Irish Fest
in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
(20 August 2005)

Every year, the third day of Irish Fest begins with a 5K run and walk around the festival grounds to benefit the Arthritis Foundation. This year, music was provided for the event by Athas, a new band from Milwaukee. Members include Heather Lewin-Tiarks on fiddle, Jeff Ksiazek on flute and Amy Richter on bodhran and whistle. I regret to say that I did not get to see their whole show (getting out of bed was brutal due to late-night sessioning), but what I did see was pretty good, especially since it was their first big gig. They represent the traditional music that is played in Milwaukee really well and, despite the heat, people were standing in the bright sun, watching the band and enjoying the tunes. Overall, the band sounded pretty good.

Next, I made my way to the Tipperary Stage to listen to another band from the Milwaukee area, Rira. Ed Paloucek (fiddle), Kathleen Congleton (piano) and Jack Congleton (bodhran) have been sharing their tunes with local audiences for many years, but I was especially anxious to hear them today because they recently added tenor Stuart Mitchell to their mix. This was a good move. Every piece he sang received roaring applause and his performance of "Danny Boy" even got a much-deserved standing ovation! The show also included a wonderful mix of old and new tunes, including a beautiful air that was written by Paloucek himself. I also really enjoyed his rendition of "Sliabh Russell." The variations were wonderful and the liveliness of the tune got the audience clapping. On an exciting note, much of what the group performed can be heard on their debut album, Return of the Day, which was released on the first day of Irish Fest! I highly recommend checking it out.

The third show I saw was rather interesting because it was one that people don't get to see very often. It was Musical Families: A Cherished Tradition, and it included Joanie Madden and Mary Coogan of Cherish the Ladies, along with their fathers, Joe Madden and Jim Coogan, who both play the accordion and have a wonderful sense of humor. The show also included Mary's cousin on fiddle and vocals, and Liam and Donal Clancy with Donal's father-in-law. As if this line-up wasn't exciting enough, Liz Carroll joined them for a couple sets! When she came out on the stage, she said, "Well, since this is a family show, I guess I'll have to borrow a dad," and Joanie told her to "take your pick!" The whole show was a breath of fresh air because there was nothing fancy about it -- just a nice mix of traditional tunes and songs. There was also some good interaction with the audience.

Liam Clancy had to stop in the middle of the chorus of "Irish Rover" to scold everyone because they "blew the great line." After teaching them what they were supposed to do, on he went, and this time, the audience got it. This show was really enjoyable and I hope to see something of its sort at Irish Fest again in the future.

Next, I went across the grounds to the Celtic Roots Stage, where David Kincaid was performing. His show is neat not only because is it entertaining, but it's also a history lesson. He performs Irish music from the Civil War era -- in uniform (which I can't imagine in today's 90-degrees heat) and with a replica of the flag from the time, which is shown by more people in uniform! The music was simple yet very dynamic for only being played on mandolin and a small guitar. I was impressed by the sound and by the whole idea of the show. There was a pretty big crowd and I saw a couple of people singing along with Kincaid, so it definitely wasn't like sitting in a desk in middle school and watching one of those boring history films that gets stuck in the projector all the time. It was really interesting and very informative.

After my lesson for the day, I decided to go see Liz Carroll and John Doyle again. The show was, of course, as wonderful as it was the day before -- even without the spiders. This time it included some special guests: Athena O'Lochlainn from Green Fields of America and Bruce Molsky, both on fiddle. Their performances just blew the crowd away. Doyle must have been really into it, too, because he broke three strings in this show! I can sum up the entire experience in one word: Wow!

The show got me all inspired, so I decided to go do some playing myself after that. I made my way through the record crowds to the Lakefront Brewery Pub, the official session area at the festival. Each local pub has a designated time to play, so this particular session was representing The Pub in Oconomowoc, WI, which is where I play every Thursday night. Because all experienced musicians are welcome, I met a lot of sessioners from other towns. It was nice to just kick back and play some tunes with them.

Now, I have to admit, I am much more into Irish tunes than I am Irish drinking songs, but I thought I'd better represent that part of the festival, too, so the next show I saw was a local band known as Steel Bonnets. One line in their bio describes their act really well: "a lively show from the big men in kilts." This band is definitely a bar band and a crowd pleaser. They had the audience clapping before the actual show even started! People loved their sound check, so when they got going, it was no surprise that the audience was singing along. After the stage manager finally turned on the stage lights, I could see that the band was having fun, too. The show included some rebel songs, drinking songs and some originals by bandleader Ricky Lashley. There was a lot of humor, too, so overall, the crowd seemed to enjoy their performance.

I also went and saw Liam Clancy, who was accompanied by Kevin Evans of Evans & Doherty. They were performing to a full house! And after listening to the opening ballad, I could see why. Clancy's voice is still as strong and clear as it ever was. He also has a wonderful sense of humor. After his first ballad, he sang the Johnny Cash song, "The Highwayman," and if he wasn't singing, he had the audience rolling from his stories and jokes. To add to the mix, he also recited some poems. There was never time for the audience to get bored in this show, and there were several standing ovations throughout. A particular favorite was his performance of "Foggy Dew," which received appreciative applause, a lot of whistles and a standing ovation. Clancy's show was so outstanding that the audience demanded that he come back for an encore. He responded by singing "Go Lassie, Go," and the audience thanked him by joining in on the chorus. It was a wonderful set.

The last show I saw was by Leahy, who was playing for another huge mass of people. From the moment their feet touched the stage, they had the crowd off their seats and dancing. The girls from the band got up and did some steps right along with them to the fast- paced tunes. I am always impressed by the fiddling in Leahy's shows. It is so precise and so technically demanding that it almost seems as if the band was classically trained. Their talents are really impressive and they have fantastic stage presence, which constantly keeps the audience cheering through their renditions of "Czardas" and the infamous "Orange Blossom Special." Although their fast-paced tunes are a big hit, my favorite piece that they did was a slow tune called "For the Love of Tara." It was beautiful and it was a nice change from the typical upbeat, Celtic-rock sound that people associate with Leahy. It certainly did not take away from the performance. All in all, this was another amazing show that ended with a bang. For an encore, the band did a set where all the members kept trading instruments, so that each person ended up doing a fiddle solo. This was followed by the entire family getting up and showing their steps. It was an energizing end to the evening, which got me ready for more late-night sessioning.

by Kaitlin Hahn
8 October 2005