It is high summer and thoughts are turning to the Tønder Festival. Take a trip to this small Danish village on the last weekend of August and you’ll hear world class Celtic music, make lots of new friends, and probably become a yearly visitor. To whet your appetite, here are a few memories from last year’s festival and a preview of this year’s music.
The festival had an excellent start Thursday night that demonstrated again the special relationship between musicians, fans and the festival itself. Runrig, the headline act, was forced to cancel on short notice. Bruce Guthro and The Saw Doctors stepped in to substitute for their friends and gave energetic and entertaining shows. The evening started with Baskery, 3 Swedish sisters who perform a mix of old-timey and country music. Bruce Guthro followed, accompanied by his 18 year old son, Dylan, and an excellent backup band. Bruce is a big favorite in Denmark and his powerful singing kept the big tent moving. The evening closed with the Saw Doctors, the world’s most successful pub band, making it a proper party.
There was a special Americana theme on Friday night in the intimate atmosphere of the Art Museum. Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn performed in various combinations. The first set featured Tim O’Brien and Bruce Molsky traded songs and stories, joined at times by Bela providing tasteful backup. The second set, with Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, was especially delightful. Though having been partners in real life for several years, this was their first performance together as a duo. Abigail was charming, singing warm and intelligent songs that drew on her worldwide travels and especially the time she has spent in China. Having the chance to see Bela in this minimal setting was an inspiring treat for any musician. It was an opportunity to see how his banjo is simply an extension of his being. He has taken on of the most technically limited instruments and given it a subtle voice.
There were interesting new combinations of well known names in Irish music on Saturday afternoon with The Unwanted and The Mairtin O’Connor Band. The Unwanted is a new band with Dervish singer Kathy Jordan, ubiquitous ex-Dervish fiddler Seamie O’Dowd and the American concertina player Rick Epping. They’ve mined the rich cross-fertilization between Irish, Appalachian, and blues music and have made a swingy organic whole from it all. Kathy presents another side to herself in this group, supporting Seamie and Rick with her guitar and backup vocals as often as she takes the lead herself. You should make a special effort to see The Unwanted live if you get a chance. Another new lineup of familiar names was Mairtin O’Connor, Cathal Hayden, Seamie O’Dowd and Jim Higgins. As with Bela Fleck the night before, it was nice to hear Cathal in this quieter lineup, where his silky smooth sound really had a chance to stand out.
It was back to the big tent on Saturday night for a big name lineup of Michael McGoldrick Big Band followed by Carlos Nunez and ending with Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul. McGoldrick was superb with his trademark funky swing and energy with a soft edge. No matter how big the band he’s playing with, it always sounds like a single instrument. Carlos Nunez is a master of entertainment and he worked his magic on the audience. His band is equally impressive, especially his brother on percussion and Niamh Ni Charra on fiddle. On a side note, Niamh has a new solo CD about to be released to, be sure to keep an eye out for it.
Back at the small and and crowded Old Mill venue there was a late night concert with the talented Dave Munnelly Band. Dave’s music harkens back to the old dance hall influence he’s always good for a kick of syncopated energy.
Sunday afternoon offered a chance to listen to a few of the young bands that are well on their way to establishing successful careers. The Scottish band Bodega have been touring since they were in their late teens. They are now seasoned performers and put on a great show. Morga, new Irish band that stays close to the 70s ensemble sound, played a very tight traditional set.
The finale concert started with a family affair. Arlo Guthrie was joined by son Abe on keyboards, daughter and son-in-law songwriting duo of Sarah Lee and Johhny Irion and grandson Krishna on percussion. The age range on stage gave welcome diversity to the sound of Arlo’s familiar songs.
The last act was a Tønder rendition of The Transatlantic Sessions, anchored by Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham. In addition to the artist who were already at the festival, Karan Casey and Karen Matheson made surprise guest appearances. An extra special treat was an impromptu after-show mini-Transatlatlantic session backstage that ran into the wee hours of the morning.
The 2010 headline acts are The Chieftains, Runrig, Wolfstone and The Duhks. It’s hard to believe Wolfstone are celebrating their 20 year anniversary. They were mainstays of the festival throughout the 90s and it will be good to see them again. Tim O’Brien, who brings along a different cast of musicians to the festival every year, is also dipping into the past. He’ll be appearing with Hot Rize, his trailblazing bluegrass quartet from the 80s. Scottish small pipes virtuoso Fred Morrison is also on the program. I saw him in concert with Tim O’Brien in January, a surprising pairing that worked remarkably well.
More great songs are on tap from Scottish star Eddi Reader as well as Ireland’s Luka Bloom. Eddi always puts on a great show at Tønder and is a festival favorite. I’ve only seen Luka Bloom once before and was impressed by his powerful stage presence and the social consciousness of his songs.
There are several Irish bands duets and band that are all sure to be great concerts. I’m looking forward to Karan Casey & John Doyle, who are currently touring with their new CD, Exiles Return. John Spillane is teaming up with a fellow Cork singer/songwriter, Mick Flannery. And the always entertaining duo of Seamus Begley and wunderkind Tim Edey will be making the case for Kerry polkas. Mairtin O’Connor will be returning with his band again and the new band Caladh Nua will be making their Tønder debut.
The festival is taken a step into the world music with the Portuguese band Atlantihda. Their music is based on the Fado singing tradition but with a big band sound that includes cello and accordion in addition to classical guitars. The Norwegian Hardanger fiddle power trio Valkyrien Allstars will also be appearing. They follow in the spirit of Scandinavian folk-trance bands such as Hedningarna, but with sort of a punk twist.
I hope to see some of you there for a great weekend of music and fun.
Author: Michael G. Rose
Michael G. Rose is a pianist from Boston and is now based in
Copenhagen, Denmark. Michael is working on a new project with the American fiddler Athena Tergis. Previously he was one half of the duo Fromseier Rose, together with violinist Ditte Fromseier Mortensen. You can read more about Michael's projects and listen to his music at http://www.michaelgrose.net and http://www.myspace.com/