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Wow, has it really been a week since BCMFest 2013 ended? Guess so. Photos and videos have been uploaded (and if you haven’t shared yours, please do so!), there have been warm, laudatory Facebook and Twitter posts, and BCMFest organizers are already looking ahead — well, within reason — to next year. So in that same spirit, some highlights of this, the 10th BCMFest.
It was a dark and damp, if not stormy, night for the kick-off concert, but Club Passim was nice and packed to give a listen to some of Boston’s finest young musicians for whom traditional music is both a calling and an inspiration for their own creativity. “New Tunes from Boston: Boston’s Celtic Composers” featured a pair of fiddle-guitar duos grounded in the traditions of Scotland and Cape Breton (Katie McNally & Eric McDonald) and Ireland (Amanda Cavanaugh & Max Newman), as well as Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, who teamed up with former Whiskey Boy guitarist Mark Kilianski and mandolinist Dan Bui to play a set that brought in some Appalachian as well as Celtic influences, and Molly Pinto Madigan, who in addition to a fine selection of her own grounded-in-tradition songs offered up a stirring a cappella rendition of the traditional Irish lament “The Banks of the Lee,” fairly nailing the ornamentation.
And yes, there was a big finish.
Not far away, at The Atrium, the ever-popular Boston Urban Ceilidh was in full swing. The premise of the BUC (“where contra dance meets mosh pit”) is straightforward: Don’t sweat it, just get up and dance. And while there were plenty of experienced dancers present, it was an unabashed pleasure to see other folks who had little or no knowledge of grand rights-and-lefts or sevens give it the old BUC try — we learn as we do, right?
Anyway, you had your Cape Breton segment, with Mary MacGillivray doing the calling — and, at one point, showing off her own steps — and music supplied by the estimable trio of fiddlers Emerald Rae and Rachel Reeds and pianist Janine Randall.
And you had your Irish portion of the BUC, calling by Lisa Chaplin and mighty music by Core 4, as well as some performances by the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance (whom, it should be noted, did not stay on the sidelines between their exhibitions but full-heartedly joined in the social maelstrom out on the floor).
And finally, the Scottish ceilidh climax, starring Laura Cortese and a specially augmented incarnation of her Boston Urban Ceilidh Band that included fiddle, pipes/whistle, trumpet(!), keyboards, electric guitar, electric bass and drums. Not to mention everyone’s favorite, fashionable ceilidh dance caller, Hanneke Cassel.
This is the big one: 12 hours (give or take) of BCMFest. This year, BCMFest’s “DayFest” began with events/activities with families in mind, and Club Passim was chock full of young’uns enjoying the songs, tunes and enthusiasm of The Bell Family, a hurdy-gurdy demo by Lindsay Adler and a kids singalong by Matt Heaton (who, by the way, was nominated as this year’s BCMFest “MVP” for doing triple duty on Saturday; in addition to the singalong, he accompanied the all-teen fiddle quartet Skylark and then fronted his own “Surf Sligo” set — this after having played at the aforementioned BUC the previous night).
At BCMFest, though, young people aren’t just in the audience, they’re often up on stage. Such was the case with the aforementioned Bell Family (including Katie and Calum, who’ve been performing with parents Jerry and Nancy since the first W. Bush Administration) and Skylark (here’s a video from their set at Passim), as well as the Coyne Family — John and Lisa plus born-to-the-session Josie and Rory (here’s a clip of them).
Once DayFest hits full throttle, you have a choice of four, count ‘em four, venues to choose from, at Club Passim and nearby First Parish Church. Some of us stay put, but some of us are inclined to ramble (hey, what a great title for a traditional song!), and no one did it better than our good and dear friend Michael McNally, who seemed to be everywhere with his camera, very effectively capturing the variety to be found at DayFest. All yours, Michael…
Whew. But there’s still the evening’s finale concert at First Parish. And no better person to officiate the proceedings than Brian O’Donovan, a longtime BCMFest supporter in many ways.
