Countdown to BCMFest 2018: Roots & Branches concert — Q&A with Nic Gareiss and Allison de Groot

Another in a series of features about BCMFest 2018 that will be appearing in this blog right up until the festival (January 18-21), so as to better acquaint you with the events, activities and personalities that make up BCMFest, which is marking its 15th anniversary.

The Friday night Roots & Branches concert was traditionally the kick-off event for BCMFest, starting just a little ahead of the Boston Urban Ceilidh, which always takes place the same night. Now, of course, with the festival beginning on Thursday night, it will be the Emerging Artist Showcase that formally gets BCMFest underway. But Roots & Branches has always had another distinctive quality, aside from being first on the schedule: It set the tone for the weekend, serving as a kind of overview of the festival, celebrating not only the traditions found in Boston’s Celtic music scene but the styles and sounds that have sprung from or been influenced by those traditions.

The 2018 Roots & Branches concert on January 19 will continue to fill that role with three acts that, taken together, give you a sense of the foundations on which Celtic music is built and how far its elements have traveled geographically and in the human imagination:

Fódhla, the Boston-Portland trio of Ellery Klein (fiddle), Nicole Rabata (flute) and Bethany Waickman (guitar), with a firm footing in the Irish music tradition.

•Award-winning singer-songwriter Molly Pinto Madigan, whose work draws on the magical, transformative, often dark character of the British Isles and European ballad tradition.

•The duo of Allison de Groot and Nic Gareiss, whose presentation of old-time Appalachian music combines Allison’s deft touch on five-string banjo and Nic’s uniquely inventive, expressive form of step-dancing.

Winnipeg native Allison, though new to BCMFest, is no stranger to Boston — she attended the Berklee College of Music, where she studied in the American Roots Program. Michigan-born Nic, meanwhile, has been a regular performer at BCMFest and elsewhere in the Boston area.

We asked Allison and Nic to talk about their music, and why it fits in just fine at a Celtic festival.

Allison de Groot and Nic Gareiss.

Q: You definitely seem to fall in the “Branches” category: How is your brand of music connected to the Irish/Scottish/Celtic traditions, and what makes it different?

NIC: In our duo we perform mostly Appalachian old-time music using the five-string banjo and percussive dance. Those are our mediums. Apart from the historical fact that thousands of Celtic peoples made their way to the Appalachian mountains and met Native American, African-American, Germanic, and Nordic neighbors there, morphologically, the forms of music and dance we perform are structurally quite similar to sounds and movements that exist in contemporary Ireland and Scotland.

In addition to these similarities of keys and cadences, beats and bars, shuffles and sashays, sociologically, cultural forms from our side of the Atlantic often act as mirrors or reference points for traditional musicians and dancers in Celtic cultures. I remember observing this while living in Ireland pursuing my MA in ethnochoreology at the University of Limerick. North American traditional tunes and steps are often seen as not only contrasting Celtic traditional arts, but also informing them, perhaps even calcifying their aesthetic sense of themselves. We see this in Scotland as dancers look to Cape Breton step dance to reconstruct what Scottish dance might have looked and sounded like prior to the highland clearances, as well as in Ireland where contemporary Irish step dancers borrow (or steal, we call it!) steps from American tap dancers to create virtuosic solo moments in commercial shows like “Riverdance” and its many spin-off shows.

That said, there’s a specific feel or swing to the Appalachian music we love and it’s that sense of time and timbre that marks it as uniquely American.

Q: How and when did you two start performing together, and what have been some of your favorite gigs so far?

ALLISON: We met at a festival in the woods near my hometown of Winnipeg in 2012. Nic completely blew me away. The day after that festival I moved to Boston and just a few weeks later we crossed paths again through a mutual friend Jack Devereux. There is a fun video of the three of us playing “Black Eyed Suzy” at Club Passim, the first time Nic and I ever made music together. We did a really special tour of Prince Edward Island together and one of my favorite gigs (ever!) was at Baltimore Fiddle Fair in Ireland last April.

Q: Nic, you’ve performed at BCMFest several times over the years — what makes it enjoyable for you?

NIC: My first BCMFest was 2007 as a guest of Eric Merrill and the Western Star. I was 21, it was my first trip to Boston and I still remember being stuck by the city’s vibrant and welcoming traditional music and dance community. I think BCMFest has done a lot to nourish that. Over the years, I feel lucky to have been invited to perform at the festival as an “honorary Bostonian” and each trip confirms the warmth and richness of the traditional arts community that the festival creates.

Being invited back for the 15th year holds tremendous meaning for me as well. I wasn’t doing a lot of performing in 2007, having taken a little break after performing a lot as a teenager. Laura Cortese’s invitation to the festival 11 years ago and the incredible energy and enthusiasm of the artists and audiences really rekindled an interest in performing professionally. You could say it was a crucial moment in the decision to do what I do and to make traditional music and dance a full-time pursuit.

Schedules, ticket information and other details about BCMFest are available here.

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