One of the signs of a successful festival is how it renews itself from year to year and offers its audience a variety of music and experiences. Tønder Festival has been a particularly good example of this. Last year’s festival had an intimate atmosphere as it featured a number of high quality Irish duo acts and several very good bands making their debut. For this coming August the festival has booked a series of big name bands who cover the history of Celtic music from the 1960s to the present, and it promises to be a barn burner of a weekend.
The 2010 Tønder Festival opened with the Fred Morrison band putting on a display of musical pyrotechnics. Fred is the premiere player of the Scottish small pipes and his band members, Martin O’Niell on bodhran and Matheau Watson on guitar, are equally accomplished. Their music, while always tight and soulful, and often flashy. Matheu is a young musician to keep an eye on, he is already compiling an impressive record as an accompanist and has recently released an excellent solo CD. Fred has also been collaborating with Tim O’Brien and venturing into bluegrass-Scottish crossover. Tim and his Hot Rize bandmates joined in for the last few numbers of the set and the sensitivity of the musicians made the combination work like a charm.
Festival regulars The Duhks made a welcome return from their native Winnipeg. They are almost a local band now that band leader Leonard Podolak has married a Tønder native. The band is sounding more interesting focused than ever, helped by the powerful singing of Sarah Dugas. They had a guest fiddler, Casey Driessen, whose inventive magic with foot pedals and effects rivals any rock guitarist. They also had a nice side project called The Turtle Duhks. Band members Leonard and Jordan were joined by fiddler and singer Lydia Garrison Damiano, playing lvoely acoustic Americana in the festivals intimate venues.
The duo acts at the festival featured some of the top names in Irish singing. John Spillane was joined by Mick Flannery in a set that had the comfortable feeling of a living room song swap. Mick’s melancholic songs gave a counterpoint to John’s more energetic and ironic style. Karan Casey and John Doyle were displaying the fruits of their new partnership. The clarity of Karan’s voice, always a pleasure to hear, is especially evident in the duo format. And it was a pleasure to hear John Doyle playing subtle arrangements on guitar and mandolin. Tim Edey and Seamus Begley combined excellent musicianship with a humor worthy of a comedy show. Seamus’s running commentary was keeping Tim laughing through the entire show, including during Tim’s intricate guitar solos. A high point of the festival was Karan and John joined Seamus and Tim for a few songs together.
Tønder took a foray into the world music genre with the Portuguese band Atlantihda, featuring singer Gisela João. The band is an inspired mix of three traditional and three classical instrumentalists performing new music based in Portuguese traditions. Gisela sings with the style and passion of Fado singers and I really enjoyed the spirited playing ofaccordionist de Fátima Santos. The band quickly became one of my new favorites. Pokey Lafrage and the South City Three were another unexpected surprise. Pokey Lafarge is an ardent student of early Americana and his band brings together early jazz and blues mixed with modern hints of western swing. Their love for the music is so deep that it is infectious. Luckily they’ll be back this year and I’m looking forward to hearing more of them. Other new acts included the young Irish band Caladh Nua and a very lively and fun band, The Chair, hailing from the Orkney Islands.
The Sunday night concert finale featured the Chieftains and a multitude of guests. The Chieftains were classic and ageless, their music as beautiful and stylish as always. Their guests included Scottish singers Eddi Reader and Alyth McCormack. Eddi and Alyth have very different styles reflecting their backgrounds from Glasgow and the Highland, respectively. However both of them have moved between the pop and folk worlds with grace and their songs blended beautifully with the Chieftains.
The 2011 Tønder Festival brings a return of larger bands, including an excellent mix of old friends with storied pasts from Ireland and newer Scottish acts. Several generations of Irish super groups will be appearing. The Dubliners, Paul Brady, De Danann and Lúnasa, are all names that became known from the ‘60s through to the ‘90s and are still active today. It’s a rare treat to be able to see them all together at the same festival, fun for fans and subject matter for ethnomusicologists. I’m particularly looking forward to the Paul Brady Band and this constellation of De Dannan, which will be centered on founding members Alec Finn, Ringo McDonough and Eleanor Shanley.
Scottish pipe and fiddle tunes prove to be remarkably adaptable to rhythmic manipulation and three bands from Scotland take their tradition in different directions. There’s no secret to what Salsa Celtica play. They are a great festival band and do a wonderful job of blending afro-cuban horns and percussion with fiddles and highland pipes. Skerryvore is 6 piece from the Inner Hebrides that plays trad-fusion with an emphasis on funky rhythms. Following the sensibilities of it’s leader, The Paul McKenna Band combines trad tunes with a mellow indie-rock influence. The band also features one of my favorite Scottish fiddlers, Ruairidh Macmillan. The Emily Smith band is also coming over from Scotland. Her sound has a traditional purity combined with wonderful songwriting and singing.
Tim O’Brien continues his innovative blending of American and Irish. For this year’s festival he has put together a trio with with Cajun fiddler Dirk Powell and Arty McGlynn, an Irish guitar legend. Dirk has also become a festival regular over the last few years and has proven to be as talented and versatile as Tim and Arty. The recently re-formed La Bottine Souriante is also returning to the festival after a long absence. Finally, one of the hottest bands in the Americana scene, The Avett Brothers, will be making their first trip over.
If you’re deciding where to go in August, Tønder is the place to be. The festival has also joined Facebook and has an active page with constantly updated links to videos of this year’s bands. So you can keep up to date and enjoy plenty of great music even if you can’t make it to Denmark.
Author: Michael G. Rose