First up was a blast of Cape Breton music by Emerald Rae (fiddle), Matthew Phelps (pipes) and Janine Randall (piano). Emerald, incidentally, besides explaining various aspects of the tradition, also described the different ways to encourage and cheer on Cape Breton musicians (and you thought “Tssssssss!” was how people used to hiss vaudeville show villains).
Onto bonnie Scotland, and if you ever wanted to hear kilt jokes, Jerry Bell is your man. And a great man he is, too.
After Jerry’s boffo, unique (and PG-13) introduction, Highland Dance Boston took the stage for a performance of choreography rooted in tradition while also mindful of contemporary styles and ideas. In any case, their set was equal parts strength, agility and grace.
The second half of the concert began with a surprise tribute by the BCMFest Committee to festival co-founders Laura Cortese and Shannon Heaton, which included gift certificates for ice cream (a key component in the origin of BCMFest) and a serenade by all present of “Wild Mountain Thyme.”
And then came the finale’s third act, a showcase of Irish music that kicked off with the New England Harp Orchestra.
…followed by a set from faculty and students representing the Boston Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann School of Music, as part of a tribute to the late Larry Reynolds, a much-beloved figure in Boston’s Irish music scene for decades, and a co-founder of the Boston Comhaltas branch and the music school. Their set, and the concert, closed out in appropriate fashion with a grand set of reels and a guest appearance by dancer Nic Gariess.
So there it was: one decade of BCMFest done, surely many more to follow. As always, BCMFest brims with endless gratitude for the volunteers and other supporters, so many of them seldom glimpsed, who make the festival possible. Equally warm feelings go to the musicians, singers, dancers, dance callers and other performers at BCMFest who exemplify the richness of Boston’s Celtic nation. And, most of all, a raised glass to the people who come out to BCMFest and make a point of enjoying themselves, thereby ensuring a continued purpose in life for the BCMFest Committee (and its official blog).
What did you like (or not like) about BCMFest 2013? What would you like to see at BCMFest in the future? Drop a line to the BCMFest Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Links to (most) BCMFest 2013 performers, including those mentioned in this post, are available at Passim’s BCMFest site.
Yes, yes, the festival part of BCMFest 2013 is over — retrospectives and photos to follow — but tomorrow night is another special BCMFest event: the debut of the new monthly BCMFest Session in Club Passim. The session will take place on the second Monday of each month and will be led by a core of talented area musicians that includes Katie McNally, Armand Aromin, Neil Pearlman, Lindsay Straw, Dan Accardi and Caroline O’Shea. Their combined repertoire of Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton tunes will make for an enjoyable evening, and provide the opportunity to explore the ever-evolving Celtic music traditions in an informal, sociable atmosphere.
So bring an instrument and sit in, dance, share a song or story. Each BCMFest Session begins at 7 p.m. and is free of charge; there is a suggested donation of $5 to show appreciation and support for the musicians who are giving their time to lead the session.
Everything must have an ending, right? (OK, maybe except for “Family Circus.”) With BCMFest, the idea is to close out on a high note – sometimes literally – by honoring the Celtic traditions, and those who have kept them going in the Boston area, while enthusiastically looking ahead to what the future holds for the music. Thus, the BCMFest finale concert.
BCMFest finale concerts of the past decade have included: “Tunes of Beantown,” highlighting original pieces by Boston-area Celtic musicians of diverse styles (2005); “Finding Our Place,” featuring performances by distinguished “tradition-bearers,” as well as a group of brilliant young Celtic musicians (2007); “Celtic Roots, American Branches,” a celebration of BCMFest’s fifth anniversary that included a song specially composed for the occasion, “Before We Sleep” (2008); and a back-to-basics themed show in 2010 that showcased the influence and inspiration of mentors in Celtic music.
