The Irish know how to celebrate!! How do I know? Well, besides the fact that I am of that ethnic persuasion, I got to see and hear it up close and personal at one of the premiere fests in this country. The Michigan Irish Music Festival (In Muskegon, Michigan) was an experience of the best kind and we spent the whole day digging deep into everything Celtic! It was a totally fabulous day and I'm so glad I got to be there with some of the very best international Irish music acts - and they were all in one place! This was the tenth anniversary of the fastest growing Irish Music Festival in the country and the music, shopping, food, and of course the Guinness was great.
My granddaughter, Becca and I were the first to arrive and we just had to walk through the market and peruse the many booths and merchandise that was available. There were clothing stalls, small corners with lots of Celtic and Irish jewelry, and even a booth with kilts, dragon daggers, and swords which was what really captivated Becca! After checking the booths out thoroughly we decided to wait to buy anything and headed over to the big tent where Bob and Bernie's Pub was found for a lunch and something to drink. Believe it or not the music in the Pub was really pretty great! It mostly consisted of Michigan and area artists and they were pretty fabulous! From the Conklin Ceili Band to Kennedy's Kitchen they were high energy and offered really toe tapping, hand clapping music the whole afternoon.
My brother showed up after lunch and we headed to two of the tents near the lake that I was really looking forward to exploring. One was the kids tent where they offered a few musicians who are considered music makers for the kids. I have to admit that I love this wonderful group of artists because of their creativity who sang many of the typically well known Irish songs. From the Unicorn to other little ditties the tent was alive with singing, laughter and children and adults all joined in to the many hand motions and laughter that accompanied all the songs. This festival is really geared for the whole family in many ways and the young people are accepted as part of the scene as well as the next generation of musicians and music lovers.
We wandered on after the songs faded from one large tent to another smaller one that had a sign out front simply stating it as the "Session Tent." Here fiddlers, guitarists, flutists, bodhrán (dh would be said like a w), and mandolin players of all ages worked with some of the Celtic music's best who were there singing and playing from almost every group who were playing the three stages of this festival. Standing behind a circle of seated musicians was a rush since you could see that next generation sharpening their skills with some of the pros and the music was even better up close and personal. The views of Muskegon Lake in the background filled with a plethora of sailboats of all sizes made for a a lovely place scene alongside the continuous music that filled the tents and seemed to permeate the whole area. Here the many children and young adults vied for the chance to play with, and learn many musical nuances from the likes of some the local musical artists or maybe from one of the well known Irish performers who came to this festival from Cape Breton to almost every part of Ireland.
By the time they were winding down in the Session's tent, we were getting hungry so we wandered back to the pub tent for dinner where some of those great Michigan Irish bands serenaded our dinners of Irish stew, and bangers, chips and Guinness (of course!). From Blackthorn, Kennedy's Kitchen, and the Conklin Celi band - to Switchback there was wonderful music to enjoy dinner by for everyone.
The two main stages were constantly filled with music all day from the typically Celtic that spilled out from the edges of each tent and onto the grounds. It drew us from one huge tent to the another all through the late afternoon and on into the early evening. With three stages of music that played with very few breaks the whole day long there was always a place to duck into, or we could sit at the various picnic tables surrounding the edges of these music tents as well for a sun filled hour or two as well.
The three bigs tents that could easily seat over 200 were named for two of the counties in Ireland. The County Cork Stage, County Kerry Stage, (and of course the pub stage!) were continuously alive with music during each day of this three day event! Beyond these and along the banks of the lake were other smaller tents focusing on cultural history, genealogical information, and one that actually exposed visitors to the various stages of an 1800s Irish styled death, funeral, and wake.
The day was fading, but the best of the music was really still ahead of us. We wandered into one of the big tents to listen to a rather strangely named band which was a real discovery for me (Much like many of the local bands I listened too!). Captain Mackey's Goatskin shared with the crowd many old Irish folk tunes and had us singing at the top of our lungs along with many of them. The Makem & Spain Brothers sang us through many more pieces as well.
Many of the best of all the 18 bands were scheduled for the evening so we moved toward the two main tents. From Old Blind Dogs, to Slide IE (One of my personal favorite!), and Solas I was in Celtic heaven! If you've ever been to a festival like this you know the cheering, foot stomping and clapping can be thunderous and a great fun part of responding to the fabulous music and energy filled performers.
The last three acts I wanted to take in were also the last of the day and the performances were not to be missed! The County Cork Stage began the evening with the band Slide IE (a younger group from the Southwestern Irish town of Bandon) I loved this group who integrated old Celtic folk favorites with a smattering of really well written modern songs. The Irish Times calls SLIDE (Ireland) "traditional musicians with attitude," and with every song they proved their musical prowess by bringing the crowd to their feet in response.
There was a short break and then the group Solas took the stage. This group of five are definitely known for their musical versatility - great song writing too! Many of members often changed instruments throughout many of the songs to change the tone of feel of the piece. These are truly multi-talented musicians!
The final act of the evening for us was one I was really waiting to hear and experience! Natalie MacMaster is known world-wide for superb fiddling and always for a great show as well. She was joined at the festival by her husband Donnell Leahy a magnificent fiddler in his own right (And a member of the great Leahy family of Ontario Canada too!). Add to the fiddling two fabulous pianists, one from Natalie's band Mac Morin, and the other Donnell's sister Erin and you have a real powerhouse of a group onstage!
Throughout the music sets these four had such energy and displayed such exceptional musical skill with a whole lot of Celtic heart that most of their numbers brought the crowd to its feet cheering and clapping. Donnell threw in an exceptional piece of classical music that was truly breathtaking and had the audience cheering.
MacMaster and Leahy seemed throughout to be challenging each other during many of the numbers going back and forth like dueling fiddles again and again. Their fiddle face-offs echoed and really accentuated the Celtic, in the jigs, reels and ballads from Cape Breton, Ontario that were a part of this two hour concert.
This was certainly a memorable day, and I'm sure I'll relive this superb festival for many years to come!