Jun 172009

On Sunday I went with some friends to the Potomac Celtic Festival in Leesburg. What a great afternoon!

The main attraction for me was the music. Bruce Molsky did a solo show just as we got there, and he was stellar. His fiddling is clean, strong, sure, and emotional. He plays American old-time styles, not the intricate Irish or Scottish stuff. The American styles, especially the Appalachian and southeastern styles, mix the old stuff from the British Isles with the rhythm and melodic focus of African musics. That is what really makes American southeastern old-time fiddling unique–the centuries of mixing between African, Celtic, and some Native American aspects too.

Anyway, Molsky is an inspiring fiddler to me. I don’t use the drones and alternate tunings that he uses in my own playing, but the rhythm and warm tone are definitely things I try to capture. He doesn’t use a bit of vibrato, which is common for southeastern American fiddlers. The ornamentation and expression in these fiddle styles all comes in the bow hand.

We also saw Furnace Mountain, with some of Loudon County’s best musicians. Danny Knicely plays some of the best mandolin you’ll hear anywhere. Amy curl’s singing is intriguing to me because she has such a steely, focused, breathy delivery. The whole group is fabulous.

We also saw a lively set by the Scottish group Cantrip. Apparently the group was in disarray, because only two members showed up for the performance. Someone had quit or had been fired I guess. But the fiddler and the piper were there with a stand-in on guitar and octave mando, and the music was fast and frenzied. Very exciting, and lots were dancing along.

This was my first Celtic deal in a while. I tend to avoid Irish sessions because I don’t play the “correct” style. My impressions have been that those session players are pretty tough on anyone who isn’t in on the gnosis of which ornament to play where on which tune. Old-time jammers can be snobs too, but there is definitely something about the Celtic sessions that tells me I don’t belong there. But all the music I listened to at this festival was user-friendly and fun. Not a word the whole day about the correct way to play, and the closing performance put these American and Celtic musicians up on stage together to jam out on “Red-Haired Boy” and “Miss McLeod’s.” Nice stuff.

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