The roster of those who have appeared at BCMFest finale concerts includes Robbie O’Connell,, Aoife Clancy, John McGann, Joe Cormier, The Makem & Spain Brothers, John Campbell, Jacqueline Schwab, Larry Reynolds, David O’Docherty, Brendan Tonra, Helen Kisiel, Jimmy & Edmond Marshall, and oh, the list goes on and on. (In fact, you can see lists of past BCMFest performers here, http://passim.org/january-festival-lineup — scroll to the bottom.)
Long-time BCMFest friend and supporter Brian O’Donovan, host of WGBH’s “A Celtic Sojourn,” returns this year for another stint as emcee, as he presides over an evening of music, song and dance from the Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton and other Celtic traditions.
•Starting things off will be a blast of Cape Breton tunes, with fiddler Emerald Rae, piper Matt Phelps and pianist Janine Randall. Janine is one of our favorite people in Boston’s illustrious Cape Breton community, and she has strong family ties to that island’s music tradition, her father an avid stepdancer and both her mother and grandmother pianists (in fact, her grandmother was part of the first recorded fiddle group from Cape Breton). Janine, naturally, grew up in a house filled with music, and outstanding musicians who came by regularly, from Joe Cormier to Bill Lamey to Jerry Holland, to name a few.
“I remember ‘house parties’ being at least a weekly occurrence — if not a couple of times a week – where a fiddler would come over and then there would be more people and lots of food and great music,” she recalls. “ I started stepdancing at the age of three and would dance at the weekly dances at Rose Croix Hall, and weddings and house parties and Scotch Picnics.”
Janine started piano lessons at five years old, but it wasn’t until her 30s that she followed in her mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps and began playing herself. Naturally, she found quite a few willing friends and accomplices to play with, and the next thing she knew, she was playing for dances in Boston with distinguished musicians like John Campbell, Joe Cormier and Lugert LeForte.
“Later when I started the Ceilidh Trail School — a fiddle school in Inverside, Cape Breton — I spent so much time in Cape Breton and listened and played with so many more great musicians and started being asked to accompany for concerts, festivals and fiddle conventions abroad,” says Janine.
So what is it, exactly, about Cape Breton music that’s kept Janine coming back for more? As you might expect, it’s the piano.
“It is the only ‘Celtic style/trad’ music that has not dropped the piano, not yet anyway. The piano style from Cape Breton really ‘connects the dots’ to make it distinctively ‘Cape Breton.’ Whether the fiddler is playing a Scottish or an Irish tune, when that piano is playing in a true Cape Breton style it enhances that ‘Scottish Gaelic’ sound, which has its own unique percussive intonations that you don’t find in Irish or Scottish music from Scotland (unless that music is from the Highlands). Just a kinda ‘swing,’ like when the Gaels would sing while they ‘waulked’ the tweed cloth, or when the dancer taps out that rhythm.”
•Highland Dance Boston has been an audience favorite during the first 10 years of BCMFest, with its exciting, inventive blend of traditional and contemporary Scottish dance choreography. Formed in 2002, the group is in demand for Scottish/Celtic-themed events around New England.
As its name implies, Highland Dance Boston focuses on the Highland style, a highly technical dance form that requires considerable stamina as well as arm and leg strength, and is marked by upper-body arm and hand movements as well as steps. As Robert McOwen, Highland Dance Boston’s founder and director, explains, Highland dance has distinctive elements of athleticism and aestheticism.
“It’s definitely vigorous, something it gets from competitions – the military would use it as a training exercise,” he says. “The tradition goes back centuries, although shrouded somewhat in mystery. Still, it’s pretty clear that the clans would dance as a celebration of victory, or in preparation for battle.”
Over time, he says, as European influences came to Scotland, Highland dance incorporated elements of ballet and other styles. It’s remained a competitive dance form, but is also enjoyable viewing for audiences.
For his part, Robert became involved in Highland dance in the wake of a summer visit to Scotland during college. Later on, he began introducing his own influences, including that of modern dance, into the tradition
“As Highland Dance Boston has grown, we’ve been very creative in our choreographies,” he says. “Our dances have that mix of physical exertion and artistic interpretation that are clearly of the Highland dance tradition, but you’ll also see others with a contemporary feel to them.”
