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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014

The Sounds of Irish Fest

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One of America’s first major celebrations of Celtic culture, Irish Fest was ahead of its time when it premiered in 1981. In the decades since, similar festivals have popped up around the country, spurred by the surging popularity of Irish dance and Celtic music, but Milwaukee’s remains by far the largest of any of them. It’s also the best attended of all of the city’s ethnic festivals. Each year those ethnic festivals contribute about $60 million to Milwaukee’s economy, a recent analysis from UW-Whitewater and Marquette University found, and Irish Fest alone accounts for one third of that total. “We’re unrivaled in our size and scope,” boasts Patrick Boyle, Irish Fest’s executive director. “We use more of the Summerfest grounds than even Summerfest uses. We have 16 stages over 75 acres, with 100 acts playing over four days. No other ethnic festival comes close to that.”

To keep drawing crowds year after year, Irish Fest relies on the assistance of 4,000 volunteers, and the allure of a full entertainment lineup featuring some of the world’s top Celtic acts. Booking those lineups has become easier in recent years, Boyle says, in part because the rising demand for Irish music has prompted more international acts to tour the United States, but also because the talent pool has never been deeper.

“I’ve heard this described as the golden age of Irish and Celtic music,” Boyle says. “Years ago it used to be that all you had was trad bands or folk bands, and that was it. Now all these young kids are doing what they want. They’re playing a mixture of trad and contemporary Irish music, with a lot of different fusions. I was in Scotland a couple months ago and I saw 22 bands in six days at a big showcase, and all of them had their own approach. The amount of blending that’s going on in Celtic music these days is really impressive. Even traditionally trained musicians are comfortable branching out to try some more contemporary, or putting funky twists on old tunes. People who have been in the business a lot longer than me have commented on the same thing: There are so many bands that come out of Ireland who are just loving this music, and they’re playing it their own way.”

As always, this year’s Irish Fest will feature quite a few returning favorites. Gaelic Storm, who first rose to attention as the steerage band in the 1997 film Titantic, have been playing the festival regularly for 15 years. The Willis Clan, a family of a dozen young musicians and dancers who were semi-finalists on “America’s Got Talent,” will also be back this year, along with Spanish bagpiper Carlos Núñez (“he’s described as the Jimi Hendrix of pipers,” Boyle notes, “though I don’t think he’ll set his pipes on fire.”).

To keep things fresh, each year the festival spotlights a different aspect of Celtic culture. This year it will highlight the sounds of Scotland with a Scottish Music Showcase featuring eight acts from that country. The most locally well known of them is the bagpipe rock band Red Hot Chili Pipers, who have been favorites since making their Wisconsin debut at the festival five years, but the showcase will feature some festival first timers as well, including Dallahan, an ensemble known for putting subtle twists on traditional Celtic arrangements, and Gria, an all-woman folk quartet that draws heavily from Gaelic and English sounds.

Beyond music, this weekend’s festival will feature cooking demonstrations (a first at the event), exhibits on Celtic canines and Irish Americans in baseball, an Irish market with 90 vendors, and visiting archeologist Joanne Hughes, who will share Viking excavation discoveries in discussions for both adults and kids. There will also be multiple programs commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of the death of Brian Ború, the Irish king credited for uniting the country, including discussions from Dublin scholars about Boru’s legacy and a performance of Maurice Lennon’s 2002 orchestra suite Brian Ború The High King of Tara. For the performance, Lennon will be joined by the Willis Clan.

Irish Fest runs at Henry W. Maier Festival Park Aug. 14-17. For schedule information, visit irishfest.com.