of us it was a revelation.

1998 Guiness Fleadh, Spartan Stadium, San Jose, June 28

Altan - lived up to my predictions and gave a spectacular, but too short, set. The length was limited by the festival, not the audience who were dancing like crazy, or the band. This group from Co. Donegal continues to be the classiest act in Irish traditional music. Máiread Ní Mhaonaigh, singing was great, the band was having a grand time, and the fans were piled up 3-4 deep outside the tent.

In contrast, The Chieftains' performance on the big stage seemed pretty tame, although the audience liked it. The Newfoundland group Great Big Sea, self-described as "an energetic combination of Celtic rock and sing-along folk, while remaining unmistakably traditional" lived up to their reputation and had some nice a capella singing along the way. Mary Black returned to a few old favorites such as "Song for Ireland" which got the crowd going. If you like her music (and I do), Sinead O'Connor was wonderful, and perhaps unconsciously reflected the tradition in all her a capella singing.

All in all, a venue this large does not support traditional music all that well, particularly when the very little traditional music at this event was competing with the much louder rock bands in adjacent tents/stages. For a better exposure to traditional music, check out the Sebastopol Celtic Fair. That should be great.

Natalie MacMaster, May 20 in San Francisco at the The Great American Music Hall and May 21 in Saratoga at the Carriage House Theatre, Villa Montalvo.

If you aren't familiar with Natalie MacMaster yet, get with the program! The incredible, incomparable, fiddling & step-dancing sensation from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia made another pair of appearances in the Bay Area. She brought with her guiter master Dave MacIsaac, superb keyboardist and step dancer Joel Chiasson, Tom Roach (percussion) and Bruce Jacobs (bass guitar). I went to both concerts (as did all the smart folk). The shows had somewhat of a different feel since the sound at the GAMH was cranked way high, whereas at the Villa Montalvo, it was almost unamplified. (I preferred the latter.)

Natalie's fiddling continues to be stunning. And this year with the addition of Joel (rhymes with Noël) Chiasson from Cheticamp, Natalie included more stepdancing. She is a great Cape Breton step dancer, Joel is a super dancer, and the duets with Joel where they did everything from Swing to Charleston to Cape Breton squares brought the house down both nights.

The music was a mix of material from her No Boundaries CD of last year, and the brand new traditional My Roots Are Showing CD. With the band there, the arrangements tended to more modern than on her Roots album. Natalie has also varied the arrangements more than I remember last year, and had one long riveting solo in the middle of the show. Traditional Celtic music does not get any better than this; a richly rewarding evening from the finest musical ambassador Cape Breton could ever hope to have.

Altan, March 17, Zellerbach Auditorium, UC Berkeley

Concerts at Zellerbach unfortunately have an older, non-dancing crowd, largely unfamiliar with Celtic music. Thus the crowd did not contribute much energy, except those under 45 (who gave Altan a standing ovation). Seeing Altan live is almost a religious experience. Incredible talent, harnassed into the service of the tunes and songs. Listening live to Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh fiddling has always been one of the greatest pleasures this life has to offer. Her skill seems to be getting even better, hard as that may be to believe. During the second set there was more solo work from Ciaran Tourish on tin whistle and fiddle. He is one of the truly great, under-heralded fiddlers in Ireland. When Mairéad lets rip on a reel, and Ciaran joins in, call the fire brigade. Mairéad can play very fast, but her technique is such that the sound that comes out loses very little of its quality. The sound Altan generates is so tight that the reels have the energy of a locomotive racing downhill. Yet Altan's sound is crystal clear and sonorous, no matter how difficult the material. It was simply stunning. And, of course, one of the other great pleasures of this life is hearing Mairéad sing. Absolutely mesmerizing, as always. For those familiar with Altan only from their records, don't ever miss a chance to see them live.

Leahy, March 26, The Great American Music Hall, San Francisco.

This young group of 9 brothers and sisters (!!) from Lakefield, Ontario is one of the hottest acts in Canada. They were a terrific live show in this, their first northern California concert. Seven of the siblings were present. The music is centered on the extremely fast fiddle playing of Donnell Leahy with his siblings adding piano, bass, guitar, mandolin, drums, and more fiddles, and step dancing. The music ranges from hyped-up Scottish tunes to Hungarian music. Not for traditional purists, but the synchronized step dancing, the singing, and the incredible energy and polish of the group make it a super live show, the kind to bring your "I-don't-like-Celtic-music" friends to. Since so much of their act is visual, their one album, "Leahy" on Virgin Music Canada, doesn't capture the excitement of their live performance.

Dervish, March 22, Community Center, Sebastopol

Dervish, a young group from Sligo, is clearly one of the greatest Irish traditional bands playing today. Cathy Jordan was in good voice and the band enjoying the last concert in a successful 6 week U.S. tour. This group has superb albums out, but I am always amazed at how well they play together in a live setting. The few who weren't fans before the show were converted almost instantly. Come on back!

"Celtic Fiddle Festival" March 16 in San Francisco at The Justice League (formerly The Kennel Club) 628 Divisadero (at Hayes), S.F.

