The four of us (plus my sister and her boyfriend) spent pretty much the whole day at Hawrelak Park yesterday enjoying the third annual Edmonton Celtic Festival, and we will definitely be going back for the fourth.
Tara had seen a band called St. James' Gate (brilliant name!) at a pub of the same name while staying in Banff earlier this summer, and when she saw they were coming to the festival, she suggested we all go. Initially I was wary, but since the $40 tickets could be had for $25 each if you bought four in advance and children are free, it seemed foolish to resist. A cooler of sandwiches to offset festival food prices (which were not too bad there, honestly) and we were off.
Despite having been born in St. John's, I've really only been a fan of Celtic music since my friend Brent introduced me to The Pogues shortly after high school. Still, growing up I got hear a lot of Irish and Scottish musicians at home like the Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, Harry Hibbs and of course, the Irish Rovers, so perhaps it just took me a while to grow into it. My lovely Dutch wife has the soul of a Gael and is a fan as well, so there is often a lilt in the music that pervades our home, from The Chieftains to Great Big Sea, and the festival had a lot of appeal for her.
I've lived in the Edmonton area most of my life (>75%) and this was my first time attending an event at the Hawrelak Park amphitheatre. What a great venue! Gentle hills enclose the actual seating, allowing those who have brought lawn chairs to set up where they will. I hope we can come back soon; it's too late for Shakespeare in the Park, but perhaps not for Symphony Under the Sky.
In addition to the beer and food tents, a number of vendors offered wares from clothing to candy to jewelry to kilts. Audrey picked up a gorgeous moonstone for a necklace and I ended up getting a wool hat to round out my headgear collection, which is still almost exclusively ball caps. The girls got their faces painted, and both of them also ended up winning tartan-patterned water bottle holders.
The crowd was a little small, which I found troubling as I dearly want to return next year, but what they lacked in size they made up in friendliness. Volunteers and attendees alike were smiling, and even the infrequent sprinkling of rain failed to provoke any crabbiness. I was stopped multiple times by people wanting a closer look at my 'Irish Yoga' t-shirt, a gift from Island Mike.
Tara went to ask one of the volunteers about getting a t-shirt, and was told they had only made them for the volunteers. "That's too bad," said Tara, "it would be a great way to promote next year's event." The volunteer agreed, and literally gave my sister the shirt off her back before she could even ask about volunteering for next year.
We arrived a little ways into the first act, Keri Lynn Zwicker, who was followed by the Matierrin Irish Dancers who were spectacular. And talk about the cultural mosaic: Canadian dancers doing jigs and reels from Ireland while accompanied by a Scots bagpiper and a West African drum troupe called Wajo, who got to highlight their percussion between dances. This also marked the first of five renditions of 'Scotland the Brave' on bagpipe we were to hear this day, but this is by no means a complaint.
The following act, Stephen Maguire came to Edmonton by a circuitous route; originally from Belfast, he met his now-wife at a Belfast Giants hockey game, as she was interning with the team, and ended up moving back with her to Saskatchewan. With an album entitled 'Irish Soul', it's easy to see the Van Morrison influences on his singing, but his original stuff is quite good, and I ended up getting the CD, which he was kind enough to autograph for me.
After the Celtic Dance Academy demonstrated some great Highlands dancing, Calgary band Skullduggery took the stage. A fantastic party band, they busted out great versions of "Whiskey in the Jar" and "Fisherman's Blues" by the Waterboys. They also have a fantastic logo, and Tara got one of their hats, which should come in handy next St. Paddy's Day.
Knights of the Northern Realm, an SCA type group, did a couple of mock fights using medieval armour and weapons. The equipment looked great, and idea of half of them dressing as English soldiers and taunting the crowd before the 'Celts' drove them off was pretty fun, but they would have benefited from a tighter script, or perhaps a narrator, as the demos always felt like they ran a little long. They did pass the boot around to raise some funds for the Albert Blain Performers Aid Society, the charity behind the festival.
Claymore had the day's best logo, I thought, and a decent Celt-rock sound for a four piece band. I'd go to see them live pretty quickly, but the lead singer's voice, though powerful, doesn't have a great range, so I wasn't too interested in their CD.
The Edmonton & District Pipe Band put a novel spin on their genre by being accompanied by a rock quartet, and I was also surprised to see a band with more female pipers than male, but my favourite act of the day has to be St. James' Gate though. Talented instrumentalists, good harmonizers and what Tara described as a 'stupid' amount of energy, this six man band from Red Deer engaged the crowd despite its small size and rocked out hard for an hour. They are a fun and playful group, which is not surprising for a band with an album entitled "License to Kilt", which I also picked up.
Like all Celtic-influenced bands, SJG has a talented multi-instrumentalist who played penny whistle, bagpipes, accordion and didgeridoo. Mandolin and bouzouki joined electric guitar and drum kit at times, and they closed out their set with a fantastic rendition of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top", which sounds so much awesomer with live bagpipes it cannot be described. I hope this band comes to Edmonton again soon.
Sarah Burnell is a fiddler who brings a bit of world music to her music with her band, but her set felt a little too laid back after St. James' Gate. The crowd didn't seem to perk up until Glory and one of her friends went up and started doing some Irish dancing in front of the stage.
The most energetic act of the night was closing act McCuaig, purveyor of 'bagpipe-power-pop with an edge'. I'm a little surprised I had never heard about Johnny McCuaig before, and my timing is crap since the Celtic Fest will be one of his final shows since he is going on hiatus with his wife and baby boy (good on ya, McCuaig!) after more than a decade on the road.
Lead vocalist, piper, songwriter and guitarist Johnny McCuaig's music should carry an advisory: CAUTION: This rock defies pigeonholing and may contain traces of celtic, pop, reggae and soul music. Watching this wee bald fireplug of a man play a blistering solo on his bagpipes to match the one being laid out by his lead guitarist while bouncing all over the stage in his kilt is a remarkable musical experience, and I hope he returns to a local stage before too long. McCuaig also chose to close out his set with "It's a Long Way to the Top", but as a swan song, it certainly seemed appropriate. Here is a video of him performing it in Mexico; check out the pipe/guitar headcutting going on around the 2:40 mark.
He also brought his entire extended family out on stage for a number, and was profuse in his thanks to his friends, fans, and those who had given him a couch to crash on or other assistance while realizing his dream of being a professional musician.
All in all, a fantastic day in the park, full of fellowship and music. I intend to bring a much larger crowd there next year, so I hopeyou will get the opportunity to see it for yourself then!