Tønder Festival is fast approaching again and this year's lineup looks especially good. As with last year, this year's festival combines some Celtic music with Americana and some well-known established acts with a selection of some of the best up and coming folk musicians. To whet your appetite for the festival I'll review of some of the Celtic highlights from last year and then give a short preview of music to look forward to this year.
There's always too much good music in too many venues to hear everything, so Friday night I chose two venues offering several Scottish and Scandinavian bands that were close enough to go back and forth. First up was the Shona Mooney Band at the Art Museum, which is a perfect listening venue. Shona is one of the finest of the new generation of fiddlers from Scotland. She plays with a lovely pure tone, interesting repertoire and a good feel for the music. Her band featured a mix of musicians from Scotland and Newcastle. The ubiquitous Martin O'Neil on bodhran, Ali Vass on piano and Andy May on border pipes were complemented by David De La Hoye, who plays a very spirited and funky electric bass. They played an interesting mix of rhythmic styles which reflects Shona's musical adventurousness.
Croft No. Five made one of their last appearances as a group. The occasion was made special as they were joined by original fiddler, Adam Sutherland, who had left to join the Peatbog Faeries, who were playing later that night. There was plenty of energy and dynamics on the stage as Adam and John Somerville were pushing each other to frenetic heights. Special kudos to the guitarist, Barry Reid, whose range of versatility and styles always amazes me.
The last act of the evening, Swedish singer Sofia Karlsson, was my favorite discovery at the festival. Sofia has a lovely voice, beautiful songs and an all-star backing band. What made her show extra special was the love of the music and the personal warmth that she radiated. This was especially evident during the instrumental breaks, when she seemed to be her band's biggest fan.
There was plenty of Irish music on Saturday. The young duo of fiddler Liam O'Connor and uillean piper Sean McKeon started the day with an afternoon concert. Liam and Sean play what Sean himself described as "the purest of the pure drop". The two of them grew up steeped in the tradition and they studiously avoid all the contemporary trends in the Irish music scene. They harken back to the music of the grandparents and beyond. It was a masterful performance, full of subtlety that could shine through because of the simplicity.
It might be considered brave to have an act featuring poetry in Irish for a Danish audience. But it was no problem on Saturday night for the Gaelic Hit Factory, John Spillane and Louis de Paor. John's songs have been covered by many big name singers, but his unique stage presence and wit give special quality when he performs the songs himself. Louis' poetry recitations in the Irish language were pure music. The reels, jigs and airs were implicit in the mesmerizing cadence of his voice. The audience was enthralled even though we didn't understand a word.
Crooked Still played a wonderful set of contemporary Americana that provided a short break from the Irish theme. Cellist Rushad Eggleston grabbed the attention of the audience with his powerful percussive playing. His red, white and blue costume complete with matching cape added to the impression that he is single-handedly creating a new genre, 'Glam Folk'. The rest of the band is equally impressive, with more than one person commenting that singer Aoife O'Donovan reminded them of Allison Krausse.
The contemporary Irish band Beoga finished the evening. Beoga have a distinctive sound due to the fact that most of the players grew up in the Fleidh scene. Their arrangements are a bit busier than most, and the pair of accordions combined with a stride piano give them a powerful drive. I was especially taken by fiddler and singer Niamh Dunne. Her stunning voice and calm presence offered a counterpoint to the somewhat frenetic lads.
Eivør Pálsdóttir returned again this year. I saw her on Sunday afternoon at one of the more intimate venues, where she again displayed impressive versatility and showmanship. Her voice was over-worked from singing the entire weekend. So instead of her usual show of vocal gymnastics she settled down with her acoustic guitar, told stories and had the audience join her in singing all of her songs. It was a very different vibe from many of her other concerts, but it was just as enjoyable and a delight to see a different side of her.
The big Sunday night concert was a cross section of Americana folk music. The evening started with a short set by Crooked Still. The Foghorn String Band also played a set of pure old-time music, all five of them circled around a single microphone on stage. They are so tight that it's almost impossible to hear the different instruments; it all sounds like a single virtuoso. The timeless Arlo Guthrie and his band, including his son on keyboards and grandson on drums, followed. The final act was Steve Earle with the Bluegrass Dukes. Steve Earle, who has often performed with Sharon Shannon, is a powerful presence on stage. His raw delivery of songs of rooting for the underclass are reminiscent of Luka Bloom. Earle was accompanied by the Bluegrass Dukes, four of the finest musicians Nashville has to offer: Tim O'Brien, Casey Dreissen, Darrell Scott, Dennis Crouch. Tim is a regular at Tønder, but this was a first visit for the others. Fiddler Casey Dreissen was especially impressive in this stellar company, keep an eye open for lots of great music from this young musician.
There was also a special Irish traditional dance celebration, Heel to Toe / Barr go Sáil. The show featured Irish set and solo sean nós dance as the locals from the counties Donegal, Connemara and Kerry dance for and with each other. There were eight dancers in the show, including Seosamh O Neachtain, Maire Aine Ni hlarnain and Padraic O hOibicin. The music was top-flight too: Seamus Begley with Jimmy and Peter Campbell. In fact, the entire Begley clan turned up for the craic. This is the family to turn to when you want a proper party. Everyone gathered for a fabulous spontaneous session on Sunday afternoon with the Begleys and several other accordions on one side of the room and a half dozen fiddles, including Eileen Ivers and Tim O'Brien, opposite them. And in between the accordions and fiddles the dancers had the floor for as long as the musicians could play.
If this all sounds like a good time, then you should take a look at this year's lineup. It includes a few bands from the last couple of years, including Crooked Still, Tim O'Brien, Session A9, Danú and Karan Casey. There are also some new acts this year: Lau, Genticorum, singer Julie Fowlis with her very talented band, and the Mammals. A couple of years ago I saw Genticorum and Julie Fowlis on on a double bill. At first blush it seemed an odd combination, a high-energy French Canadian trio followed by a set of Scots Gaelic singing. But the show was one of the most memorable I've been to in a long time, not least because of the double encore that featured both bands together. Lau will also be a treat. The band is only a couple of years old but it features three of the most innovative musicians on the Scottish scene today: Aidan O'Rourke on fiddle, Martin Green on accordian and Kris Drever on guitar and vocals. They play with the energy of a band twice their size and it's a joy to watch the three of them bouncing musical ideas and jokes on each other.
Be sure to check out the rest of the program on the festival website. You'll also find Solas, Liz Carroll & John Doyle, Liam Clancy and a host of more good reasons to come to southern Denmark on the last weekend of August. See you there!
Author: Michael G. Rose
Michael G. Rose is a pianist from Boston, now based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has been one half of the duo Fromseier Rose, together with violinist Ditte Fromseier Mortensen, and he has also recently performed a series of concerts with the talented Scottish harper, Rachel Hair. Michael currently is working several new projects, including a new trio and a contemporary music project with Irish fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh.