San Francisco Celtic Music Festival, March 4-5 1995

It was celtic music nirvana again in San Francisco last weekend as the fourth annual Celtic Music and Arts Festival swung into action, bringing many of the top Irish and Scottish acts to the West Coast for a two-day overdose on fine traditional music.

As before, the festival was in the Fort Mason festival hall, a big concrete-and-metal warehouse which is a great place to hold a few thousand people, but has woefully bad acoustics. The organisers have been hammered in the past for this, and each year come up with more and more fancy tricks to get around it. This year they had an array of speakers running down the middle of the hall, separated by digital delay lines and a sound board that looked like something out of Star Trek. The result? For the most part I thought it was a substantial improvement, with a few glaring exceptions, but nothing bad enough to seriously dent my enjoyment. There seemed to be a lot more people at the afternoon sessions, which helped soften the acoustics, but also made for some background noise on the quieter sets. Half the hall was filled with various booths, mostly selling celtic designs and music, some food (like soda bread for $5 a loaf!) and a pair of republican booths (Noraid and some local Provo supporters) who didn't seem to have heard about the ceasefire yet...

Back to the music, in order of appearance -

The Core

John Faulkner

Errr....errr....despite my best promises to the contrary, I spent half of the opening sets getting to Fort Mason and the other half desperately trying to find parking. Better get the bus next year. The Core are a local trad/folk band, and John Faulkner is a singer best known for his collaborations with Dolores Keane, as well as being a one-time member of Ewan McColl's critics group. I heard that his set was pretty good, but more regular folk singing than celtic.

Andrew McNamara and The Lahawns

Kennelly Dancers

Next up were a relatively new band, The Lahawns, fronted by Andrew McNamara. They really got things rolling for me with a good blast of traditional dance music, which continued into the next act as they did the music for the perennial Kennelly Dancers. The Lahawns have Andrew playing a very solid accordion, with Breeda Smith on fiddle (and one great pair of jigs on tin whistle), Jimmy Higgins on keyboard, bodhran and snare drum, and Kevin Hough on guitar. The music was regular jigs and reels, without any pretensions to greatness, but played with care and feeling, even when accompanying dancers - too often this ceili music is no more than a celtic drum machine to give the dancers some rhythm, but the Lahawns mostly avoided that fate.

The Kennelly dancers are a local dance school, whose colourful costumes and intricate set dances are always a big hit with the audience, and so they proved again this year. A friend of mine commented that the dancing looked a bit more liberal this year, with more movement and higher kicking (shades of Riverdance?) but to my eye it still looked very regimented, and some of the dancers expressions looked more like determined terror than fun, but it was still a grand sight.

Martin Hayes and Randal Bays

Fiddler Martin Hayes came back with his guitar accompanist Randal Bays and took the audiences breath away as he did last year. For one who has dedicated himself to preserving a particular regional style (that of Co. Clare) and eschewing all the modern fusions of trad and other genres, he's showing that there's a lot that's new and fresh in the old tradition. That Clare style tends to the slow and lyrical, as he shows in his solo album, but he also showed off some manic wild fiddling that captivated the hall. He also played a few very simple tunes that sounded like they were from a children's tunebook, but came across very lyrically. The one drawback was some problems with the acoustics, particularly when Bays joined in on second fiddle and the sound got quite screechy. Good news from Martin is that his second album is due out in a few months from Green Linnet, and he has a contract with them for another two. At the end he got two standing ovations before the audience rushed off to buy up every copy of his CD in the hall.


Arcady came next, in what seems to be a revitalised lineup. Back in 1989 or thereabouts, they had a big hit with their one album "After the ball", featuring Frances Black, and after that I hadn't heard of them until this year. Black is long gone, and Niamh Parsons is their current singer (she has just released her solo album on Green Linnet). Percussionist extraordinaire "Ringo" McDonagh and accordionist Jackie Daly are still with the band, with new (at least to me) names Patsy Broderick (keyboards), Brendan Larrissey (fiddle) and Breton guitarist Nicholas Quemener. The overall sound was a bit like the early De Dannan music, particularly in Niamh Parson's singing, which is reminiscent of Dolores Keane. She sang a few haunting solo songs, which were a bit hard to follow in the late afternoon din at Fort Mason. The instrumentals were excellent; whether or not this is a new lineup, they certainly sound very together. Ringo's bodhran (and bones, triangle) provided the rhythmic line, with some very fine fiddling and guitar playing. The synth was set to a rather tinkly tone on some pieces which sounded a bit off to my ears. Quemener sang a Cajun-style song in French as well as playing a very fluid piece on wooden flute. I particularly liked that one or two of the players took a rest in many of the pieces, along each instrument some space to sing out, and once they all got together, it came across as a powerful sound.

