Strolling lords and ladies, bawdy maids and armored knights, Viking warriors, Robin Hood and none other than the Queen of Merry Olde England herself (her full court in attendance) were among a few of the magical and mystical wonders to meet the eye at the 19th annual Celtic Festival & Marketplace in Grass Valley.
Just as sponsor KVMR’s time-tested adage invites, after coming for the music, you’ll definitely find you’ve stayed for the magic that just keeps unfolding, from the opening Friday night Oct. 2, Ceilidh to the final notes on Sunday of Sharon Shannon’s pumped up, crowd-rousing accordion and antics.
That’s exactly the fate that befell this visitor to the three-day woodland idyll steeped in all things Irish, Scottish and the (surprisingly widespread) Celtic diaspora, transforming the Nevada County Fairgrounds into an elaborately costumed, period bedecked, old-world
market faire. Of course, the modern addition of some of the best Celtic musicians currently on the circuit, performing on five stages throughout the weekend, wove the magic of fiddle and fife in and amongst the ambiance of historically accurate enactments, cultural plays, and performers and attendees alike dressed in their meticulously detailed Celtic, Medieval, and old-world garb.
Like other music events also held at the Nevada County Fairgrounds – the Father’s Day Bluegrass weekend, World Fest in July, and this past year, Strawberry Music Festival’s spring event – the unifying appeal of this venue creates a great festival location (not your average county fairgrounds).
The wooded campground right behind the stages makes being there for the weekend a no-brainer and a breeze. Even just coming for the day, the site is small enough to easily navigate, without being inundated by uncomfortable crowds (and located a mere hour and a half from Lake Tahoe’s north shore). The shade of the tall pines blankets a welcome relief over the grounds when daytime temperatures rise, whispering a ponderosa lullaby by night. Kind of a dream world, in fact: a step back in time, into a shared reverie of fine music, dancing, foamy pints, delicious harvest fruits, and good times all around.
This year was no exception. The weather (mostly) cooperated, with perfect early-autumn foothill temperatures (a tad warmer than here in the high country), blessing the lively crowd long into the balmy nights. Seeing the various artists on different stages throughout the festival enhanced the musical experience: instead of just one performance to a large crowd, almost every musician got around to the smaller, more intimate venues under the trees (Oak Grove and Pine Tree stages), where their performances were distinctly varied from those on the main stage. Additionally, a small side stage right next to the main stage allowed for near continuous music throughout the day and into the night, as crews would switch out one stage for the next act. In the musical mélange that transpired, the audience was transported to the Scottish highlands, Ireland, Galicia in Northwestern Spain, and back to the Sierra foothills, with her bevy of talented musicians (several of whom trained at Scottish-national-treasure and local transplant Alasdair Fraser’s Sierra Fiddle Camp).
Daimh, a five-piece band from the highlands of Scotland, wooed the main stage crowd with their traditional piping, playing, and singing on Saturday afternoon. Singer Ellen MacDonald, a recent addition to the band, sang in Gaelic with gorgeous undertones and rich range to her voice. This band was a treat to see and hear at the smaller Oak Grove stage on Sunday. This was the pub-like experience, up close and intimate, music whirling among oak leaves and the brightening air. For many fairgoers, Daimh stole the bill, with their fiercely played, traditional acoustic offerings accompanied by MacDonald’s soaring vocals.
Early Saturday afternoon, the Screaming Orphans warmed up on the small Oak Grove Stage, teasing each other as they delighted the audience with their lightning fast fiddle, guitar, accordion and drum playing. Self-described as “when honey and gravel collide,” these four sisters from Ireland (Joan, Angela, Gráinne, and Marie Therese Diver) embody where rock meets tradition and sails forward into the future. Festival favorites from last year, these rollicking, fun-loving sisters cover “a massive repertoire of Irish folk, pub and ballad songs,” commanded by hauntingly clear vocals, powerfully blended harmonies, and musicianship that moves effortlessly between traditional plucking and hard, driving rock and roll renditions.