•This past October saw the passing of one of the major figures in Boston’s distinguished Irish music history, Larry Reynolds, who left a six-decade legacy as musician, organizer and pioneer.
Larry, who was born in Ahascragh in Co. Galway, came to Boston in 1953 at the height of Boston’s Irish dance hall era. From then on, he was an indispensible part of Irish music in Boston, playing at and leading sessions – including the weekly gatherings at The Village Coach House in Brookline and later The Green Briar in Brighton and The Skellig in Waltham – organizing concerts and other events, and in general, being the guy you went to if you wanted something done (especially if it had anything to do with Irish music).
He also was the co-founder and chairman of Boston’s branch – recently rededicated as the Reynolds-Hanafin-Cooley branch – of the world-wide Irish cultural organization Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.
This year’s finale concert will conclude with a special tribute to Larry (who appeared along with several other great “tradition-bearers” of Boston Irish music at the 2007 finale concert), by faculty musicians from the local Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann School of Music that Larry helped establish.
The Comhaltas Music School contingent will include fiddlers Cara Frankowicz, George Keith, uilleann piper Patrick Hutchinson, the Coyne Family, and harpist Regina Delaney. They will perform in various combinations, as well as an ensemble, and with student musicians and special guests.
“The Boston Comhaltas Music School is delighted to have the opportunity to present a tribute to Larry Reynolds at BCMFest 2013,” says Lisa Coyne, executive director of the school. “Larry did so much for Irish music in Boston over the years, but one of his most important achievements was helping establish a school to teach the great music tradition he loved and represented. Because of Larry’s efforts, that tradition will continue in Boston for generations to come.
“BCMFest, as a festival devoted to the Boston Celtic music community, is a wonderful showcase for the Boston Comhaltas Music School.”
For ticket and schedule information about BCMFest 2013, go to the BCMFest website at passim.org.
The BCMFest Friday night kick-off concert helps set the tone for the festival weekend, and this year’s event, “New Tunes from Boston: Boston’s Celtic Composers,” reflects the wealth of fine young local musicians whose presence continues to invigorate the Celtic community in Boston — not only through their playing ability, but in their capacity to create original music that is rooted in tradition.
A splendid fiddler in the Scottish-Cape Breton tradition, Katie McNally is one-half of an exciting duo with guitarist Eric McDonald. Katie has a long-time association with BCMFest, and not just as a performer but as organizer of BCMFest’s annual fall concert in Westford. She’s had quite an eventful last few months: She recorded her first CD (which includes many of her own tunes), got to do a tour with piper Carlos Nuñez (who’s played with The Chieftains), and did her now-annual stint with Childsplay that included recording a new CD and concert DVD. Eric – who is equally accomplished as a mandolinist — also has considerable ties to BCMFest, having appeared with the contra dance trio Matching Orange and with the Orion Longsword band.
One of Katie’s many musical collaborations was with the all-girl fiddle band 5 AM, whose members included Amanda Cavanaugh. Amanda was a mainstay of local Irish sessions well before she entered high school, known not only for her excellent playing but her association with distinguished traditional musicians like Jimmy Hogan, Larry Reynolds and Seamus Connolly. A few years ago, while still a college student, she released her first CD, “Comb Your Hair and Curl It.” Amanda also has performed as part of Childsplay.
Also appearing at this year’s kick-off concert are two performers who, while new to BCMFest, are hardly strangers to the Boston area music scene.
Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, a native of Virginia, won a scholarship at age 16 to attend the Berklee College of Music, from where she graduated last month. One of her numerous projects is the group Atlantic Seaway, a collaboration of student musicians from Berklee, The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and The University of Strathclyde that plays at festivals and concerts in the US and abroad. Last year, she toured France with the international Irish music and dance show “Celtic Dances,” run by music directors Liz Knowles and Kieran O’Hare.
