Fairfield County Irish Festival
at Jennings Beach,
Fairfield, CT
(14 June 2002)

They were a loyal bunch of Irish music lovers, or perhaps they were simply inured to the cold rain and raw wind that blows in off Connecticut's southern coast. But, disappointing weather notwithstanding, a few hundred people braved the damp and drear to attend the first night of Fairfield County's 15th annual Irish Festival.

The carnival rides stood empty and some of the merchants held off on opening their stands. Crowds were fairly small, but those who came out to the Jennings Beach site weren't disappointed. With promises of better weather offering hope for Saturday's and Sunday's performances, the musicians, vendors and patrons made do with an admirable evening's entertainment in three tents.

Notable among them was Music in the Glen, who pumped out the music for two hours in the main tent before shifting their instruments to the cultural tent for a ceili. It didn't take long for a few hardy souls to take up the challenge and start pounding their heels on the floor for the evening dance, and the Irish and American musicians in the New Haven-based band kept the tunes flowing.

Camac, a brother and sister duo from Ireland, had the unenviable task of getting the evening started, but they showed a lot of spirit, belting out a varied program of traditional and nontraditional songs for 2 1/2 hours as the festival came to life. When their show began, they and a handful of festival volunteers outnumbered the patrons in the small pub tent, but Camac sang as if the crowd were legion.

Another grand performance came from the Lenihan School of Irish Dance. Dozens of local dancers displayed exceptional footwork through a series of routines in the main tent. Gan Anim Gan Ait, a large group of local players sometimes going by the name of Monday Night Musicians, also kept the music flowing with a series of group and spotlight tune sets.

But the highlight of the evening was unquestionably the Prodigals, a bold quartet hailing from Ireland and New York City. The band is Gregory Grene (vocals, accordion), Andrew Harkin (bass), Ray Kelly (vocals, guitar) and Brian Tracey (percussion, backing vocals).

As their set began, one lone but diligent festival worker employed a snow shovel to scoop water from the lake forming in the center of the ground beneath the main tent. Credit for the effort, but I fear water was streaming in faster than his best efforts could control.

The Prodigals certainly didn't let the cold and damp stiffen their joints, throwing themselves into their music with energy and abandon. The crowd roared its approval, making up for the gaps on the floor with sheer enthusiasm. Red and yellow rain gear competed for attention with poofy (and no doubt warm) Guinness hats as the people milled about, and half pints of Harp and Guinness flowed freely as children and, eventually, adults flowed onto the dance floor.

The show included band favorites such as "Ballybay," "Happy Man," "Lord Randall," Jackie Hall," "Alchemy," "Leaving," an atypical version of "Spancil Hill" married to "Ghost Riders in the Sky," and a quickly accellerating "Rattlin' Bog."

The Prodigals use the accordion, electric and bass guitars, and a drum kit to create their distinctly nontraditional traditional sound. Anyone who's heard these boys before knows how well they can rile an audience. Needless to say, the Fairfield crowd loved them. The main tent quickly became a rowdy party, with young and old dancing and screaming for more.

Those who were able to attend the festival on Saturday and Sunday were treated to performances by Seven Nations, Blackthorn, the Whole Shabang, Calley McGrane, the Bold Fenian Men, the Andy Healy Band and more. Unfortunately, my travel schedule only brought me to Fairfield for the first and shortest of the festival's three days. Bad weather may have cast a pall over the evening, but it's definitely an event I'd like to return to again.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 29 June 2002