Four Irish sisters relax by the banks of the Cucharas River on the equinox before playing the Spanish Peaks International Celtic Festival in southern Colorado.
“Oh, we’re way up here in the Rocky Mountains,” says Joan Diver, the drummer and lead singer of Screaming Orphans, in an accent just as sweet as you’d ever hope. “There are bears and mountain lions around here so none of us is going jogging today!”
The Screaming Orphans’ music is a mix of pop and rock influenced by traditional Celtic rhythms, language and culture passed down through the generations.
“We can’t wait,” Diver said. “We’ll be up there in Grass Valley where it’s all about the beautiful mountains, music and people. We’ve been there twice before and we’re very much looking forward to going back.”
Now in its 21st year, the KVMR Festival is known for its joyous diversity of music, kinship, drama and magic.
“The people that come are very open minded,” Diver says. “It’s family oriented and there’s a great atmosphere. It’s also lovely for the bands to perform since they look after you backstage making sure you’re fed well and taken care of.”
Diver and her sisters, who will perform four separate sets throughout the weekend festivities, grew up performing for travelers on the streets of beautiful Donegal, Ireland, located in the far northern part the country along the mountainous banks of Atlantic Ocean.
“We’d sing for the tourists even when we were 4 or 5,” she recalls. “We learned to entertain as kids and that stands by yet with any audience we’ve have. Germans, Italians, English, American, Canadian — all types of people. We learned how to connect from an early age.”
Featuring acoustic piano, accordion, fiddle, acoustic guitar, drums, and the hauntingly beautiful harmonies of the Diver sisters, the Screaming Orphans’ music is a mix of pop and rock influenced by traditional Celtic rhythms, language and culture passed down through the generations.
“Our mom is a singer and was very musical with her family growing up,” Diver says. “Our dad just always loved all types of music — jazz, rock, pop. He doesn’t play or sing, but he’s just one of those people who loves music. Our voices together sound like our mother, but it was maybe out dad who influenced us more through what he listened to.”
Out on the road, the siblings work and create their lives together as a tight-knit family unit.
“We’re just like any other family,” Diver says. “We fight and stuff, but we love what we do and we’re good at it. It’s never I. It’s always we.”
That cooperation has paid off. This year’s release of “Taproom” hit No. 1 on the iTunes world music charts. The album is an amalgam of dream pop meets Donegal pub session with ambient voices blending handsomely over delightful musicianship and superb songwriting.
“We take pop music, rock, traditional Irish and older sounds and change them around a bit to make them a bit more relevant for today,” Diver says.
An Ongoing Legacy
This will be Screaming Orphans’ third appearance at the KVMR Celtic Festival since it was founded 21 years ago by Annie O’Dea Hestbeck, the host of KVMR’s “Celtic Cadence” since 1987.
“Annie is one of the main reasons were there,” Diver says. “She’s an amazing person. So it’s such an honor to be asked back.”
When she moved from County Clare, Ireland, to the Sierra Nevada foothills as a young woman in the early 1980s, Hestbeck never imagined that she would stay there, let alone become a central figure in the Grass Valley music community.
“KVMR was the thing that did it,” she remembers. “I was a young wife and mother, new to the community. I walked into the station. The station manager heard my accent and said, ‘You should become a broadcaster.’ KVMR evolved into one the greatest parts of my life. It’s a radio station, but it’s also so much more.
Back in 1996, Hestbeck took a chance to try something special in order to help support the station.
“I just thought we’d bring a lot of bands to play for a fundraiser for the station,” she recalls. “We are people who love roots and love culture. A lot of the miners came here back in the day from Scotland and Wales. We said, ‘Let’s give a gamble,’ and we did. It sold out.”
Three decades later, her one-of-a-kind Celtic Cadence still airs to the delight of listeners around the world every Wednesday from 8-10 p.m. on the Nevada City-based community radio station.
The program and the festival continue to blossom forth a “bountiful beauty of goodness,” as she puts it.
Festivalgoers can experience traditional Ceilidh dancing, a medieval Royal Tournament and Gathering of the Tribes, world-class entertainment, educational workshops and impromptu jam sessions in the campground throughout the weekend.
“It’s much more than just the bands on the main stage,” Hestbeck says. “There’s quite a bit of jamming that goes on. We encourage people to bring their instruments and anything else they may have and just join in any of the sessions.”
She believes the popularity of the festival lies in the intrinsic universality of Celtic music, which has spread and connected with cultures from around the world.
If someone told me that in 20 years we’d still be going, I’d have laughed.
The ongoing realization of Hestbeck’s innovative vision provides a timeless source of joy for the rambunctious journeywoman.
“I’m beside myself I’m so happy,” she says with a infectious titter. “My heart is so full for the listening community. If someone told me that in 20 years we’d still be going, I’d have laughed. The best part is that over all the years, the festival has never lost the beauty and essence of what we originally wanted to create. People come together and they laugh and they dance. It’s a living tradition in my heart because of all the people I’ve connected with over the years from both near and far.”
The risk she took to follow her heart and create something meaningful in her overseas community continues to fill her heart and ours.
“When I’m up onstage introducing the artists, every single person is smiling back just at like in the beginning,” she says. “It’s been a joy to see the community and people from all over the world come together to celebrate how wonderful it is to be Celtic.”
- KVMR Celtic Festival
When: Friday, Sept. 29-Sunday, Oct. 1
Where: Nevada County Fairgrounds, Grass Valley
Tickets: $55 for the day, $90 for the weekend