Molly Pinto Madigan first came to the attention of area folk music aficionados as a member of the teenage neo-string band Jaded Mandolin (whose members also included Eric McDonald). A singer of American, Irish and Scottish music, Molly expanded her interests into songwriting and poetry, drawing on themes and subjects from the folk tradition; in 2008, she won the Boston Folk Festival’s songwriting contest in the “Youth” category.
For more information on BCMFest, see the Passim website.
Right from the start, BCMFest has been an opportunity for area Celtic performers to put together new collaborations, take ideas they’ve always wanted to try out and make them real, and in general just have a bit of fun.
Over the years, BCMFest special events/collaborations have included The Deadly Sins , The Four Horsemen, “Celtic Piano: 88 Ways to Skin a Cat,” tributes to Boston’s classic Dudley Street Irish sound, the landmark Andy Irvine/Paul Brady album, influential musicians like Jerry Holland, Ed Reavy and Gordon Duncan, and innovative dance showcases. But the list also includes things like the electronic inventiveness of “Tradbot”; The Beatles, Michael Jackson and 1980s power ballads given the Celtic treatment; The BCMFest Olympics, and heaven help us, “So You Think You Can Sing.” Oh, and let’s not forget last year’s “Cirque de Celtique,” which wound up as a parade and jam session with the Harvard Square percussionists.
So what kind of special events and collaborations are on tap for BCMFest 2013? Here’s a sampler:
*“The Stars of Munster”: Dan Accardi and Armand Aromin are two native Rhode Islanders who have become familiar figures in Boston’s Irish music scene (among other things, they’re members of a terrific band called The Ivy Leaf, who will be part of the monthly BCMFest Session – but that’s a story for another day). They also are big fans of
legendary Kerry fiddler Denis Murphy and and his sister Julia Clifford, who almost 50 years ago released the memorable album “The Star Above the Garter,” which captured the unique Sliabh Luachra music style. As part of BCMFest 2013, Dan and Armand will essentially recreate the album, track by track, set by set.
What was the big deal about “The Star Above the Garter”? Dan explains: “I think even in the 1960s, the traditional Irish music scene was facing some of the same questions it is these days: a kind of gradual flattening-out of regional styles, from increased radio exposure and competition judging; people lashing along at tunes faster than the motorcars of the day could go; and also dealing with accompanists plonking along without really listening to the intricacies of the tunes.
“‘The Star Above the Garter’ was kind of a statement — here’s music all in the Sliabh Luachra style, local repertoire, dance pace and some slow airs, just two fiddles, and nothing else. It reinvigorated a certain idea about what Irish music was.”
Dan has a personal connection to the album, too. He received a copy from his fiddle teacher, Jimmy Devine, and it practically shaped his whole approach to the music. “It was that recording which began my Irish music career with an interest in older musicians, obscure tunes, and unique styles. I realized pretty early on that my calling in Irish music was collecting tunes nobody played anymore, and luckily, I’m surrounded by a group of musicians which is willing and able to help me resuscitate such tunes.”
*“Surf Sligo”: Matt Heaton, being one of the better guitar/bouzouki/bodhran players around these parts, can usually count on pulling double-duty (or more) at BCMFest. So this year, in addition to playing music for kids and families [see here for more], Matt will give a concert that combines two of his favorite kinds of music, trad Irish and 1960s surf a la Dick Dale or The Ventures.
It may seem an odd pairing, but consider that even as Matt has become a big-time Celtic musician, he retains a deep admiration for the classic rock style that helped inspire his development as a guitarist. That’s why, in addition to his duo with flutist-vocalist wife Shannon, he also performs as the leader and guiding spirit of Matt Heaton & The Electric Heaters, who will their BCMFest debut.
“The main thing that initially drew me to surf music is the sound of the guitars,” says Matt. “I love the tone, the reverb, the general vibe of that style of music. I also do have a
soft spot in my heart for instrumental music, so this feeds into that as well.”
Matt acknowledges that finding a common thread between surf and Irish would be a stretching maneuver worthy of surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku.
