My memories of an early nineties family outing to the Irish Connections festival is a bit hazed by Harp and hot sun, but a quick check with my mother confirms it: though I do remember a few snatches of some relatively decent irish pub music at a small outdoor stage near the beer garden, it's clear that, back then, the music was clearly not the centerpiece of what was otherwise a decent cultural festival on a small college campus.
But good festivals evolve, and even a cursory glance at their festival lineup and schedule will tell you that the Irish festival now called ICONS Irish Music and Arts Festival, which takes place this weekend at the Irish Cultural Center in Canton, MA, has undergone a true transformation. In the decade since I first attended ICONS, it has found its own site, and grown from a small-scale series of exhibitions and craftsmerchant boothbuildings to a several day undertaking of immense proportions. In the process, what was once a crafts and culture festival with a few casual workshop-scale performances of traditional irish music and dance throughout the day has become a full-bore multi-stage music and arts festival of increasingly impressive scope and scale.
In an era where other folk festivals often seem to be recycling the same cadre of artists year after year, ICONS is a breath of fresh air. The breadth of talent at this year's ICONS fest is impressive, ranging from irish-influenced bluegrass banjoists and solo acoustic singer-songwriters of Irish descent to a seemingly infinite collection of traditional reelplayers, country jigbands, and contemporary Celtic Folk favorites that, like the rest of the arts and cultural activities, "reflect the new cultural directions of Ireland and its Diaspora". And you just gotta love a festival that features an entire stage devoted to harp orchestras, demos, and dance, and names it Harpapalooza.
Most of the biggest-name acts this year will play ICONS both Saturday and Sunday, so you shouldn't have to miss a trick, and you'll have plenty of time to roam the grounds, see dance, sports, and other cultural forms in performance, and browse the numerous static exhibitry and merchants. Old timey neograss folkfavorites Crooked Still will be there, and I suspect I won't be able to resist seeing them for a twentieth time. I'm excited for old-school folksman Liam Clancy of The Clancy Brothers, young scenesters Lunasa and Beoga, and Irish siren Cara Dillon, too, though I'm determined to save Dillon's haunted pianofolk cover of The Beatles classic Wait for an upcoming return to the songs of the Beatles here at Cover Lay Down. To tempt you even further, here's a few solid covers from a few more great artists I'm eager to see for the first time this weekend at ICONS.
Early in his career, to distinguish himself from his famous brother Christy Moore, Irish folkie Kevin Moore renamed himself Luka Bloom after a popular Suzanne Vega song and the hero of a James Joyce novel. Twenty years and over fourteen albums later, the name remains an apt reflection of Bloom's signature sound, which combines American-style folk songwriting with an Irish approach to performance. The result is sometimes rocking, sometimes mellow, occasionally ragged, but always effective.
Luka's distinctive, jangly guitarplay and a typically plaintive, leggato approach to lyrics provide a solid platform for some excellent singer-songwriter folk. His originals trend towards reverence and celebration, as befits his style; in cover song, as in his excellent covers album Keeper of the Flame, his approach tends to sweeten the tone of the works of others, providing a surprising depth to such melancholy rarities as Joni Mitchell's Urge for Going, Radiohead's No Surprises, and -- a repost -- Bloom's cover of LL Cool J's I Need Love. Bloom's newest, Eleven Songs, hits stores any minute now, but you can preorder now.
- Luka Bloom: Urge For Going (orig. Joni Mitchell)
- Luka Bloom: No Surprises (orig. Radiohead)
- Luka Bloom: I Need Love (orig. LL Cool J)
Solas is one of the premiere contemporary celtic folk bands around today, and -- as befits a band whose name translates to "light" in Gaelic -- they've been at the forefront of an American celtic revival since they first burst onto the scene over here just twelve years ago. As Muruch noted in her recent review of For Love and Laughter, their newest album, they've gone through some lead-singer lineup changes over the years, but since the power of Solas as a performing group is predominantly in their arrangements and full celtic sound, as led by award-winning multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, there's more consistency here than change, and that's a wonderful thing.
We've previously featured ex-lead singer Karan Casey here at Cover Lay Down, and I've dropped a few fave Solas covers here and there since we got things started late last year, but good music bears repeating: here's linkbacks to their version of tradsong Rain and Snow and a cover of Sarah McLachlan ballad I Will Remember You; here's a few more of my favorite folksingers' coversongs from Solas. And here's hoping that they'll let their new lead singer Mairead Phelan shine on some new ones at ICONS, too.
- Solas: On A Sea of Fleur de Lis (orig. Richard Shindell)
- Solas: Pastures of Plenty (orig. Woody Guthrie)
- Solas: Song of Choice (orig. Peggy Seeger)
The Tannahill Weavers come from the old school of traditional Scottish folk music; they made their name bringing a slightly folkrock sensibility to the traditional celtfolk of their native land, and they've been around longer than most of us. Their natural, heartfelt work on this old Stan Rogers tune may be an anomaly among the ballads, reels and caeli, but it's also a seamless resetting of a timeless tune, one which which shows just how closely related the traditional music of Halifax is to those older, ancestral folkforms from across the great pond. Meanwhile, despite its origins, in the hands of the Weavers, an original reel wrapped around a Gordon Lightfoot tune becomes a driving folk rock event verging on Celtic Punk. Classic stuff, all of it.
- The Tannahill Weavers: Harris and the Mare (orig. Stan Rogers)
- The Tannahill Weavers: The Coach House Reel/Marie Christine (McLeod/orig. Gordon Lightfoot)
Banjo virtuoso and jazzgrass composer Alison Brown may be better known in the industry as the founder of Compass Records, but over the years, she's also released a number of wonderful albums which explore the intersections of bluegrass and jazz and folk music. Each is a clean mix of crisp-yet-flowing banjo-driven ensemble instrumentals not unlike the more acoustic work of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and, with the help of a series of stellar guest vocalists and session players, more typical bluegrass and folk settings of originals and covers both.
We've previously posted Alison's work with the Indigo Girls on Simon & Garfunkel classic Homeward Bound and with Beth Nielsen Chapman on a sweet cover of Hendrix' Angel; here's a few more newgrassy takes on a pair of familiar radio hits with male vocalists you might recognize from the bluegrass world.
- Alison Brown: Every Day I Write The Book (orig. Elvis Costello)
- Alison Brown: Everybody's Talkin' (orig. Fred Neil/Harry Nilsson)
Cover Lay Down posts original writing about covered content and folkculture every Sunday and Wednesday.