Monday, August 07, 2006

Erin Go Brat

For three hundred sixty-two days per year, Dublin, Ohio is like any other prosperous Midwestern suburb. BMWs and SUVs sit snarled in the rush hour traffic on the outerbelt, their immaculately coiffed occupants on their way to their cushy office complexes that house software development companies and insurance agencies and telecom behemoths. But, because this is Dublin, Ohio, for three days per year the town is transformed into a reasonable facsimile of the Auld Country, and 100,000 Celtophiles or just plain Buckeyes descend on a metro park to partake in the annual Irish Festival, which consists of watered down beer from County Coors, the spicy bratwursts known as Bahama Mamas, face painting (blue being the preferred color of Freeeeeedom!), sand art, corn dogs, and “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” t-shirts in every color of the rainbow, but mostly Shamrock Green. And music. Lots of music.

I will let you in on a secret. I am not Irish. My ancestors, imperialistic bastards that they were, hail from England, but I try not to advertise that fact, particularly during the three days when yuppified Dublin is transformed into an IRA outpost. There’s no sense in being pummeled to death by beer bottles. But I come for the music, because I dearly love it, and for three days in August, Dublin, Ohio has some of the best music on the planet, blasting out from every corner and converging in a glorious cacophony from seven stages that feature more or less continuous jigs and reels from noon ‘til midnight.

As I wandered the festival grounds, I realized that the cacophony is, as always, something of a mixed blessing. Over at the Traditional Stage two dubiously authentic gents, The Celtic Tenors, were engaged in a semi-operatic version of the Auld Country favorite “Lost in Love,” made famous by Air Supply, an Australian soft rock duo. Over at the Celtic Thunder Stage, a gaggle of Singing Nuns, who billed themselves accurately enough as The Singing Nuns, were trilling to traditional fare such as “Edelweis” and “The Sound of Music.” Austria, Ireland, what the hell. Close enough. At the neighboring Ceili Stage, two Celtic folkies were leading the crowd in a rousing chant devoted to the homeland. “O-H,” chanted the troubadours. “I-O,” the crowd chanted back, caught up in the parochial pride of the moment. Apparently you make some concessions to the home team, and those concessions sometimes extend beyond the bratwurst and the corn dogs.

Fat guys in pleated kilts thwacked each other with wooden swords, which was really great, and which held my attention for several minutes. But I really had come for the music, so I spent most of a day and a half hanging out with my brother-in-law Bill (William McCune of County Tyrone; at least one of us could pass muster), sitting and standing and bobbing front and center at the Killian Celtic Rock tent, where various native sons tarted up the traditional songs with electric guitars and a heavy backbeat. Here is who we saw:

-- Hothouse Flowers
-- The Prodigals
-- Seanchai and the Unity Squad
-- Bad Haggis
-- Gaelic Storm
-- The Saw Doctors

Hothouse Flowers could number a certain Bono as one of their early fans and supporters. Reviews in Rolling Stone and videos on MTV were commonplace in the early ‘90s. But on Friday night Liam O’Maonlai and Fiachna O’Broainain, the two mainstays of the band from those heady early years, probably felt a long way from the streets of Dublin. Not only were they playing to a mostly indifferent crowd, but sound problems plagued their hour and a half set almost from its first notes.

Hothouse Flowers are Irish by way of Memphis, and O’Maonlai’s vocals were clearly influenced by American gospel and Stax/Volt southern soul. But there’s nothing wrong with that combination, and if Van Morrison can pull it off, then it’s clearly worth imitating. Sure, O’Maonlai is no Van Morrison, but he is a gritty, passionate singer, and if the audience had actually paid attention, they would have heard some first rate blue-eyed soul. I loved the set, and particularly loved the segues from the band’s original material to the traditional Gaelic songs. Soul is soul, no matter which side of the pond on which it is found.

New York City’s The Prodigals’ groove-heavy approach and accordion-driven songs recall The Pogues, the granddaddy’s of this music, and if lead singer/songwriter Gregory Grene isn’t the writer that Shane MacGowan was (who is?) his songs at least have the punk instincts and rabble-rousing qualities that best befit the genre. These were rowdy drinking songs, best appreciated while sloshing a pint of Guinness (or, in this case, Coors) on one’s pogoing neighbor, and the audience obliged. The Prodigals delivered a fun, albeit somewhat derivative and repetitious set. But we’re talking Celtic punk; who’s complaining? The band provided a stirring end to a fun Friday night.