“I suppose I could make something up about the triplet-picking on the banjo being related to the tremolo-picking in surf,” he quips, “but I don’t think I even believe it.”
Still, there is one important connection, he adds: “The melody has to carry the day.”
*“Move the Rolling Sky”: There was plenty of exciting stuff going on in folk music during the 1960s/early 1970s, and that included England, where musicians began to marry centuries-old traditional songs and ballads to rock instruments and arrangements.
Three bands in particular emerged from this period, and proved to be a major influence on folk-rock well beyond England: Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Pentangle.
At this year’s festival, in a special showcase titled “Move the Rolling Sky,” a group of BCMFest performers will salute the contributions of these groups and their illustrious members, with a program of favorite songs from the Fairport-Steeleye-Pentangle canon.
“I remember how exciting it was for me as a teenager and would-be musician to discover these bands,” says Sean Smith, a co-organizer of the event. “I had listened to a lot of rock and folk, but wasn’t sure of my musical direction. So to hear albums like Fairport’s ‘Liege
and Lief,’ Steeleye’s ‘Below the Salt’ and ‘Please to See the King,’ and Pentangle’s ‘Cruel Sister’ was a huge revelation. It wasn’t simply that these groups were using electric guitars and drums – it’s that they were going about it so intelligently and creatively, and with such verve and passion. I thought, ‘OK, there are lots of ways you can work with this music.’
“I also liked that their repertoires covered the Irish and Scottish as well as English traditions: Steeleye’s ‘Lowlands of Holland’ came from the version by Paddy Tunney, for example, and Fairport did a lovely take on the Scots lament ‘The Flowers of the Forest.’ So you got a good overview of music from all around the British Isles and Ireland.”
The talents within Fairport, Steeleye and Pentangle were equally impressive, he adds:
Richard Thompson, Martin Carthy, Sandy Denny, Bert Jansch, Dave Swarbrick, John Renbourn, Maddy Prior, Ashley Hutchings…the list goes on.
“The more you explored the work of these individuals, the more you learned about folk music. And this helped me better appreciate the more traditional, ‘pure drop’ styles of folk I heard.
“Getting together with some BCMFest friends who have also drawn inspiration from Fairport, Steeleye and Pentangle will be a lot of fun. We’re looking forward to it, and we hope people will be ready and willing to sing along on ‘Come All Ye,’ or perhaps ‘All Around My Hat.’”
For more information on BCMFest, see the Passim website.
Sure, “The Attic” may sound like the title of a straight-to-video horror/suspense flick, or the name of a Kenmore Square college pub circa 1981, but it’s a pretty important place where BCMFest is concerned.
Think of The Attic (located in Harvard Square’s First Parish Church, 3 Church Street) as BCMFest’s activity room. It’s where you go not simply to watch or listen, but to do things: dance, sing and/or jam.
Dayfest (January 12) will feature an afternoon of participatory events in The Attic, beginning with the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society of Boston, which for more than six decades has brought the joys of Scottish dance and music to the area. They’ll show you how Scottish country dancing is done, then give you a chance to try it yourself.
The Boston Scottish Fiddle Club , which has been going strong since 1981, will take the floor for a Scottish music session. The club isn’t limited to fiddles — you’ll find accordions, flutes, whistles, bagpipes and guitars, among other things — and is happy to welcome players of any level, or people who just want to listen.
From there, the musical compass will shift to Cape Breton, and you can enjoy a “kitchen ceilidh” featuring music, songs, stories and dance from that lovely little isle. This event, hosted by Cliff and Kira Megan, and Kyte MacKillop and his friends Donald Gillies and Jen and Jason Schoonover, serves as a great reminder of how music traditions provide a shared experience for communities to enjoy together – just for the fun of it.
Winding up The Attic afternoon will be the quartet Carraroe (Bill Black, Mari Oien, Torrin Ryan and Kevin Daly), who will fill the room with joyous sounds from their collection of Irish tunes and songs, as well as some of their own material. Musicians and listeners alike are welcome.
For more information on BCMFest, see the Passim website.