GRASS VALLEY, California — KVMR Radio’s Celtic Festival and Marketplace celebrated its 20th birthday Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 and what a grand celebration of old-world culture and Celtic music.
“Come for the music, stay for the magic,” the longstanding motto for this wonderful, homegrown and world-class festival proved true once again, when the magic – and a host of traditional and innovative Celtic-inspired music – transformed a rainy forecast into a veritable Sherwood’s Forest of medieval village life centered around the celebratory power of music.
Held at the Nevada County Fairgrounds (site to numerous annual festivals, including Strawberry, Father’s Day Bluegrass and World Fest), this year’s Celtic celebration boasted an incredible array of musicians from around the world, and the usual bevy of historical Guilds and re-enactment societies, as well as artisans whose work featured Celtic roots or motifs (clothing, weaponry, jewelry, including leatherwork, and more). Roving minstrels, truly great culinary offerings, attendees who clearly prided themselves on dressing the part, and more than six stages of music and entertainment running all day and into the night made for a delightful weekend of fun and musical reverie.
This year marked the return, once again, of local Scottish fiddler extraordinaire (and favorite) Alasdair Fraser, commemorating the very first Celtic Festival and the appearance of his (then) band, Skyedance. Fraser, renowned as Scotland’s premier fiddle ambassador, moved to Nevada County more than 25 years ago, and has since spawned numerous fiddle camps and music students who now perform successfully in their own right around the globe. So, Nevada County locals are rightly quite proud of their favorite fiddler.
One of the coolest things about the Celtic festival is the opportunity to see most musicians play two or three times daily – often both days – rotating between the smaller, up-close stages and the grander Main Stage. The flavor changes, from stage to stage, so it’s fun to wander about and see different acts at different times and venues. For example, I saw The Elders – a lively band of six players hailing from Dublin and Kansas City – on the Oak Tree Stage as part Friday afternoon’s Youth Program, which paired local students with musicians and dancers to experience a brief immersion in these Celtic arts. The much more intimate experience of the band at this small stage belied their very electric explosion on the main stage on the next night, where they held an entire amphitheater-sized crowd in the palms of their hands and on the bows and strings of their fiddles and guitars.
Friday evening featured a first-ever Royal Tournament and Gathering of the Clans, including a display of full contact jousting (with lances, on horseback), sword fighting, dancing horses, and a presentation of awards by the royal court of Mary, Queen of Scots. The annual Friday night Ceilidh (Irish dance and music party) featured music from McKasson, Alexander, and Cotter, aka MAC, described by one as “quintessential, ecstatic contra dance” music. MAC are fiddler Ryan McKasson, piper Elias Alexander, and guitarist Colin Cotter – all well known for their work in other bands, such as A Thousand Years at Sea, The Synchopaths and Carlos Nuñez. The Ceilidh always means a grand time for all, where attendees brush elbows with performers in the comfortable, communal way that is that old Irish tradition.
Molly’s Revenge officially opened the music part of the festival on Saturday with a rousing set on the main stage. Hailing from Novia Scotia, this power-trio playing fiddle, guitar and mandola, bodhran, pipes and whistles, drives a lively acoustic arrangement of jigs, reels and dance tunes. Lyrical, dynamic, and passionately infectious, Molly’s Revenge delightfully wooed the morning crowd.
Roving minstrels and Nevada county locals the Harvest Home Revelers paraded twice daily, singing songs depicting life at harvest time, playing authentic medieval instruments, and featuring festival characters such as a real (human-powered) hobby horse, jester, bawdy serving wenches, and life-size masked ravens; pausing in the paths, they entertained the crowd with enactments of the stags’ annual battle for dominance in the forest, and a Morris-inspired sword dance (of intertwined and interlocking swords and dance steps). The Diamond Rose Academie d’Armes, demonstrated the study and practice of sword, dagger, buckler, cane and cloak – entertaining, as well as educational – along with free introductory fencing lessons. Clans Fraser and Galbraith displayed ancient customs and habits of Scottish Highlander clans, while Saint Andrew’s Guild presented the very regal and authentically enacted Court of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. To shouts of “God Save the Queen!” the royal entourage also parades twice daily around the festival. Upon requesting an audience with the Queen, she may favor one with a bejeweled ribbon rosette, a token of her esteem; many a matron or knight can be seen walking the Festival grounds sprouting a bevy of such favors on their costumed breasts – all part of the authentic spirit of the three-day festival.