Later that evening, true to their claim that rain follows them around, a spectacular lightning, thunder and rain show heralded the end of their set on the main stage. The crowd was already on its feet, undaunted by the rain amid awe-inspiring purple skies and blue-gold lightning bolts. Magic, as the old Celts intone, was indeed afoot.
While much of the crowd huddled under neighboring booths and tents to wait out the storm, award-winning Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser started up an impromptu jam in KVMR’s broadcast booth (which was sent out live over the air). This unexpected surprise kept the crowd happy until the rain stopped, when renowned Galician piper Carlos Núñez took the stage.
An ambassador of traditional Galician music and culture, Núñez mesmerized the crowd (along with the light show that continued in the night sky for much of his set) with his virtuoso playing of the traditional Galician bagpipes (gaita) and flutes, and his rich knowledge of Galicia’s ancient Celtic roots. Energetic and impassioned,
Núñez was charismatic and compelling in his advocacy for Celtic culture and diaspora worldwide, and the conscious awareness of these uniting traditions; if his words alone did not convince the crowd, the Spanish duende in his music surely did.
On Sunday, the musical prowess of sisters Cassie and Maggie MacDonald swept the main stage. Hailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, this impressive duo interpreted the traditional music of their Celtic roots on keyboards and fiddle with a relaxed, confident air of hanging out around the piano at home. They also whipped up some fine dancing footwork in accompaniment to their own tunes, kicking and stomping in time to the beat and the delight of the entire audience.
Sharon Shannon was the much-anticipated headliner Sunday afternoon and evening, with repeat performances from Carlos Núñez and Screaming Orphans sandwiched into the full main stage schedule as well. First, her performance at the Pine Tree Stage in the late afternoon drew a huge crowd, where her lithe fingertips and legendary welcoming style earned the satisfaction desired. Finger flying around and over her accordion keys and bellows, smile lighting an infectious mood in the audience, Sharon did not disappoint with her mix of traditional and modern tunes, expertly delivered.
Between acts, there was no shortage of pubs featuring on-tap craft brews to quench the thirst, as well as a mead and cider garden, and Celtic-themed (and other) food vendors. To further entice the eye and purse, a full marketplace of handmade Celtic and Medieval-themed clothing (chain mail, laced bodices), imported and tie-dye items, jewelry (also Celtic themed), weaponry (knives, swords, shields), local pottery and more flourished. The children’s area offered games and a quiet hang out for tykes, while a Celtic Dancing stage kicked up lively demonstrations all weekend.
The Living History component of the festival included Vikings, Scottish clans, and Nevada City locals the Harvest Home Revelers (with demonstrations of their arts, crafts, and livelihood skills, and roaming plays and processions around the fair). Merloch Silvermaine the magician plied his wonder on youth and elder alike; for sporting fun, an archery field, and ancient games and battles were also available. Mary, Queen of Scots held court daily, and proffered favors to her subjects: the traditional ribbon floret, worn as a brooch, adorned many a breast.
In addition to first-rate stage performances, the Celtic Festival offered ample opportunity for musicians of all abilities to jam with the masters and learn from their technique. Members of local “session” groups from Chico, Sacramento, Grass Valley, and Reno led jams at the Salem Street Session Stage, offering aspiring and seasoned musicians alike the chance to play together. Some of the best music of the weekend poured out of that little gazebo! Highlights included local favorites Paul Kamm and Eleanor MacDonald leading an Irish and Scottish singing circle on Sunday morning, while festival headliners Daimh closed out the final session jam that afternoon.
All this myth and magic confirmed yet again that KVMR’s annual Celtic Festival is one of the most relaxing, fun and fantastical places to be on the first weekend of October, a sweet intimate little festival that hearkens to a slower time. That’s a blessing. You will find you’ve stayed for that magic, lost in the music wherever you wander down the green canopied, sun-dappled lanes.