Brooklyn’s Seanchai and the Unity Squad drew the dreaded 2:30 time slot on Saturday afternoon, the Bermuda Triangle portion of all music festivals in which bands simply fail to register. Most of the small audience appeared to be distracted or still recovering from the previous night. Give them credit for trying, though. Led by Black 47 co-founder Chris Byrne, Seanchai (loosely translated as “storyteller”) played politically charged Celtic anthems to hip-hop and reggae accompaniment. If some of the material seemed dubiously inspired (sorry, but I’ve never viewed revolutionary/murderer Che Guevara as a particularly sympathetic figure), other songs were surprisingly moving, in particular “The Gates of Hell,” a tribute to NYC firefighters at the World Trade Center that was all the more powerful for its lack of sentimentality.

Bad Haggis is surely one of the more redundant band names ever concocted, but that is the only bad thing about this L.A. band of virtuosos. Leader Eric Rigler simply plays the uilleann pipes and bagpipes on virtually every Hollywood movie or TV show that has ever featured those instruments. You’ve probably heard him in Braveheart, Titanic, and Cinderella Man. And if you thought, judging from those movies, that Rigler does the haunting fog-on-the-moors thing well, you’d be right. But that is only a small part of the story. Employing a band that features a guitarist who has played with Miles Davis and Tony Williams, a funk bassist, and dual South American percussionists, Rigler unleashed a sound that encompassed the whole world, and when the roar of his bagpipes careened against those polyrhythms on, yes, a Stevie Wonder song, I shook my head in disbelief. What was even more dumbfounding is that it all held together brilliantly. Santana with bagpipes? Celtic jazz? Brazilian Scottish Funk? Call it whatever seemingly inconceivable label you like. All I know is that my mouth was hanging open in awe. Bad Haggis played music too big and creative for labels. That’s the best kind. They were worth the price of the weekend pass all by themselves.

Gaelic Storm? Perhaps the less said the better. They were young. They were cute. They were cuddly. They were the New Kids on the Block of the Dublin Irish Festival. They pushed all the buttons, even when they weren’t playing their concertinas. Thousands of teenaged girls loved them and squealed at their every move. The music? I don’t think anyone cared. I didn’t, and left after half an hour.

The Saw Doctors, the most successful Irish rock band since U2, wrapped up the proceedings Saturday night in front of about 30,000 beer-swilling people. For a modest pub rock outfit from Galway, it must have been a frightening and awe-inspiring sight. Lead singer/songwriter Leo Moran confessed as much when he gazed out over the crowd and exclaimed, “There’s more people here than in all of Galway!”

And the Galway boys had what was, I suspect, the time of their lives. Playing their Beatles- and Byrds-inspired version of Irish sentimental rock before a crowd that knew every word of every song, and sang along lustily, the band fairly beamed with pleasure. The ballads, which comprised about a third of the two-hour set, were full of the kind of hand-over-the-heart emoting and schmaltz that give Celtic music a bad name. But the rockers were sturdy and hook-filled. The audience sang, danced, sloshed their pints, er, twelve ounces of Coors on one another’s heads, and generally had a great time. I did too, minus the Coors, and managed to emerge from the melee near the front of the stage with my hair still dry.

It was a great weekend. I can’t wait until Dublin transforms itself again. Today, I’m back in my cushy office chair in my cushy office complex. And I have a hankering for a lot of new Celtic music and a wooden sword.


e said...

Whenever your book comes out, this essay better be in it.

It almost made me forget my bitterness that not a single Irish beer has ever made it to the Irish fest.

saintseptum said...

on the subject of celtic punk..... have you ever heard of a really great and sadly short lived celtic political punk band called Ballydowse?

I mean I know know don't have enough music to deal with, but I pull these guys out every now and then and always get reminded why I loved them... nice balance between lilting female vocals and harsh, throaty male (husband and wife), with this wild assortment of instruments (guitars, mandolin, concertina, bagpipes, digeridoo, fiddle, bodhran, which somehow all works), and just fantastic songwriting and musicianship.

And knowing that your opinions of Christian Metal may well extend to Christian Punk.... just know these guys weave Jesus and social justice together in the best and most artful possible way. They're the kind of band that covered G.K. Chesterton poems and quit doing music to devote themselves to relief work in Iraq.

Sorry, I know I'm a random blog commentator, and again I'm sure you don't have enough music to keep you busy right now, but I have this genetic disorder that makes me pimp bands I love at great length to any who can be made to listen. You probably know what I mean....