Celtic Fiddle Festival
at the Justice League,
San Francisco, California
(16 March 1998)

Authorities announced that a musical reign of terror in Northern California had come to an end as of Monday evening, March 16, 1998. After making a desperate getaway from a gig in Folsom in their rented van, the gang calling themselves the Celtic Fiddle Festival -- fiddlers Kevin Burke, Johnny Cunningham and Christian Lemaitre and an equally dangerous guitarist, Tony McManus, ably filling in for Soig Siberil on this U.S. tour -- were finally cornered by a small but enthusiastic audience at San Francisco's Justice League. Authorities say the gang was plied with drinks supplied by the management and held at bay for nearly 2 1/2 hours, while they played various tunes from their native countries and charmed the crowd with their witty banter.

The Celtic Fiddle Festival is something of an incongruity in an industry increasingly obsessed with labels and categories. Although they are not quite a "band" in that each of the performers normally pursue successful independent careers when not occasionally touring with the CFF, the particular chemistry amongst this group of players results in a quality of solo and ensemble playing that makes it something more than an artificial construct, or "marketing ploy." Despite the enormous individual reputations of the players, however, an article appearing in that day's San Francisco Chronicle managed to imply that the CFF was yet another group "jumping on the Celtic bandwagon" -- an accusation so far off the mark that Johnny Cunningham was prompted to comment caustically that "we drove the van!" Perhaps goaded to prove themselves, the group proceeded to demonstrate the very dangerous driving techniques that made them such highly sought fugitives in the first place.

Christian Lemaitre played his set of traditional dance tunes from Brittany with precision and clarity, delivering a particularly mesmerizing performance in his execution of "Marche and Gavottes Pourlet," a lovely melody of tunes originally intended for bagpipes and bombardes. He also took a spirited lead fiddle on a set of Breton gavottes played by the entire group. Equally lively were his introductions, delivered in his careful English. At one point he explained that a particular gavotte was traditionally begun by the dancers linking pinkies, but as the dance becomes gradually more frenetic, it was "not unusual at the end of the evening to find one or two pinkies on the floor."

Kevin Burke performed his sets with his usual blend of impeccable technique and lyrical interpretation. His set with McManus, containing an original tune by McManus and a series of traditional jigs, was outstanding, a marvelous interplay of complex harmonies that the two musicians played off each other with the ease of a long-standing partnership instead of one of merely a few weeks. His droll humor was in evidence in his introduction to the tune "Kitty O'Shea," written for the woman whose romance with 19th-century Irish politician Charles Parnell ultimately ended his career. "So this is the story of a politician who got out of politics, but had a happy personal life, how unlike today."

A remarkable contrast in style was the playing of Johnny Cunningham. Noted for his lightning-fast playing, he set a blistering pace in a set of reels in which he and McManus moved effortlessly through a series of tricky tempo changes. The interplay between the two was extremely entertaining. With Cunningham goading the "baby" of the tour with musical challenges, and McManus responding in kind, the set turned into a rollicking session between equally skilled musicians. Cunningham's equally renowned sensitive bowing technique was also in evidence in his solo and lead fiddle, respectively, renditions of the slow airs "Hector the Hero" and "Dark Island."

One of the delightful bonuses of the evening was Tony McManus. Not only was his accompaniment an important contribution to the overall quality of music, but his solo of "pipe tunes for guitar" was an admirable demonstration of superb technique, sensitive musical interpretation and astute choice of material. McManus is equally adept at finger picking and flat picking styles, as well as a master of the DAGDAD style of tuning, making him rare guitarist who can accompany just about any style of music.

Although he is not as well known to American audiences as his "elders" on the tour, he more than adequately performed in what could easily become a difficult secondary role in a concert dominated by fiddle music (I will resist the obvious pun here). It was very gratifying to see him receive his share of well-earned appreciation from his fellow performers and the audience.

The evening ended with the late Simon Jeffes' "Music for a Found Harmonium." The tune is a signature piece for Burke's band Patrick Street, and here, used as a framework for solos from the four performers, becomes a showpiece for this remarkable group of musicians. The music, craic and drink flowed in equal measure, the audience was appreciative, and a memorable evening was had by all. The gang of desperadoes took advantage of the crowd's distraction to quietly elude authorities once again and slip away into the wee small hours of the morning, to a gig the next day in South Bend, Indiana.

[ by Dorothy Auyong ]