At least once each year, we can thank our lucky charms for the return of something real and rootsy as we immerse ourselves in the music and events of St. Patrick's Day.
Although Irish musicians differ in background, approach and sheer volume, their common thread is clear: they foster a sense of belonging and cheer.
Yet the face of Irish music has changed in recent years. Beyond the folk-based, tradition-steeped Chieftains, Paddy O'Brien and Clancy Brothers, some adventurous hybrids have emerged, among them the ethereal stylings of Clannad and Enya; the dynamic fiddle tunes of Natalie MacMaster and her cousin, Ashley MacIsaac; the socially conscious rock of Black 47 and U2; the rowdy punk-meets-folk tales of Flogging Molly and the Pogues; and an assortment of progressive-minded Celtic rockers.
Over the next few days, Orange County music fans can indulge in this merry, musical smorgasbord as a smattering of local, national and international Irish acts perform in the area.
Solas, appearing Saturday in Irvine, is a must-see. Led by multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and featuring new lead vocalist Deirdre Scanlon, this versatile ensemble peppers its traditional jigs, reels and ballads with strains of American pop, folk and bluegrass. It's equally adept at frenetically played instrumentals and sweet, slower-paced airs and love songs.
Respectful of the past but hardly prisoner to it, Solas uses such instruments as the bouzouki, banjo and electric guitar to broaden its sonic palette. Shining brighter than ever and using more percussion and bass on the new album, "The Hour Before Dawn," Solas has created a sparkling collection that ranges from a haunting Norwegian air ("A Little Child") to the rootsier "I Will Remember You," a song co-written by Egan and Sarah McLachlan.
Working strictly in the traditional mode is one of Orange County's unheralded treasures, the Tinker's Own. Led by the husband-wife team of Steve and Michele Dulson and appearing Saturday in Irvine, the septet plays lovely traditional and contemporary folk music of the British Isles and North America, all powered by acoustic instruments, including fiddle, bones, Appalachian and hammered dulcimers, bodhran, mandolin, cittern, guitar, flute and whistles.
Fired up at the other end of the Irish music spectrum--that is, playing it loud, fast and furious--are several hard-working Celtic-rock bands.
The L.A.-based Young Dubliners, who perform Friday in Anaheim and Saturday in West Hollywood, kick it up a notch with a decidedly robust live show. Led by vocalists and Dublin transplant Keith Roberts, the sextet melds traditional Irish (mandolin, fiddle, tin whistle, harp and flute) and rock (drums, bass and guitar) instrumentation into a sonic attack that ranges from fierce and invigorating to warm and melancholy.
The spirited lads are equally adept playing fist-in-the-air anthems or introspective laments.
Perhaps best embodying the party-happy vibe of St. Patrick's Day is the American Wake, which plays Saturday in Huntington Beach before headlining in Santa Ana later that evening. Formed in 1994, the American Wake mixes traditional Irish standards with boozy pub-rockers like "The Bottle" and "Mulligan's Bar," both found on the band's aptly named CD, "Drink."
A bonus at the Santa Ana show is the Aniar Academy of Dancers, a company based in Laguna Niguel. Among participating step dancers will be Erin Fitzgerald, who will be traveling this year to Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, to compete in the 2001 World Championships of Irish Dancing.
If the Fenians aren't quite as rowdy as the Young Dubs or as boozy as the American Wake, they come mighty close. With a motto of "Have Fun or Get Out"--also the title of their new CD--the Costa Mesa quintet enjoys a strong local following. Self-described as "a folk group with a rock attitude and energy," the Fenians, who play Saturday in Anaheim, have blossomed over the last few years.
Last year's "Band of Rogues" CD showcased a welcome shift from a stifling, bar-band mentality, instead focusing on original material, the best of which is the ambitious, mini-epic "The San Patricios."
And what would St. Paddy's Day be without an Irish music and dance festival or two?
Combining slow airs, jigs, reels and hornpipes with step dancing, Mick Moloney's Irish Music and Dance Festival comes Saturday to Torrance. Along with the Limerick-born, banjo-playing Moloney, the program includes fiddler Marie Reilly, button-accordionist Martin Reilly, guitarist-vocalist Robbie O'Connell, piper Todd Denman, and four Irish step dancers.
This nationally touring group was formed in 1978 when Moloney, a National Heritage Award winner and ethnomusicologist, was hired by the Smithsonian Institution to find the best Irish musicians and dancers in the country. He selected seven before embarking on the first-ever tour of Irish American artists sponsored by the U.S. government.
Mixing progressive dance and song, the Trinity Irish Dance Company performs two L.A. premieres Saturday. Choreographer Sean Curran presents "Currant Event," which he describes as "sounding like traditional Irish instruments making music that is a mix of reggae and Irish reels."
The majority of the program features works by choreographer Mark Howard, Trinity's founder and artistic director.
Family-oriented entertainment continues Sunday in Cerritos. Starring Irish comedian Noel V. Ginnity, Dublin's Traditional Irish Cabaret features tenor Paul Hennessy, soloist Emma Walsh, piper-whistle player Tommy Keane, multi-instrumentalist-singer Pat Marname, accordionist Ailbe Grace, and special guests, The Stuart O'Connor Irish Dancers. The Cabaret also plays in Costa Mesa on March 24.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Nicholson Pipes and Drums has won first prize at the Scottish Highland Games in Costa Mesa and San Diego. The Westminster-based group appears at the South Bay St. Patrick's Day Festival and Parade in Hermosa Beach on Saturday.
No matter how or where you choose to celebrate this St. Patrick's Day, take a moment and raise a pint to Mary Black. Why? The Dublin singer, who has sold more records in Ireland than anyone, including U2 and the Chieftains, understands our fascination with the Irish:
"Out of hardship, struggle and pain has come some of the best art, literature and music," she said before a 1997 Cerritos gig. "I believe we have a deep-seated passion that people have come to recognize. You know, the Irish look right into the face of hardship, and our art has the ability to make you laugh or cry. Celtic is an enduring music of great camaraderie, hope and strength."