The 35th Anniversary Tønder Festival 2009

With a Review of the 2008 Festival

Tønder Festival is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. The festival is nestled in the picturesque rural southwest corner of Denmark, just north of the German border and east of the North Sea, and has long been regarded as one of the premier Celtic festivals in the world. It continues its tradition of combining top headline acts with upcoming and new bands. Hopefully I can tempt you to come along this year with highlights of last year’s festival and a peek at some of the music to look forward to this year.

2008 highlights

The 2008 festival opened on Thursday with the traditional folk rock concert. It was a bit more rock than folk due to the high energy of the Duhks, Bruce Guthro and Oysterband. All three acts are regulars at the festival and put the audience in the mood for the weekend. The Duhks were especially memorable. They have made a couple of changes in the lineup that increased their power and versatility with Sarah Dugas on vocals and her brother Christian Dugas on percussion. Sarah’s range was amazing, as she sang everything from old folk ballads to a Led Zepplin number for an encore.

The next evening I chose one of the more mellow venues, the Art Museum. The first act was the new Scottish/Irish duo of Ross Ainslie & Jarlath Henderson. Ross plays low Scottish pipes and Jarlath plays Uillean pipes while Ali Hutton provided a strong rhythm on guitar. It’s an unusual combination and their telepathic playing gave a sound which is both powerful and graceful. Jarlath also surprised the audience by singing a song. With a voice reminiscent of Damien Rice, he will probably be doing much more of that in the future. The next act was Sierra Noble with Patrick Gillis on guitar. Sierra is a 19-year-old Canadian who has already mastered a range of styles and has a rich and smooth sound. In this concert she concentrated on Celtic and American fiddle styles. She is also developing as a singer, though more in the area of acoustic indie pop. Gráda, one of the most interesting of the newer generation of Irish and Scottish bands, finished off the evening with a great show. They added trumpeter Matt Mancuso for the festival shows. Matt added some tasteful musical touches and a lot of stage presence to their act.

One of the pleasure of Tønder is that it offers the opportunity for collaborations by great musicians who normally wouldn’t have an opportunity to work together. These shows are usually on the Saturday afternoons, and this year had two interesting and unexpected combinations. The first featured Ashley MacIsaac and Phamie Gow, who were like the sun and the moon in their enjoyable set. Ashley’s flamboyant pyrotechnics answered the question ‘What if Paganini had been born in Cape Breton?’ while Phamie’s cool and relaxed harp playing provided the perfect counterpoint to Ashley. The second collaboration, Seaquins, gathered 10 of the top young female performers from Cape Breton, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. They first met as a group a few days before the festival started and quickly developed an entertaining set of tunes and songs from each of their traditions.

There was a large choice of music on offer for Saturday evening. I chose to start with the Emily Smith Band. Emily has a mainstream style that is a favorite in Denmark. And her band, led by her husband and fiddler, Jamie McClennan, supported her with impeccable musicianship. Next on my program was Altan. Though they played many of their old sets, some going back to the '80s, they played with such great energy that their music felt fresh and new. I finished off the evening humming along Eddi Reader. Eddi, a songstress of wide and varied accomplishments, performed with the charisma and talent of a star while conveying the warmth of a friend. She is the ‘diva next door.’

The Sunday afternoon ceilidh offered the opportunity to see a few songs each by several of the acts I had missed on Friday and Saturday. The ceilidh mixed Celtic and Americana, from Caleb Klauder’s old timey singing to Shooglenifty’s acid croft. It all blended surprisingly well. The closing concert was mellow with a tinge of nostalgia. It featured Danish favorites Haugaard & Hoirup who were doing one of their final concerts before splitting up to pursue solo projects. They were followed by the singers Tom Paxton and Mary Black, who brought the weekend to a delightful conclusion.

2009 Preview
This year’s festival has an equally intriguing lineup that combines some top established acts and a few excellent newcomers. The headliners this year are familiar from previous festivals, including favorites Michael McGoldrick, Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul and Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham. Carlos Nunez, also an old friend of the festival, has added former Riverdance fiddler Niamh Ní Charra to his band. Niamh is familiar to readers of Celtic Cafe from her Riverdance days and she is also off to a good start on her own solo career. I’m also looking forward to the David Munelly Band. Dave has recently added singer Shauna Mullin to the band. She has a wonderful alto voice reminiscent of Niamh Parsons.

One of the new bands appearing is The Unwanted, a trio of very familiar names, Kathy Jordan of Dervish, Seamie O’Dowd and Rick Epping. Aside from their decades long accomplishments in Irish music, they all share a love of blues and Appalachian music. In their new trio they combine these genres in what they call “music from the Atlantic fringe and beyond”. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to catch their first gig outside Ireland and it was an unexpected treat. Seamie is also appearing in pure drop constellation with Máirtín O'Connor, Cathal Hayden & Jim Higgins.

A couple of young bands that are showing great promise are also making their Tønder debut. Bodega is a 5-piece band of young Scottish multi-instrumentalist virtuosos that play intricate high-speed arrangements. Though they are all just graduating from university they’ve been making a name for themselves since winning the Danny Kyle award at Celtic Connections a few years ago. The newest band on the program is Mórga. They are four young musicians based in Galway that have chosen an ‘old school’ approach that is reminiscent of early De Dannan.

For the full experience, come and experience the festival yourself. Tickets and travel information are available on the festival website.


Author: Michael G. Rose



Michael G. Rose is a pianist from Boston and is now based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Michael is working in a new duo whose secret identity will soon be made public. He has been one half of the duo Fromseier Rose, together  with violinist Ditte Fromseier Mortensen and he has also worked with Scottish harper, Rachel Hair and Irish fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. You can read more about Michael's  projects and listen to his music at http://www.michaelgrose.net and http://www.myspace.com/michaelgrose.

Altan's Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh sings while Ciaran Tourish listens
Ashley MacIsaac
A 10AM session that began at 2AM
Grada guest Matt Mancuso
Nicola Joyce and Alan Doherty of Grada
Ross Ainslie & Jarlath Henderson
The Scottish contingent of Seaquins
Eddi Reader at a singer's session after Sunday's closing concert
Jarlath Henderson, Tim O'Brien and Kris Drever relax with a tune
Street performer Svend Alfred entertains passersby