This is a group of four musicians, not a festival, but what musicians! Three fiddlers with wonderfully contrasting styles-- Kevin Burke from Ireland/Portland OR, Johnny Cunningham from Scotland, and Christian LeMaitre from Brittany-- and one guitarist -- Tony McManus from Scotland. This concert coincided with the release of their second album Encore on the Green Linnet album. LeMaitre is one of my favorite fiddlers. Johnny Cunningham, former member of Silly Wizard, revels in playing reels faster than possible, and Kevin Burke is an excellent Irish fiddler. McManus is extraordinary on the guitar. Unfortunately he just did two solos and his albums are hard to come by in the states. The chemistry and humor between the musicians is great, and Johnny, fueled by "several" tequila sunrises, was irrepressible and hugely enjoyable. The Justice League was a very pleasant venue in which to hear them. It is a relatively small club with very nice acoustics and less cramped than the Great American Music Hall. It has recently been bought by Irish owners so we may look forward to more gigs there. Only caveat, is that one should be careful with one's car in this neighborhood.

1998 San Francisco Celtic Music and Arts Festival, March 7-8, Fort Mason, San Francisco, sponsored by the Irish Arts Foundation

I only went one day (Saturday) this year. For me the highlights were Andrew MacNamara & The Lahawns, a group from Galway, and fiddler Breda Smith's show-stopping performance on the tin whistle that brought the first of several standing ovations. Check out their album, The Lahawns live at Winkles, one of the best recorded-in-a-pub albums I've heard. Although I did not get a chance to see them live, I did get the CD of the new group Beginish, and it's a gem. Brendan Begley is an Irish accordionist whose recent album, We Won't Go Home Til Morning, was widely viewed as one of the best traditional albums of the year. Also in this group is Paul Shaughnessy, a superb fiddler, and flute player Paul McGrattan. There is very fine traditional playing on this album.

Then, Monday night at the Plough & Stars, Martin Hayes, Andrew Macnamara, Dennis Hayes, and Josephine Marsh. Martin Hayes is one of the truly great Irish fiddlers of his generation, and he was in rare form that night. As one Irish visitor with great experience with traditional music commented about Martin, "He's *****ing excellent! "

(Infamous Angel cover)Iris DeMent, January 19, First Congregational Church, Berkeley

Rare Bay Area appearance by legendary folk/country singer/songwriter. She sang to a sold-out crowd for over two hours. In person, her voice and talent are as incredible as you might imagine from her albums. If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out her first album - Infamous Angel.

Jez Lowe- November 20 at a house concert in Berkeley.

Jez is an absolutely terrific singer/songwriter from Durham, England who sings political and personal songs of working class people. This totally acoustic performance was absolutely terrific.

"IRISH FIRE" -- Sean Keane, Martin Hayes, and Dervish- November 12 , Palace of Fine Arts, S.F.

This was a fine evening, although a bit like eating a variety of appetizers rather than a regular meal since the sets of each of the individual performers was relatively short and left the listener wanting more. Each of these performers warrants an entire evening to themselves. However, all were playing well, particularly Martin Hayes, and blissfully for me, the sound system was subdued which fit the acoustic instruments well IMHO. This tour was sponsored by the National Council for the Traditional Arts and had a very slick 26 page program filled entirely with excellent histories of Irish music and dance. Well done!

Solas, November 13, U.C. Berkeley

SOLAS, a group that was only formed less than two years ago, filled the relatively large Wheeler Auditorium at $20/ticket. And the enthusiastic crowd certainly got their money's worth. The highlight for me was the wonderful a capella and accompanied singing of Karan Casey who IMHO is the finest Irish woman singer performing today. The band was excellent and was obviously having fun playing. The sound system/acoustics could have been considerably better way over on the right side where I was sitting.

Danú, October 1, Freight & Salvage, Berkeley

This very young septet from Waterford is terrific (fiddle, flute, bazouki, button accordion, uillean pipes, singer). They have extraordinary energy, skill, and enthusiasm and give the most fun live performance I've seen. Their debut album, called simply DANÚ captures both their skill and energy, but live they are wonderful.

3rd Annual Sebastopol Celtic Festival, September 20, Sebastopol.

This is a nice relaxed outdoor festival with excellent sound (take note S.F. Celtic Festival). Without the hordes it was easy to talk to the musicians who seemed to be enjoying it. The highlight was a stunning set by singer Connie Dover who demonstrates that her incredibly beautiful voice and skill are genuine and not an artifact of a recording studio. Her performance was absolutely riveting, and happily the sound system did her voice justice. The only unfortunate aspect of this festival was the scheduling of Craobh Rua, the terrific group from Belfast, at times that overlapped with Connie, forcing an awful choice, but at least there was no wrong answer.

S.F. Celtic Arts Festival (March 1997)

A larger venue with better acoustics, please! Martin Hayes, Dervish, and The Lahawns were excellent. However, once more, the highlight was the extraordinary session the night after at the Plough and Stars pub led by Begley and Cooney who do the best two person live show I've seen. To top it off, they were joined by Cathy Jordan and the other members of Dervish and Joe Burke! Life is good, even if sleep suffers.

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