Irish Fest: Always A Blast, But...

Sun Aug 16 2009

For the first time in years, I managed to get an entire day in at my favorite lakefront festival on Saturday. No big names on the ticket this year other than the ever-present Gaelic Storm and the Trinity Irish Dancers, but some of my best memories of Irish Fest have been when I discovered something I’d never even heard of before, so I always go in with high hopes.

First up was acoustic Celtic punk band Whiskey Of The Damned, a Milwaukee outfit with heavy Pogues overtones. As long as you don't get turned off by fake Irish accents (and in this day and age, with Irish music as prevalent as it is, I think you've got to look past this) and banjoist/fiddler Blaine McQuinn attempting to rap Gorillaz' "Clint Eastwood" (he pulled off some pretty crazy rock and roll banjo to make up for his questionable rhyming skills), you couldn't help but enjoy this set. With this year's lineup heavy on MOR, family-friendly fare, I had to relish the quick dose of actual rock energy that this band pumped out. Highlights included an energetic take on James Griffin's "Going Back To Boston", renditions of folk classics "Dirty Old Town", "The Wild Rover" and "The Irish Rover" (not the last time we'd hear any of those songs), and a haunting take on "The Parting Glass" to end the set.

Kind of a bummer that the best set of music all day was over at 1:30. Over the years, we have seen the "Celtic Rock" stage at Irish Fest shift from a showcase for up-and-coming talent and established, edgy acts that break barriers and create excitement, to its current incarnation as a hideout for mostly novelty acts and bland, samey fiddle/accordion pop bands that may or may not feature a guitar. Yes, I'm talking about you, Reilly. Your website may claim "hard driving rhythms banging out on the drums, bass and electric guitar", but that's pretty misleading. Kudos for playing the Slade classic "Run Run Away"; that was ripe for this type of reinterpretation, but it only spotlights how tired and unexciting the Reilly sound truly is. Solid musicianship, cheesy stage presence, zzzzzzzzzzzzzz...

Passing by the Aer Lingus Stage, I caught my second "Wild Rover" of the day, this one by Evans & Doherty And Friends, pretty much a folk contingent trying to make up for the loss of Tommy Makem, more power to 'em. There was a focus on Canadians this year at the fest, and these folks did a fine job with a style that just is what it is. We also caught lone singer/guitarist Tom O'Sullivan at the Milwaukee Pubs Stage; he was just kind of weird, so soft spoken and overly gentle, particularly on another "Irish Rover" rendition that might've made Makem toss his Guinness it was so timid. Still fun to sing along to, though, and it was an okay backdrop for my "Irish Bomber", a homemade green pepper sausage slathered with tomato sauce from Hometown Sausage, pretty tasty.

I did catch a few minutes of Chicago's Baal Tinne, a group that plays Irish Fest pretty much every year, and seems to get worse every year. I spoke very briefly with Jane Anderson, the fest's executive director, a couple of years ago, and asked her why we did not see the return of some of the best artists from previous years. Her response was that Irish Fest preferred to keep bringing new talent in every year rather than rely on the same old groups. I haven't seen any evidence of this, though. My guess is that aging stalwarts like Baal Tinne and Reilly are cheap to book, while Gaelic Storm is famous enough to guarantee a certain contingent of fans. This particular performance by BT was riddled with rhythmic sloppiness and the ever-present corny synthesized piano that just doesn't belong in traditional Irish music. I was really itching for some of that "new talent".

Back at the Rock stage were the Trinity Dancers; who could possibly say why? Generally one of, if not THE biggest draw of the fest, they really should be performing on one of the larger stages, particularly since they are not in any sense a rock band. Still, even with the oppressive sun and heat, it was a rousing show, one of the better performances by the troupe that I've seen in recent years; my knees hurt just watching the way their legs move.

Next up, a bit of Dargle, a band that I saw last year as Monto, but with the name change came perhaps a bit more energy? I couldn't say for sure, but last year's set hadn't inspired me, while I at least got a real charge out of Garry O'Meara's banjo playing this year. It's an instrument that generally doesn't get me worked up, but today I saw two memorable outings by banjoists. The music was fairly run-of-the-mill trad overall, but very well done (and another "Dirty Old Town" to boot).

Next was Pogey, another Canadian act. I couldn't find fault with the group's vaguely rockish Celtic fare, but it also didn't really grab me, although by this point, my entourage had grown pretty large and our conversation was beginning to distract from the music. Irish Fest has always been largely about the music for me, but there's also a lot more catching up and commiserating to be done than can be accomplished walking between bands. Maybe next year, Pogey.

Next, I needed a delicious buttery ear of corn and some whiskey. We'd missed the official whiskey tasting, but entry to the whiskey area above the Water Street Brewery stand was free and open to everybody. Eight bucks for a small glass of Red Breast is really not a bad price, especially for a festival, so i was happy to indulge. You can't complain about the five bucks per beer either (four bucks for some of the "lite" beers), but I wish Guinness products were readily available! Yes, we are the brew city, and having plentiful Sprecher, Lakefront and Leinenkugel around (not so keen on the bland Water Street flavors...) is a fantastic way to show off our local faves, but nothing goes better with bagpipes than Guinness or Smithwick's (okay, MAYBE whiskey...).

We took in a good chunk of the Sons Of Maxwell set. These guys struck me as very Canadian and...not particularly Irish in any sense. But again, I was paying more attention to the conversation around me than the music, so they didn't get a fair shake. When they'd finished, we headed back to the Celtic Rock Stage for the final set of the night, the Scottish phenomenon known as the Red Hot Chili Pipers. The group became famous after winning on the U.K. variety program (you guessed it), When Will I Be Famous? The shtick is thick with these guys, all decked out in red and black (including a couple of mohawks) and snarling like Sex Pistols caricatures. I'm not going to say the music was bad, but it was not nearly as good as you'd expect based on the educational backgrounds and honors bestowed on its members. Then again, what do I know about the Royal Scottish Academy Of Music And Drama? The whole production was very campy, and seemingly not intentionally, so that it probably came off a bit insulting to lovers of traditional and punk music alike. Plus, obnoxious banter and antics took up almost as much time as the music, so it was a little tough to really get into the experience.

I'll give the organizers of Irish Fest a little credit for making a somewhat bold choice with this Saturday headliner, but I left the grounds feeling like I'd either missed most of the best acts, or that my beloved festival needs some youthful input about what's actually cutting edge, or some expert advice about what traditional groups are actually the most talented, because I've seen a lot of iffy music the past few years. These are the grounds where I've discovered amazing bands like Flook, Kíla, The Prodigals, Tempest, Black 47, and The Drovers; at least bring some of these acts back if there's nothing new that compares! But I doubt anything could stop me from coming back. It'll never be the same without Makem (and here's hoping his sons in the Makem & Spain Brothers return next year!), but if you like Irish music, you'll find something to enjoy here every year.
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