Mid-Winter Scottish & Irish Music Festival & Fair
at the Valley Forge Convention Center,
King of Prussia, PA (19 February 2011)

Where were you when the lights went out in King of Prussia?

If you're very lucky, you were at the 19th annual Mid-Winter Scottish & Irish Music Festival & Fair at the Valley Forge Convention Center.

I was one of the unlucky ones. I was still fighting traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike; I didn't get there until the lights were back on.

But a cheerful merchant filled me in on what I'd missed. The power was out ("Not just here," he said. "The whole grid was down.") for about 90 minutes, but few people fled the darkened halls. Instead, some merchants used battery-powered lights and a few doors were opened to cast a bit of illumination on the room, while bands like Brother and Albannach performed all-acoustic sets to keep the masses entertained.

There was a roar of applause when the lights finally came back on, he said, but darn it, I wish I'd been there. It sounds like fun.

By the time my daughter and I got there, however, the lights were shining brightly and we could hear the distinctive blast of Seven Nations at work on the main stage.

The convention center was packed with people, all of whom seemed in earnest appreciation of the music, the Celtic goods for sale and, of course, the beer that flowed liberally from several taps around the rooms.

Seven Nations is a band I used to follow quite faithfully (primarily in the Kirk McLeod and Neil Anderson days), but I had lost track of them in recent years. I must say, the current incarnation of the band is tight and exciting ... and the addition of Victor Gagnon on fiddle adds a whole new level to the performance. It's a thrill ride whenever he picks up his bow.

The show was a mix of well-remembered tracks from back in the day and a host of newer material. Wait, that song sounds familiar -- could it be The Cure? Yes, in fact, Seven Nations has produced an album devoted to covers of that distinctive alt-pop band. (Watch this space for a review. I mean, how could I resist?)

While Kirk McLeod led the way with Seven Nations in the main room, former partner Neil Anderson was showcasing his new band, Rathkeltair, on the second stage.

One of the many delights of the Midwinter event is the layout of the space. The festival is crammed into a relatively small space, and the two big stages are fairly close to one another -- and yet the arrangement of walls and halls is designed to prevent sound from bleeding too much between rooms. It's amazing how well two bagpipe-driven bands could perform simultaneously without tramping on each other's toes.

The second stage, completely enclosed and blanketed in total darkness during the blackout, was running about an hour behind ("We're on Central Time here," one CD merchant joked), which meant I only had time to catch a brief taste of Rathkeltair. It's telling that, at first, I didn't know who they were; Neil Anderson, an immensely talented individual, tends to be the center of attention when he's on stage, but here he blended neatly into the overall mix. At the same time, one must note that Rathkeltair could have been taken for a fairly unremarkable rock band if his whistles weren't inserting a distinctive twiddle and flair into the music when he arrived. When he pulled out the pipes, it was hard not to realize exactly who was on stage.

Neil has a neat trick, by the way, of playing two instruments at once. Worth seeing.

As good as they were, though, I couldn't linger. Albannach was on deck at the main stage, and I had heard enough about this band that I didn't want to miss a moment of the show.

I wasn't alone. As I pushed into the crowd, an older woman I'd never seen before turned to me and said with a smile, "Now, this band will rock. Totally rock."

They didn't disappoint. A rumble of percussive thunder announced their arrival on stage. Then the pipes skirled out, and it was a party.

The word "Albannach" is Scots-Gaelic for "Scotsman," and the five-person band is Scottish through and through.

A pipe-and-drums band, Albannach has a hearty dose of percussion. Jamesie and Jacquie play bass drums, Colin (the newest member) works the snare and drum kit, and Aya handles the bodhran (which, while it might seem overwhelmed by its larger cousins, makes its presence felt) and tambourine. Donnie (the band apparently prefers first names only, especially if they end in "ie") is Albannach's most excellent bagpiper.

The band, heavily tattooed and all-around kilted, filled the room with incredible sound. And they weren't shy about getting into the groove; the Albannach drummers have a wild, kinetic approach to performing, and Aya in particular seemed in danger of shaking himself right out of his kilt.

