Summer is here, a new festival season beckons and thoughts of where to spend precious vacation time is rapidly becoming an important issue for all of us. So it is worth recalling the great music at Denmark's Tønder Festival this past August. It promises to offer a similar four day feast for Celtic music fans this coming August.
The festival weekend kicked off on the last Thursday night in August with high energy performances from The Oyster Band and The Saw Doctors. The Oyster Band have been long time regulars at Tønder, so their performance was like an old friend stopping by for a visit. Yet they always manage to keep their music fresh, often inviting on stage some of the great musician friends that they have met on their travels. I particularly liked Chopper's cello playing. The cello is becoming more common in folk music these days, but the Oyster Band are the only ones I know if using it in a more rock oriented show. The second band of the evening was The Saw Doctors. They started life as an Irish pub band in Galway almost 20 years ago and it seems they haven't stopped having fun since. The musicians made good use of their varied backgrounds in punk, reggae and Irish songs to get everyone into the festival mood.
Friday night offered a wide choice of the best celtic music has to offer. The evening started with Session A9, a collection of four of Scotland's finest fiddlers led by Capercaille's Charlie McKerron. They put on a tight show that works well for festival audiences. It's similar in spirit Blazin Fiddles, not as flashy but every bit as musical. Session A9 also has an all-star rhythm section and guitarist Kris Drever's songs were a perfect balance to the abundance of fiddle tunes. The Anna Massie Band made a return visit. The band was impressive last year but they seemed much more at ease this year. The three of them, Anna Massie on fiddle and guitar, Jenn Butterworth on guitar and Mairearad Green on accordion and bagpipes, have become polished professional performers. They represent the more traditional style of Scottish music, playing with a maturity beyond their years. The evening finished off with the adventurous Michael McGoldrick Band. Much of the material was from his new CD, Wired. He manages to blend seemingly the disparate sounds from the different instruments in his band to make a seamless whole. Some friends who heard him both Friday night and Saturday night told me the Saturday concert was even better. I can't imagine how that's possible.
Saturday afternoons at Tønder always features up and coming young acts and a group performance by the folk music students from the Carl Nielsen Conservatory. Cape Breton musicians Troy MacGillivray, Kimberley Fraser & Patrick Gillis are three of the bright young lights carrying on the Cape Breton tradition. They gave a delightful set, with Troy and Kimberley each switching effortlessly between fiddle and piano, with Patrick Gillis of Beolach fame providing a solid foundation for them.
The conservatory performance was widely expanded in an exciting new initiative this year, Young Musicians Crossing Borders. The name is aptly chosen, some top student musicians from the folk music programs at the University of Newcastle in England, the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and Dance and the Carl Nielsen Academy in Denmark came over for a week of intensive study together just before the festival. The teachers were Harald Haugaard, Brian MacNeill and Catriona MacDonald. It was easy to identify the students in a crowd, they were the young ones who looked like they had been practicing 16 hours a day, and maybe having a beer or two after that, for seven days running. The result of their hard work was a very impressive concert. They were very convincing in their performance of tunes and songs from the different traditions. And I'm sure in the future we'll see them forming bands together. This is a great initiative which will be bearing fruit for years to come.
Saturday night required some jogging from venue to venue to catch all the music I wanted to hear. Ditte Fromseier Mortensen gave a nice start to the evening, performing a mixture of Irish and Danish music with musicians she met while studying at the University of Limerick. Of particular note was singer Shauna Mullen. She has a pure, low powerful voice and throws her heart into the song.
One of my favorite bands, Grada, was up next. They have developed into one of the top new generation of Irish bands. Their new singer, Nicola Joyce, brings a more romantic and lyrical style to their songs. Grada played a lot of their own new compositions, and some great arrangements of Breton tunes. The last band of the evening was La Volée d'Castors. They are from Quebec and have the same general style as La Bouttine Souriante and Le Vent du Nord but with an extra element to their sound. They've embellished their arrangements with bits reminiscent of progressive Irish bands from the Moving Hearts tradition. It was a bit surprising at times, but overall the cross- fertilzation worked well and the audience loved it.
Sunday night took a turn into what might be called the world music side of the Celtic genre. The opening act, Eivør Pálsdóttir & Bill Bourne were the major new find of the festival for me. Eivør is a young singer/songrwiter/performance artist from the Faroe Islands, a small archipelago in the middle of the north Atlantic ocean, and Bill Bourne is a Canadian songwriter and guitarist. They gave a spell- binding visual performance with Eivør swaying on stage like an enchantress while Bourne, in top hat and tails, played the straight man. This was paralleled by Bourne's masterfully subtle guitar playing which perfectly complemented Eivør's vocal gymnastics. Catch this duo live whenever you have the chance.
Mozaik followed with a more understated and traditional performance. While Andy Irvine, Bruce Molsky and Donal Lunny did not dance on stage in flowing costumes, they did what they do best, taking turns leading songs and tunes from their own backgrounds. Their bandmates, Nikola Parov from Bulgaria and Dutchman Rens Van Der Zalm, fit in very nicely, giving the band its signature 'East-West' sound. Capercaille closed off the concert and festival with their usual great show. They may have mellowed a bit over the years, but they still get the crowd moving like few other bands can.
Of course there are also plenty of sessions happening throughout the festival grounds at all times of day and night. The FMS Tent (Danish Folk Music Association) has a mix of sessions and short concerts and there is an almost-always open mike running at the Club Tent. And the musician's tent is usually host to fiddle sessions that last long past dawn. Something decidedly different happened in the late hours of Sunday night, or perhaps it was Monday morning. A few percussionists started doing what drummers do, banging on whatever loud objects are at hand. Within minutes a full-blown percussion circle was in progress. A few fiddlers were outside grumbling a bit, but most everyone else found the groove.
So if this sounds like fun, be sure to come to Tønder the last weekend of August. Artists returning this year include Hayseed Dixie, Eivør Pálsdóttir, and The Saw Doctors. Other artists already booked are Lunasa, John Spillane & Louis de Paor, and the hot young band from Boston, Crooked Still. All the latest news and links to this year's artists are on the Tønder Festival website. See you there!
Author: Michael G. Rose
Michael G. Rose is a pianist from Boston and is now based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He performs with violinist Ditte Fromseier Mortensen in the duo Fromseier Rose. Contradiction, their debut CD, also features the great Irish singer Niamh Parsons on three tracks. John O'Regan wrote in Irish Music Magazine, "Featuring many original compositions with its cool Nordic ambience, it isn't your normal traditional CD. Ditte and Michael created an original music style with a strong basis in Irish, Danish and American traditional music and with modern acoustic elements."
You can read more about Fromseier Rose and Michael's other projects at http://www.myspace.com/michaelgrose