On Saturday afternoon, Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, the California-based, Juilliard trained cellist who is “returning the cello to its historical role at the rhythmic heart of Scottish music” were surprised in the middle of their set on the small Pine Tree Stage by Alasdair’s students from his Sierra Fiddle Camp. Stopping for questions from the audience, he was queried what to do if one’s children show an interest in music. Alasdair aptly replied, “Encourage them. Find them a peer group, and also, keep it intergenerational – like this weekend here at the Celtic Festival.” How true that statement proved to be, as young fiddlers played alongside seasoned ones, onstage and off, conversations flowed along with the ale at O’Dea’s Irish Pub and the Sierra Nevada Brewery booth, and jubilant singing, dancing and camaraderie echoed the spirit of the Celtic ethos.
Jocelyn Pettit and her band appeared as evening descended, blowing the crowd away with her make-it-look-easy command of the fiddle (and guitar) and exceptional vocal quality. What’s absolutely amazing about this young (captivating, confident) fiddler and step-dancer from the West Coast of British Columbia is the way she combines dancing with fiddling during her performances. She has a stage manner exceptional in one so young, welcoming and chatting with her audience like she’s been doing it her whole life. Joined on stage by her parents Siew Wan Khoo and Joel Pettit (on keyboards and accompanying fiddle, and bodhran), and Colm MacCarthaigh on guitar, and Erik Musseau on whistle, their clear, soaring tunes and harmonies brought to life the music of the Celtic isles, Brittany, Galencia (Spain), and Cape Breton. Pettit’s grace and infectious passion assure the successful continued transmission of this ancient musical tradition.
The Elders, as noted, closed out Saturday night on the main stage, with a rowdy, rollicking set. People in lawn chairs rose to their feet and danced an Irish high step while the band rocked merrily on. Known for their unique combination of storytelling and upbeat Celtic numbers, the band had everyone shouting and singing along, dancing and swinging, and rapt with singer Ian Byrne’s poignant and lovely voice.
Sunday began with a Celtic blessing by the Nevada City singing group, Rossignol. The choir, accompanied on harp and led by medieval scholar and musician Tynowyn, performed a prayer for the Goddess Brigid, as well as two haunting songs featuring intricate vocal harmonies. Highlights of the afternoon included The Jeremiahs – a wonderful, Dublin-based band (with a Frenchman on fiddle) performing traditional Irish music, and Outside Track, a name that aptly defines this band’s unique sound. With members from Ireland, Scotland, and Cape Breton, their love of traditional music shines through, even as they forge new directions firmly rooted in that sound. With powerful vocals from Teresa Horgan and newest member, Aoife Scott, the four women and one fellow masterfully combined accordion, harp, guitar, fiddle, whistle, and step-dancing with vivacity and aplomb.
Wake the Dead pleased folks with their unique blend of Celtic instrumentation and old rock classics, primarily those of the Grateful Dead. A softer, more stringed version of the Dead repertoire reaped favorites such as The Other One, Eyes of the World, and St. Stephen, as the seasoned septet united fiddle, harp, pipes, whistles, guitar, double bass and mandolin with emotive harmonies and rhythmic jams rivaling the best Celtic or Dead cover bands.
The highlight of the festival turned out to be the closing act Sunday night, hands down, as Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, and about 20 other fiddlers and guitarists, singers and accordion players, crowded the stage in an impromptu Ceilidh. Haas truly is an inspired cellist, and seeing the dynamic duo of the two – the seasoned Scottish fiddler, with his vast traditional repertoire and innovative musical explorations, and the young, beautiful cellist, with her rhythmic playing and relaxed command of her instrument – crowned an already musically rich weekend.
Fraser himself describes Haas’ groove as the “whole chunky rhythm section” she evokes, noting, “It’s inspiring to hear the cello unleashed from its orchestral shackles!” Fraser, ever the magnificent emcee for his own performances, joked easily and often with the audience, while the jam unleashed and built in power and beauty. Celts by birth or affiliation responded to Fraser’s call for love to predominate in these strange electoral times we are living through, as expressed by Sally Ashcraft’s beautiful vocal rendition of “Red Is the Rose,” played to the tune of “Loch Lomond.” Unity, community, care, and the love of music thus closed out the 20th annual Celtic Festival. If you missed it, keep an eye out for tickets to next year’s frolic in the forest as early as July 2017, from KVMR-89.5 FM, in Nevada City, California. See you there.