At the Vogue Theatre on Friday, March 14
It’s been 20 years since the massive growth of interest in Celtic music in North America—and 10 since the first annual CelticFest in Vancouver. That event coincides with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, in the middle of what’s become the green month, so it’s no surprise that music from Ireland has usually provided the common thread in CelticFest’s contemporary plaid.
The 10th Anniversary Gala at the Vogue Theatre brought together Newfoundland trio The Once, Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project from Canada and the U.S., Irish quintet Hermitage Green from Limerick, and Vancouver’s the Paperboys—four very different shades of green. In the course of the evening the audience was treated to a broad spectrum of Celtic music from trad acoustic to original electric.
The Once’s resonant three-part harmony-singing and unforced style set the tone for a mixed-age audience, which made for a Celtic family vibe rather than a St. Pat’s Day barroom bash. The band got people singing choruses from the get-go. This was vintage new folk, unpretentious and convivial. Lead singer Geraldine Hollett and colleagues Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale evoked days of yore with songs like the a cappella “By the Glow of the Kerosene Light”. You could almost smell the cod.
Churchill dispensed good advice from the streets of St. John’s with “Don’t under any circumstances fall in love with the bartender”, and told of the trio’s recent recording in Sydney, Australia, for Passenger, better known as English folk-rock star Mike Rosenberg. The set ended with the rollicking traditional broadside ballad “Jack the Sailor”, an amorous tale with a sly twist.
The first two acts felt too short. Thirty minutes—no encore—isn’t enough for most bands to hit their live stride, and both the Once and the musicians of the Lomax Project needed more time to show their stuff.
Stone is a globetrotting banjo ace from Ontario who leads a great young five-piece band exploring the frontier of traditional music in the U.S. Although the opener “Shenandoah” sounded a tad overwrought, it was intriguing to learn that the well-known shanty is of Norwegian origin. The quintet’s arrangements were illuminating—especially “The Devil’s Nine Questions”, a Medieval ballad found in the Appalachians, performed with handclaps, as well as Lead Belly’s classic “Whoa, Back Buck”, given a whole new suit of musical clothes, with two banjos, a minor-key setting, and harmonies.
New Irish power-folk band Heritage Green from Limerick had played the Rickshaw Theatre six days earlier, and many of the fans they made that night came to the Vogue for more. Dancing broke out at last in the aisles and the well at the front of the stalls. Frontman Dan Murphy, built like a prizefighter, was invited by ladies in the audience to remove his shirt but demurred. No egos were strutted on-stage; instead the band worked like a rugby team, passing the lead with precision, building harmonies, paying attention to pace, and running in the clear propelled by Darragh Graham’s djembe and Dermot Sheedy’s bodhran.
In the course of the final set the Paperboys grew surreptitiously from an eight-piece to a 10-piece outfit. It was a big folk sound that brought together fiddle-based Irish tunes, Latin horns, bluegrass, and pop-rock. The band’s three women—flute-player Keona Hammond, fiddler Kalissa Hernandez, and guest fiddler and former member Kendel Carson—held the Celtic end down while the Paperboys' astonishing two-man brass section, led by Cuban trumpet virtuoso Miguelito Valdes, pushed the music into the Caribbean. With his buoyant songs—such as “Rain on Me”, which started with a South African feel but soon headed for Havana—lead singer and guitarist Tom Landa created a carnivalesque multicultural Celtic mood. He got it just right—green month has become international in scope.