The annual Kansas City Irish Festival is a great place to broaden one’s musical horizons, which quickly became clear after I took a seat Saturday afternoon for only the second American performance by Tupelo, an eclectic band from Ireland that pumps out original music as thoughtful as it is exciting.
The afternoon performance took place on the Boulevard Stage, one of seven music venues in the sprawling festival site that occupied most of Crown Center, Washington Square Park and a chunk of Grand Boulevard over Labor Day weekend. Music is what got me there but the festival was a diverse entertainment event that offered a dizzying variety of food trucks, a play area for kids, an Irish comedy stage (sorry, can’t tell you anything about the quality of Irish standup) and plenty of beer, from light brands to strong Irish stouts.
The heat Friday and Saturday was brutal but the crowds were thick. Most of the music stages were outdoors and a number of the Irish performers commented on the unforgiving temperatures that now and then were offset by a mild breeze. If you walked through the festival grounds, you essentially subjected yourself to a sensory assault. Music from the various stages, roaring food trucks emitting the smell of hot grease, a blazing sun beating against the asphalt and concrete, general crowd noise and an occasional passing freight train contributed to an atmosphere of agressive over-stimulation.
Tupelo shows its Irish roots often and proudly, but it draws heavily from American influences and occasionally exhibits the improvisational instincts of jazz players. The band members aim to be a crowd-pleasing band, and they are, thanks to their visceral, unpredictable music and an infectious sense of humor exhibited by charismatic lead singer James Cramer. He worked overtime to involve the initially listless crowd but by the end of a 90-minute set he had most of us on our feet and singing along.
The band worked its way through about 12 tunes, many of which could rightly called pop/rock ballads. But Cramer’s commanding vocals and his band’s superior musicianship gave every song an edge — not gritty, exactly, but performed with a directness that made you pay attention.
Kevin Duffy, who contributed vocals and some fine work on the fiddle and mandolin, played with a virtuoso’s authority, mixing traditional Irish riffs with bits of bluegrass and American mountain music. Damien McMahon, who also supplied backing vocals, was equally strong and on bass (both electric and standup). Sitting in was Kian Byrne, the Elders’ drummer, who made a vital contribution to the Saturday performance. The arrangements sometimes allowed Byrne, Duffy and McMahon to turn in precise solos that never became self indulgent.
Tupelo is a fun band to watch and the music makes you listen. Next step for this critic: Buy some of the band’s CDs.
Socks in the Frying Pan, an Irish band making a return visit to the festival, combines impeccable musicanship with entertaining stage banter to be an easy crowd favorite. The trio of musician/singers includes Shane Hayes on accordion, his brother Fiachra Hayes on fiddle and banjo and Aodan Coyne on guitar.
At the Friday night performance, some humor between the Hayes brothers boiled down to “mom liked you best” jokes, but they handled it smoothly enough that it never seemed labored. As instrumentalists both Shane and Fiachra exhibited phenomenal mastery of their instruments, and Coyne’s work on the guitar repeatedly revealed him to be much more than a “mere” accompanist. You were left with the impression that they enjoyed playing as much as the crowd loved listening.
The music I sampled over the weekend revealed a rich mingling of Irish and American influences, which was the whole point of Transatlantic Unplugged, a collaboration organized by American Kiana Weber, a fiddler who plays with Gaelic Storm, and Martin Howley, who performs with the Irish band We Banjo 3. Weber and Howley, who are engaged, met and fell in love on the festival circuit and you can see that music is an enormous part of the relationship. Weber is an exemplary fiddler and Howley’s guitar accompaniment was precise.
During part of the Saturday afternoon set I caught, they invited to the stage Howley’s brother David (also a member of We Banjo 3) and later brought up Shane Hayes, the accordionist with Socks in the Frying Pan, who performed a number on guitar. It all felt a bit like a family gathering — which, as Martin Howley explained to the crowd, is how it is among musicians who travel together from festival to festival.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Kansas City Irish Festival continues through 11 p.m. Sunday Sept. 6. For a complete schedule, go to http://kcirishfest.com.