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Irish Fest a feast of sounds beyond the Celtic traditions

Gaelic Storm, with Steve Twigger (right) and Patrick Murphy (on screen), drew Saturday’s biggest crowd at the 12th annual Irish Fest at Crown Center. The band, which gained prominence in the movie “Titanic,” also headlined on Friday.
Gaelic Storm, with Steve Twigger (right) and Patrick Murphy (on screen), drew Saturday’s biggest crowd at the 12th annual Irish Fest at Crown Center. The band, which gained prominence in the movie “Titanic,” also headlined on Friday. Special to The Kansas City Star

Over the past several years, the Kansas City Irish Fest has striven to add more colors to its music palette by bringing in acts that manipulate or even abandon the sounds of traditional Irish music. This year’s lineup may have been the most colorful in the festival’s 12-year history. Here’s a look at the first two days of the three-day event, which drew thousands of people to the four music stages at and around Crown Center.

Sunday

The hometown band was scheduled to close the festival at 11 p.m., but in the end the weather had the last say. Following a set by the rock band the Hot Sprockets (see below), the Elders started the festival’s final set on the Boulevard Stage a bit early, hoping to beat the trashing storm that was on its way. They managed to get through about an hour of the scheduled 90-minute set when the winds turned fierce and people started hastily leaving the festival grounds.

The set included music from “Story Road,” due to be released in October, two instrumentals that showed off the prowess of newest member, fiddler Colin Farrell, tracks from the “Wanderin’ Life and Times” album, including “Appalachian Paddy” and the rousing “Building a Boat.”

Singer/songwriter Mundy (see below), who had just finished his second set of the festival at the pavilion stage, joined the band to reprise his popular cover of Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl.” Despite the early ending, it was another invigorating performance from a band that keeps adding luster to its stellar reputation.

Before Mundy’s set at the pavilion stage, the Irish rock band Cold Comfort gave an appreciative audience a set filled with gothic and stormy songs -- a sound not too far from bands like 16 Horsepower or the former Kansas City band American Catastrophe.

Saturday

The only kink in Saturday’s weather was the humidity, which prompted lots of festival patrons to seek refuge in the shade. Thus, when the Killdares performed mid-afternoon at the Boulevard Stage, seats in the sun were empty, but those in the shade were filled. The Dallas band’s 90-minute set was filled with the sounds of Celtic rock: an invigorating mix of drums and hard electric guitars with fiddle, flute and bagpipes.

About midway through the Killdares’ performance, Shana Morrison started her set in the Crown Center pavilion. Morrison, daughter of Van Morrison, sings a mix of country, soul and pop. Her set included “Sweet Thing,” from her “Caledonia” album, plus a cover of “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” And, on the eve of her father’s 69th birthday, she and her four-piece band paid tribute to him with faithful versions of “Moondance” and “Wild Night.”

Carbon Leaf, a five-piece band from Virginia, drew a large crowd to the Boulevard Stage. The band indulges in the sounds of traditional Celtic music, but most of its set was devoted to its indie-rock ballads and anthems, music that recalls the sounds of a variety of bands that blend folk and rock, from R.E.M. and the Decemberists to Counting Crows.

The set list included “A Song for the Sea,” “What About Everything,” “This Is My Song,” “Let Your Troubles Roll By” and “Life Less Ordinary.” Singer Barry Privett is an energetic lead man, and he kept the mood on stage lively. He played pennywhistle on a few songs, giving the set some Celtic flavor.

Backed by Kansas City band She’s a Keeper, Irish singer/songwriter Mundy (Edmond Enright) drew a large crowd to the pavilion. Mundy writes ballads and anthems with indie-rock and pop flavors. He played several covers, including the Doors’ “L.A. Woman,” which he modified to “KC Woman,” and “House of the Rising Sun.”

He can write a good song himself, and he sang a few of his best: “July,” which included a verse from Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” and “To You I Bestow,” a song made popular by its inclusion on the “Romeo + Juliet” soundtrack in 1996.

He closed with “Glory Hole,” which has a heavy Pogues flavor, then a rousing cover of Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl,” a big hit for Mundy in Ireland. That included a few measures of “Iko Iko.” He brought the band back on for one encore: “Mexico,” a catchy power-pop/indie-rock ballad that was also a hit for Mundy in Ireland.

Saturday’s biggest crowd was at the Boulevard Stage for Gaelic Storm, who also headlined Friday night (see below). While a crowd of thousands watched them, the band Hot Sprockets performed in Kansas City for the first time (and in America for only the third time). They are a five-piece from Ireland that mixes garage rock, soul and punk and plays it hard and loud.

It wasn’t long before people in the mood for something more traditional started leaving the pavilion and heading for the Boulevard Stage or elsewhere. But for every two or three people who left, one or two entered, took a seat and stayed to enjoy the unexpected.

Friday

Beer enthusiasts, men in kilts and uninhibited dancers were among the thousands of revelers Friday. More than half of the attendees left early when a storm temporarily shut down all of the stages around 8:30 p.m.

Hardy music lovers were rewarded with powerful performances by Gaelic Storm and FullSet following a 70-minute delay.

“This might be the best concert we’ve ever had … because all the amateurs have gone home,” a member of Gaelic Storm exclaimed.

The California-based ensemble rose to prominence after it was featured in the blockbuster film “Titanic.” The band’s cheerful Irish rock songs like “Raised on Black and Tans” and “Green Eyes, Red Hair” provided an ideal soundtrack for drinking and dancing.

Although the music of FullSet is free of rock elements, the performance by the sextet was no less raucous. The up-and-coming band from Ireland invests traditional music with youthful energy. An outing by Socks in the Frying Pan was even better. The fun-loving Irish trio told jokes and tossed souvenir socks into the audience.

Qristina and Quinn Bachand, another tradition-minded act, were also impressive. The endearing Canadian siblings were among the performers who were plagued with sound problems. After a series of disturbingly loud pops, Qristina admitted that “I’m afraid to walk around on the stage.” She and her brother overcame the sonic challenges, but another act was less fortunate.

Neil Byrne and Ryan Kelly are members of the popular performance troupe Celtic Thunder. Byrne and Kelly were relegated to a small stage in Washington Square Park with a stunning backdrop of the downtown skyline, and their delicate music was overwhelmed by sound emanating from another stage. Readings of sentimental material like “Back Home in Derry” could barely be heard.

Flannigan’s Right Hook, the band that unknowingly spoiled Byrne and Kelly’s effort, was a revelation. The locally based group’s rousing showmanship, strong original material and well-selected covers including Pink Floyd’s “Time” suggest that Flannigan’s Right Hook may someday supplant the Elders as Kansas City’s favorite Irish rock band.

Moxie also takes liberties with the music of the Emerald Isle. The young Irish quintet captured the essence of electronic dance music with two banjos, an accordion, keyboards and drums on a joyous rendition of the title track of their new album “Planted.”

Many listeners didn’t know what to make of the adventurous band, but a recital by students of the Driscoll School of Irish Dance was greeted rapturously. The audience may have been stacked with friends and family members of the dancers, but the dancers’ effort was utterly charming.

Bill Brownlee, Special to The Star

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

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