Sharon Shannon Band

The incomparable Sharon Shannon came next with her band - Mary Custy on fiddle, Trevor Hutchinson on bass and a new guitarist, Donogh Hennessy. I had just got her new album a few days before and so was full of expectation. The opening brought me down to earth quickly - the band sounded tense, and Sharon seemed to be working at the music, as opposed to the usual impression you get that it just flows out of her. The sound system (which apparently was set up by the band) was also way out of whack - too loud and far too much mushy bass. After a while, things lightened up a bit and the sound problems started to sort out. They played a bunch of tunes from Out the Gap (Sparky, The Big Mistake, Bungee Jumpers) and then really hit their stride with my two favourites from her first album - The Blackbird and Tune for a found harmonium. She also played several tunes not on either album, and played both on fiddle and tin whistle. The band has moved to a far rockier sound than last year. Donogh Hennessy in particular played a very driving guitar, flaking away for all he was worth, along with the bass. Custy's fiddle was not very prominent, and she herself seemed to totally ignore both the audience and the rest of the band even when she was being introduced. The music got better and better as the set wore on; at the end they got a massive standing ovation and played a magnificent encore that had almost everyone out of their seats.


The Scottish celtic rock band Wolfstone finished off the night in dramatic style. I think it would be fair to say that they are a rock band playing in folk style rather than the other way around, and it was very refreshing, after hearing many celtic groups trying to rock up their music. About half the band are from a rock rather than trad background, which accounts for a lot of that. The sets were absolutely blistering, anchored in Duncan Chisholm's electric fiddle, and with a fair helping of rock drama - climactic song endings (ALL of them), jamming together and jumping around from the tallest part of the stage; whatever the case, they really looked like they were enjoying themselves, and the audience certainly were as well.


San Francisco Ceili Band

Michael & Shay Black

I won't go into the after-the-festival happenings on Saturday save to say that they caused me to miss the opening again though those I asked said that the SF ceili band played a fine dance set. I did catch the second half of the set by Michael and Shay Black, brothers of Mary and Frances. They have both strong voices, well matched for ballad singing which is mostly what they did. I'm not big into ballad's, so beyond saying they were good, I can't say much...

Andrew McNamara and The Lahawns

Kennelly Dancers

The Lahawns and the Kennelly Dancers were back again for the next sets, in fine style. There were some adult dancers this time round, but overall it was similar to yesterday.

Tommy Makem

After that came the grand old man of Irish folk, Tommy Makem. Before Planxty, the Bothy Band or any of the other big folk ensembles, Tommy was introducing Irish folk ballad singing to the world with the Clancy brothers (way back in 1961). Well, he's still singing, and he sounds much the same. All those years have also greatly honed his skill in managing his audience, which was a treat to watch. Backed by a guitarist Eugene Byrne from Dublin and bassist Steve Wainright, plus his own banjo, he sang a rake of ballads, revolutionary songs and even a bunch of kiddies songs (does "Wa-wa-wa-waltzing With Bears" count as celtic?) and gave the audience no rest until they joined in. Different was it was to much of modern celtic music, even hearts of stone could help but enjoy his set.

Old Blind Dogs

After Makem's fairly gentle set, Scotland's Old Bind Dogs stormed on with a high-energy trad-rock set that was one of my personal highlights of the show. Their most distinctive aspect was a driving rhythm on conga drums, which ran through all their music, mostly to great effect, though they could have done with giving it a break for a bit. The oldest of the Dogs is singer/guitarist Ian Benzie, who has a great voice, full of resonant authority and presence. My favourite was a menacing version of The Cruel Sister (recorded by Clannad as the Two Sisters, and by a number of other groups). One or two songs had such a wall of sound, it was difficult to distinguish the various lines, but you couldn't mistake the energy and drive in any of the music.

Richard Thompson

I missed his set, since he really didn't seem to have much in common with celtic music (besides, I was hungry!). I got back in to meet about a thousand fans streaming out at the end of the set, so that's at least one reason why he was invited! (still, nice to have a wide range - and a dinner break!)

Boys of the Lough

A great group, but I thought they were badly misplaced as the finale. To my mind they play a measured, well-crafted brand of celtic music, a bit like fellow old-timers the Chieftains, but not the kind that's wild or rousing. I would have liked them better earlier or in a smaller place, but they played a good set; most memorable were a set of tunes played solo by their amazing Sheland fiddler, Aly Bain. And the wild finale? - of all things, a waltz! Now I'd like to see Wolfstone try that!

Verdict: Sound system way up, the calibre and diversity of the performers still excellent, a GREAT weekend, and many thanks to those who made it all happen.