Celtic Fest Chicago,
in Grant Park,
Chicago, Ill.
(16-17 September 2006)

After a two-hour car ride, then a 30-minute train ride, and after almost being hit by a car three times (seriously people -- even if the sign says "walk," don't ever step off a curb in Chicago without looking both ways about six times), a friend and I finally made it to Celtic Fest Chicago. We were fortunate enough to have a beautiful day on Saturday, Sept. 16, which was great because it is an outdoor festival that takes place in Grant Park, right on Lake Michigan. We were also fortunate that admission was free and the line-up at the festival was fantastic. Even with these two perks, the festival crowd seemed a bit small to me.

The first band I saw for the evening was Beolach, which put on a fantastic show, despite how crowded they were on the extremely small stage that they were given to perform on. The Cape Breton band played lively tunes from their two albums and shared some of their travel experiences with the audience. Unfortunately, there are many limitations now, and the band was forced to check their instruments on one of their flights. Because of this, Pat Gillis's guitar was damaged, and I don't mean that there was a small scratch put in it -- I mean that there was a crack through the back of the guitar that looked like it was at least 8 inches long! He still sounded great, though, as did the rest of the band. My favorite set was the last one they played, during which Wendy MacIsaac, Mac Morin and Mairi Rankin got up and showed their steps. At one point, they were kicking their legs to the side and trying to get the person next to them. The audience was laughing right along with them. Overall, they put on a great show.

Later that evening, I saw La Bottine Souriante. Their show was in the huge band shell in the park, and they definitely needed the spacious stage. This French-Canadian band put on a fantastic show. They looked like they were just having a party on the stage. Through every set they played, there was an amazing amount of energy that had the audience clapping and dancing. If security wasn't so tight, everyone would have been in the aisles for sure. It was a really fun show and a great way to end that evening of the festival.

The time after the show was not fun, however. I was hungry, but soon learned that food had to be purchased with tickets and the ticket system was an absolute rip-off. First of all, 50-cent tickets were only sold in blocks of 11 ... for $7! (Do the math.) Each food item cost 6 to 10 tickets, meaning you could only get one item and have tickets left over -- or you could buy another overpriced block. I decided that I would bring my own food the next day.

Another strike against the festival: there were police officers everywhere and, precisely at 9:30 p.m., when the festival ended, they descended on the crowd shouting for people to get out of the park. Patrons were harassed toward the exit and, more surprisingly, so were the musicians. I saw one cop yell at Andre Brunet from La Bottine Souriante! I know they were doing their job, but it was a little extreme and rude in the execution. It was not a nice way to end the festival for the day.

The next day was even more interesting. It started out really nice. I went and watched the David Munnelly Band, which put on a great show of tunes, songs and dancing. If you've never heard David play, I would highly recommend it. He is one of the most amazing accordion players I've ever heard. The rest of his band has a crowd-pleasing energy, as well. The fiddler was bouncing as he played and the guitarist was an amazing talent. The dancer had an interesting mix of steps, so I really enjoyed their show.

However, right at the end of David's show, the sky opened up and it poured. This cut the crowd size significantly, because all of the covered stages were too small to hold a lot of people. My friend and I ended up going into Jack Baker's Rampant Lion CD tent and playing some tunes for the crowd of people that were hanging out there until the rain let up. I have to include Jack in this review because he is such a nice guy and he happens to be from Chicago. If you ever need any Celtic CDs, he's the man to visit.

Some people did stick it out until the rain stopped, so when Beolach came on (this time on a bigger, but uncovered stage), people started slowly coming back out of the tents to see them. By the end of their show, they had a good sized crowd, which demanded that they play an encore!

The last performance I saw at the festival was Natalie MacMaster. As always, she put on a great show. She and her band have an amazing stage presence -- especially on this particular evening. I later found out she was fighting a cold; her pianist, Mac Morin, had just come down with laryngitis; and guitarist Brad Davige was coping with a major injury to his finger. Despite all of this, Natalie still managed to blow the audience away with her tunes and dancing, and to add a personal touch to her performance. She shared a story about how she did some ironing before the show and melted a hole through the back of her shirt, and then she turned around for all to see. She also spoke of her beautiful 9-month-old little girl, Mary Francis. The audience was fortunate enough to witness a debut performance of a set of tunes that the band had been working on, as well. It was an excellent show.

Overall, the music at this festival was planned very well. I enjoyed every performance I saw. However, I would not rate the festival itself very highly due to the small stages for some big-name bands, the price of food and the rude police officers.

by Kaitlin Hahn
14 October 2006