Celtic Classic 2002
in Bethlehem, PA
(28 September 2002)

With a tight schedule leaving me free for only one of three days at the 15th annual Celtic Classic, I headed to Bethlehem, Pa., with high hopes for making the most of my Saturday. Alas, the fates had other ideas, and a blown tire put a hitch in plans.

Well, we can't always let the fates have the last word. Trusting to chance and abandoning the car in a tow-zone parking lot, I hoofed it the rest of the way to downtown Bethlehem, where several stages were blasting with music and the crush of people mingled freely among the various food and merchant booths.

I made a beeline for the Tavern in the Glen, where I arrived in time for the tail end of a set by the Glengarry Bhoys. Still, the band managed to cram a lot of music into my too-brief stay, a stretch dominated by some fast foot- and fiddle-work by the Ontario band's lone ghirl, Shelley Downing. Wow!

Aoife Clancy started her set at a brisk pace, beginning with the Andy M. Stewart classic, "The Queen of Argyll." She was backed for this performance by Larry (flute and low whistle) and Matt (guitar); they were joined for one tune set by cousin Donachadh Gough, from Danu, who provided ripsnorting bodhran riffs.

The show continued with signature Aoife songs including "Banks of Sweet Primroses" and "The Flower Of Magherally" -- I was loathe to leave, which is why I only caught the last minutes of a brisk, amazingly diverse set of fiddle tunes by Scots legend Brian McNeill. His performance provided great spice to a platter of corned beef and cabbage from one of the many food vendors on the grounds. (Traditional Irish fare? Of course not! But tasty just the same.)

The rest of the afternoon passed quickly, allowing for samples of performances by Charlie Zahm, Seamus Kennedy, Danu and the 69th Pennsylvania Irish Volunteers (a Civil War reenactment troupe with a love for good music) before getting to what was, for many of us, the main event: Clandestine, a perennial Celtic Classic favorite, making their final appearance at the festival before dissolving the band.

This was Clandestine's sixth annual appearance in Bethlehem, and the loyal crowd demonstrated their love at the start of the set by BOOING the band -- an affectionate boo, really, following Jen Hamel's announcement of the band's pending break-up.

They wasted no time lighting a few under the crowd, launching into the highpowered "Telfer Jigs," followed by "The Black-Eyed Susan" and "Peggy," a Scottish song with an atypically happy ending. For Clandestine first-timers (were there even any there?), it was a grand introduction to the passionate vocal harmonies that draw listeners quickly into the song.

Clandestine is known for its perfect blend of instruments, featuring Greg McQueen on fiddle, E.J. Jones on bagpipes and flute, Hamel on guitar and Emily Dugas on bodhran and African percussion. Hamel and Dugas provide strong vocals, either solo or in strong, evocative harmonies that are perfectly matched.

For the next two hours (after the band decided to skip their scheduled intermission and just plow on through), the audience sampled some of the greatest hits from Clandestine's short but potent career.

The vocal wonderment continued with the beautiful depression of "Miner's Lullaby," "Babylon" and "Cannonball." Oh, but I'll miss that sound!!

Instrumental sets -- a variety of airs, fast jigs and "big stompy reels," including "Back to Chico," "The New Reels," "Driving to Halifax" and "Bugs in the Beer" -- at one point drew several dozen spectators into the action for a large oval dance set featuring several Breton tunes. It's always fun to watch inexperienced dancers struggling to pick up the steps, but Dugas expertly led the crowd through the tricky serpentine pattern. The band also got the crowd waltzing with the lovely "Bluebonnets" -- and when McQueen's cable came unhooked, Hamel quickly stepped in with a vocal melody line until the fiddler could reconnect.

When the waltz segued into a faster tune, the small dance "floor" started to fill up and the dancers transformed it into a waltzing mosh pit.

"This festival is magic," Hamel told the wildly cheering crowd. "This is like the Woodstock of Celtic festivals." And then, as McQueen changed batteries in his sound pack, Hamel proved herself a master of the blonde joke.

The performance inevitably came to a close. An encore was, of course, demanded, but even that short extension failed to satisfy the crowd. Most, I'll wager, were back on Sunday for more.

Still, I couldn't help but feel a little bad for Slainte Mhath, a young quintet from Cape Breton who had to follow Clandestine on stage. Still, with band members swapping among a pair of fiddles, bagpipes, keyboards, drums, bass, bouzouki, guitars and even some fancy footwork, the band manged to maintain a fever pitch of energy with a funky flair. They quickly earned themselves a warm welcome from the crowd.

For me, alas, the night was nearing its end. Enough time remained for me to sit in for several tunes with an ongoing session in one of the music tents before meeting up with some friends and dealing with the realities of a flat tire. Sunday's music would have to continue without me.

But, as always, Bethlehem played host to another phenomenal Celtic Classic. Fifteen down, and hopefully many more to come!

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 5 October 2002