At one point, Colin stepped forward with a lone snare to demonstrate some amazing sleight of hand. I kid you not, sometimes I wasn't entirely sure his sticks were attached to his hands.

And the crowd roared its approval. Had they not, I'd have been worried of widespread cardiac arrest.

One young mother was almost certainly destroying her toddler son's eardrums by dancing right by the massive speakers, but I'm sure during future years of therapy he will remember that Albannach really does rock.

Ears ringing, I headed back to the second stage for a taste of Annalivia. The quartet (bass and banjo player Stuart Kenney, their fifth member, was absent) was a bit more relaxed -- but no less talented -- than the other bands I'd seen so far.

Annalivia is Liz Simmons on vocals and guitar, Brendan Carey Block on fiddle, Emerald Rae on fiddle and vocals, and Flynn Cohen on vocals and guitar. The New Hampshire-based band has a very polished sound, with strong, folksy singers and grand fiddle work. I was reluctant to leave, but the Paul McKenna Band was starting up in the main room ... and that's where the food was, too.

The Paul McKenna Band was pure acoustic bliss, a ceilidh band on stage with light vocals to season the mix.

There was the distraction of a mother and daughter who were trying to learn how to play their newly purchased didgeridoos (Really, ladies? In the middle of the crowd? At a concert?) It sounded like they were trying to spit into a hose. At least I had a couple of Scotch eggs to take my mind off the aural disaster nearby.

Anyway, it was time to head back to the second stage for Seamus Kennedy who, with his guitar in hand and ample audience participation, always manages to keep an audience laughing.

The Belfast native is a real workhouse on the touring circuit, and it's hard to imagine a Celtic music festival without him. He was hard to miss today, with his trademark kilt and a tropical shirt (Corona, Seamus? Really?) and his green, white and orange guitar always in view.

Let's not even discuss his humor, which should earn nothing but groans but get guffaws all the same. It must be in the delivery. Did I mention how much Seamus loves fart jokes?

Few entertainers could get an audience performing such ludicrous hand gestures along with "Black Velvet Band," but Seamus isn't your ordinary performer. Participating in his show is a treat not to be missed. Before you know it, you're singing along as you confess to being your own grandpa, shoving your granny off a bus, considering the banana aroma of monkey farts (I mentioned the fart jokes, right?) and yodeling along with the cowboy sidekicks of old.

Seamus even found time to hawk his new, 4-ounce, stainless-steel whiskey flasks designed to look like a cell phone. Each comes with a belt holster and costs the same as a CD.

God, I love Seamus, and I've been watching him perform for years. But today I had to cut the show short, because out on the main stage, the Tannahill Weavers were taking the stage.

Few bands can claim to have a hand in establishing a modern Scottish music tradition like these guys can.

And, even after more than four decades of touring and performing, the Tannies haven't lost their edge. Remember, this is the band that taught the world to put bagpipes on stage with acoustic folk instruments and make it work. They are masters of the tradition who don't need gimmicks or electronic enhancement.

The band features Roy Gullane, lead singer and guitarist, and Phil Smillie on flute, whistle, bodhran and vocals -- both of whom have been with the Tannies since the band's inception in 1968 -- plus Colin Melville on Highland bagpipes, Scottish small pipes and whistles, and John Martin on fiddle and vocals.

Roy's voice is mellow, worn into a comfortable groove that fits like a favorite sneaker. He told stories between songs -- and sometimes, his stories even had something to do with the music at hand. Other times, he'd just ramble along in his warm, quirky style. And, between various rousing instrumental sets, he led the band in songs such as "Highland Laddie," "The Plooboy Laddies," "Johnny Cope," "Jamie Raeburn's Farewell to Glasgow" and "Auld Lang Syne" -- the latter with the much prettier Scots melody, far superior to the American variation.

There was still more music to come, but after a day full of music my young daughter was spent -- and, frankly, the Tannahill Weavers was a fine way to close the proceedings.

The Midwinter Festival is a February tradition worth keeping. Event organizer Bill Reid is already working on the lineup for the 20th annual showcase in 2012. Keep abreast of developments -- as well as other fine events put on by East of the Hebrides Entertainments -- online at www.eohebrides.com.

by Tom Knapp
26 February 2011