We Banjo 3. PHOTO BY DAVID NORTON
Music Notes / By Colleen Taylor
You wouldn’t know it from my daily weather report here in Dublin, but summer has arrived, and that means so has festival season. Each summer marks an annual Irish invasion on American shores when Ireland’s best folk bands travel across the Atlantic to play on massive outdoor stages to crowds of energetic, jubilant Irish Americans. The traditionalists, cynics, or art critics might scrutinize the cultural value of these festivals and locate the elements of plastic Paddyism that benefit neither Irish nor American culture—by which I mean the shamrock paraphernalia, green beer, “Erin go braghs,” and so on. And while there is always some aspect of that affectation, to be sure, these large-scale American festivals nevertheless provide a platform for artistic access—to hear some of the best of Irish music, old and new, in one place, across a matter of days. Given how much these bands tour the world, the sheer happenstance of having a group like the High Kings in the same city, let alone the same venue, as We Banjo 3 (which, by the way, will happen twice this summer) is an opportunity that cannot be knocked no matter how many shamrock-shaped spectacles get worn.
Here are my thoughts on some of the best North American festivals happening this summer.
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For me, Milwaukee Irish Fest takes 2019’s gold medal for music lineup. Held in the Henry Maier Festival Park on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Irish Fest advertises itself as the “world’s largest celebration of Celtic culture.” While that title may be up for debate, the Milwaukee Irish Fest is undoubtedly impressive, with upwards of 130,000 attendees, nearly 300 acts, as well as lectures, classes for children and adults, céilís, a 5k, poetry readings, among numerous other events. The “red hair and freckles” contest bespeaks of the aforementioned artificial downside to these festivals, but when it comes to their music lineup, this festival is at the top.
This year’s set of gigs will include some of the bona fide superstars of Irish folk, like the one and only High Kings, the internationally renowned We Banjo 3, the always-jocular Gaelic Storm, and even Tommy Sands himself. Potentially more impressive for the music critic in me, the festival will give the microphone to some lesser-known but equally noteworthy folk bands I’ve been tracking over the past year or two. I was particularly excited to see Milwaukee not only book but highlight The Whileaways on their lineup—a truly exquisite Irish Americana trio that I’ve written about a couple other times in the column. The Whileaways are, for me, some of the best singers and songwriters in Irish music today, and they have a new album to showcase in Milwaukee. Aoife Scott, a solo artist from Dublin who also has a new album, and the Kane Sisters, two Sharon Shannon protégés from Connemara, will also take the stage in Milwaukee and, no doubt, impress listeners. Two trad bands from the Galway/Mayo area, Backwest and Boxing Banjo, both of whom have impressed me with their live performances, will make their Milwaukee debuts. Connla, a band from Northern Ireland with powerful vocals, and Réalta, a newish trad band with a superb pipes/flute/and bodhrán harmony, are other standouts on the schedule. These are all must-see acts, but thankfully in Milwaukee, you can’t really go wrong no matter where you go in Maier Park.
The Milwaukee Fest will take place August 15th-18th, and I encourage you to make your way to Wisconsin if you can. It’s less expensive than traveling transatlantically for the Fleadh, on that same week, and musically, it is just as good. More information at irishfest.com
Believe it or not, between the dates of Aug. 2 and Aug. 4, I would rather be in Dublin, Ohio than Dublin, Ireland—where one is bound to hear more trad music, during those dates, than in the Irish capital. Like Milwaukee, the Dublin Irish Fest is another large-scale annual Irish-American festival. Established in 1988, it now hosts 100,000 visitors, manages eight large stages, numerous events, performances, and lectures.
Dublin has even more headliners than Milwaukee this year: Gaelic Storm, We Banjo 3, Scythian, and even trad music heroes, Altan. There are some dynamic additions this year, such as Doolin’, a French band who plays Irish tunes with subtle fusions of jazz, rock, even pop. The fest will also host Socks in the Frying Pan, a wonderfully playful trad group from County Clare, who play Irish music with distinct flare, even panache, and Cúig, a young, excessively hip trad quintet from Armagh and Tyrone, who made waves in 2016 with their debut album. A number of Irish dance schools will also perform along with the musicians. The fest also offers classes, genealogy services, and uniquely, a dog show. More information at dublinirishfestival.org.
& Kansas City
The Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival is the first to kick off the season, so get your tickets fast. It runs July 19-21 in the Berea Fairgrounds, Middleburg Heights, Ohio. This festival has some of my all-time, long-time favorites on the schedule this year, including Cherish the Ladies, singer/songwriter Ashley Davis and We Banjo 3, all of whom need no introduction. Significantly, coinciding with the start to the Cleveland Fest, is We Banjo 3’s launch of their new live album, “Roots to Rise,” a HD recording of their recent performance in Ann Arbor. The Band will release the album the first day of the festival, which you can pre-order now at webanjo3.com. The band plans to donate to Mental Health America in conjunction with “Roots to Rise” t-shirt sales. Best of all, admission to the Cleveland fest is only $12. More information at cleavelandirish.org.
Other cities and states even further west will be putting on exciting festivals this year. The Iowa Irish Fest in Waterloo coincides with the Dublin fest, taking place August 2-4 this year, but it does not skimp on music acts as a result. Iowa will host Scythian, the High Kings, Gaelic Storm, as well as the Screaming Orphans. Derek Warfield will also make his way to Iowa, as will JigJam, an exciting trad/Americana band who blend youthful energy with old-time sounds. The festival will also feature Seo Linn, another hip trad band, who are a cross between Lunasa and Mumford and Sons—half trad, half indie pop. More info at iowairishfest.com.
Last but not least, the Kansas City Irish Fest will close out this summer festival whirlwind on Labor Day weekend, Aug. 30 – Sept. 1, at the heart of urban Kansas City in the Crown Center area. Again, some Irish folk virtuosos will appear: High Kings, Gaelic Storm, Ashley Davis, and Enter the Haggis. A great excuse to catch some of your favorite Irish bands and explore Kansas City to boot. More info at kcirishfest.com.
Perhaps you’ve noticed a glaring absence in this list—a list which, I admit, isn’t necessarily comprehensive. But there are too many American cities, and too many Irish diasporas, to cover them all. Nevertheless, that glaring absence is our own New York and the tristate area. I’ll follow next week with some of the best New York/tristate festivals this summer, and what’s planned for those concerts. In the meantime, think about booking one of these remarkable festivals in middle or western America—or at the very least, start making plans for next summer.