Concert Review: The Boston Celtic Music Festival — A Rousing Break From Winter

The music was loud, the dancers laughing and sweating and clearly happy to be liberated from their cabin-fever inducing confines to let loose and have some fun.

BCMfest Finale

A glimpse of this year’s BCMFest Nightcap, a concert that ignited the last dance of this two-day party.

By Glenn Rifkin

Sometimes, in an arts-rich environment like Boston, iconic assets that have been in existence for decades can be taken for granted. Club Passim, the historic folk music venue in Harvard Square, is one of those remarkable gems that has a long, rich history over its more than half-century existence, but it is often neglected in a conversation about the local arts scene.

That’s a shame because Passim, whose alumni includes Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Tom Rush, Bonnie Raitt and Suzanne Vega, is still going strong, as evidenced by the 430 concerts it holds each year in front of more than 30,000 patrons. And this past weekend, Passim hosted Boston’s Celtic Music Festival, a two-day program that invaded Harvard Square with an array of young, talented local musicians offering a wide variety of pulsating Celtic fare. The BCMFest, now in its 11th season, was created by local musicians Laura Cortese and Shannon Heaton, and their brainchild is more popular than ever. The idea was to showcase local Boston talent while celebrating the rich traditional Celtic music and dance in the area.

On Friday night, the intimate Palmer Street nightspot, with its 101 seats and old-time folk club sensibility, played host to the Roots and Branches concert portion of the festival. The sold-out, enthusiastic crowd was treated to a lineup of gifted players, many with ties to Berklee College of Music, who shook the downstairs club to the rafters with some original and some traditional Celtic fare. The Roots and Branches concert featured three worthy bands: Mark Kilianski, Bronwyn Keith-Hines and BB Bowness; NOIR; and Cat and The Moon. These were among the two dozens acts that participated in the BCMFest over two very full days of music in several venues.

The offerings from Kilianski, Keith-Hines and Bowness were an enjoyable prelude and NOIR (which stands for Norwegian and Irish music) kicked it up a notch with some unique combinations of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, the Irish uillean pipes along with the bouzouki and guitar. Band members Torrin Ryan, Mark Oien and Stuart Peak played jigs and reels that garnered a huge ovation.

The Cat and The Moon

Cat and The Moon – one of the worthy groups at this year’s BCMFest.

But the highlight of the Friday night set was Cat and The Moon, which featured a group of remarkable Berklee students including Kathleen Parks, Ricky Mier on banjo, Eamon Sefton on guitar, Adam Moore on bass, and Elias Alexander on percussion. Parks, a vivacious and talented fiddler, dancer, and songwriter, brought her infectious ebullience to the set, playing mostly original tunes such as “Logan’s Farewell” and “Hog Wild.” She came to Berklee to study violin, discovered the local traditional Celtic music scene and was quickly hooked. The rousing ovation for Cat signaled a triumphant kickoff to the weekend.

The BCMFest is too big and varied to settle into one location and after the Passim show fans moved down Church Street to the Atrium, where the festival’s Boston Urban Ceilidh (pronounced Caylee) was already underway. The Ceilidh, also sold out, was an evening of Scottish, Irish and Cape Breton folk music and dancing. It hardly mattered that most of the crowd hadn’t a clue how to do the traditional steps. The music was loud, the dancers laughing and sweating and clearly happy to be liberated from their cabin-fever inducing confines to let loose and have some fun.

I couldn’t attend the full Saturday schedule which ran from 10 a.m. onto the evening event hosted by WGBH’s Brian O’Donovan. But from what I did see, the BCMFest has cemented its spot in the Boston musical firmament and is a welcome respite on a cold January weekend.

Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic represent a new and exciting direction.

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