When a festival has gone on for almost 15 years, it’s bound to get a little introspective. And that’s a key element of the 14th annual Boston’s Celtic Music Fest (BCMFest), which takes place Jan. 13 and 14 at locations in Harvard Square, according to organizers, who see this year’s edition as celebrating renewal – within the Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, and other Celtic-related traditions, and also within Boston’s traditional music and dance community.
That theme of community, tradition, and renewal is reflected in the BCMFest 2017 Nightcap concert, the festival’s closing event, scheduled for Jan. 14 at 7:30 p.m. in First Church, Cambridge (1446 Massachusetts Avenue). The concert will explore the theme in two parts: a live multimedia performance of the “Irish Music Stories” podcast by BCMFest co-founder and co-organizer Shannon Heaton, and a “house party”-style presentation of Cape Breton music and dance.
“Throughout BCMFest’s history, dominant themes seem to emerge each year,” explains Heaton. “This year, the BCMFest Committee saw numerous acts with a particularly strong appreciation and understanding of Celtic traditions. Even the newer fusion-type acts have that solid ‘trad’ foundation. Given how many younger performers will be featured this year, it shows how our local community has taken the tradition into its heart and home.
“So the theme is one of simultaneously looking back and moving forward. Traditional music energizes so many of us. And this process of connection to the tradition by performers and listeners alike revitalizes the tradition.”
Heaton began working on “Irish Music Stories” during the past year, supported through a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship grant. The podcast, which she plans to launch this year, aims to tell the story of Irish music today through the individual narratives of people who are active in the tradition as performers, teachers, or simply enthusiasts who play purely for the joy of it.
At the BCMFest Nightcap, Heaton will bring “Irish Music Stories” to the stage, through short pre-recorded clips from the podcast and a series of performances that include duets with her husband Matt, along with appearances by local artists George Keith, Laura Cortese, Susan Gedutis Lindsay, Maggie Holtzberg ,and Kieran Jordan.
“As I interview musicians and dancers around the country and Ireland, I hear all sorts of ideas on why Irish music is meaningful to people personally, and in the wider collective sense,” she says. “And we talk about where Irish music and dance have been – and where it all might be going in the highly connected 21st century.
“With ‘Irish Music Stories,’ I invite audience members to see and hear a few different angles on the tradition: We’ll read about the history of Irish music in America. We’ll do a 1950s ‘dance hall’ number, with music from the period. We’ll play a pre-recorded piece from the podcast on innovation and tradition.
“Tradition is something that is passed on, that is shared, that is bigger and older than any one player. The “trad” community grows and expands every time we sing, dance and play together, and we aim to show that with this concert,” says Heaton.
The Cape Breton portion of the evening is being organized by Rachel Reed, who’ll also be one of the featured musicians along with Katie McNally, Maggie MacPhail, Cliff McGann, Harvey Tolman Gordon Aucoin, Jake Brillhart, Neil Pearlman, and Roger Treat.
Although she’s not a native Cape Bretoner, Reeds has thoroughly immersed herself in the island’s music tradition, especially that of the fiddle, which shares some common characteristics with the Scottish tradition but is free-standing on its own. Under the tutelage of Boston-area fiddlers like Hanneke Cassel and Emerald Rae, Reeds learned the style and repertoire, and also became active in the Canadian American Club in Watertown, the hub of the area’s Cape Breton community.
Reeds has built on these experiences with sojourns in Cape Breton itself. “It’s a wonderful place,” she says. “All the musicians I’ve met there are so willing to share the music. I was astonished by how prevalent the music tradition is, how much it remains tied to the dance, and how much of an appreciation there is for the culture and history.”
Cape Breton music has gained a following well beyond its shores, through high-profile performers like Natalie MacMaster and the popularity of the island’s Celtic Colours Festival, with an audience drawn from around the world. But Reeds notes that the music retains its homespun, close-knit social dynamic.
“Many world-class musicians, when not touring, will still play dances at home, spend an evening playing at the Red Shoe Pub or The Normaway Inn, teach at the Gaelic College or the Buddy MacMaster Fiddle Camp,” she says. “So when I’ve gone to Cape Breton, I’ve had the chance to hear great fiddlers and pianists in all these informal places. And so much music happens at house parties too. I’ve played so many tunes with like-minded friends around Boston and New England, just sharing tunes and stories in kitchens and living rooms – even barns – whenever there’s an opportunity.”
Reeds and her multigenerational group of cohorts aim to show the essence of that community zeitgeist at the Nightcap concert.
“I’ve asked some great musicians that I know through the Canadian American Club to join me and share a few tunes,” she says. “We’ll ‘pass the fiddle’ to showcase each player’s individual style and then, like any party, we’ll see what happens. We may be inspired to share a song or story or two, start up a square set, show off some step-dancing, or just play tunes until the wee hours – music, dance, and song as heard in living rooms, kitchens and community halls across Nova Scotia and ‘The Boston States.’”
Other acts slated to appear at BCMFest 2017 include: Yann Falquet; Katie McNally and Neil Pearlman; Laura Fedderson, Joel Wennerstrom and Owen Marshall; All in Always – Laura Cortese and Friends; Heather Cole-Mullen; Jenna Moynihan; the Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki Trio; Scottish Fish; Alex Cumming and Nicola Beazley with Eric McDonald; Galen Fraser; Keltic Kids; the Rockport Celtic Duo; Liz and Dan Faiella; Elizabeth and Ben Anderson; Mink & Sock; Gus Le Casse; Boston Scottish Fiddle Orchestra; Colleen White and Sean Smith; Royal Scottish Country Dance Society of Boston; Christine Hedden; Big Ham & Shadow Hands (Lindsay Straw and Dan Accardi); Buttons & Keys; Bagad New York, with Matthew Phelps and Nick Mitchell; and the Boston Harbor Bhoys.
For the full schedule of BCMFest 2017 and ticket information, go to passim.org/bcmfest.