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Kansas City Irish Fest offers a lively blend of Irish music

James Cramer, lead singer with Tupelo, performed Saturday at the Kansas City Irish Fest at Crown Center.
James Cramer, lead singer with Tupelo, performed Saturday at the Kansas City Irish Fest at Crown Center. Special to the Star

Something that isn’t broken may not need fixing, but something that’s working can often use a little tweaking now and than, and that’s what organizers of the Kansas City Irish Fest did in 2016.

For the 13th year in a row, the three-day festival took over the grounds of Crown Center and beyond, and like its predecessors, this year’s version offered a wealth of music — more than three dozen bands and performers on seven stages — and plenty of food, beverages and other staples of Irish culture.

This year’s music lineup featured the standard array of traditional Irish/Celtic performers, like Ruaile Buaile (ROOLY-ah BOOLY-ah), who played an early afternoon set in the glorious late-summer weather Saturday before a crowd of several hundred. They’re a foursome who arrange their songs in fiddle, guitar, banjo, electric bass and, here and there, light percussion. They sprinkle their traditional sound with modern pop elements now and then (one of their originals sounded like a Celtic version of a Jimmy Buffett song). Their version of the traditional “Rare Old Mountain Dew” was a highlight of their set.

As they have previous years, the organizers tweaked the lineup a bit to include Irish bands that offer little in traditional Irish music but plenty in the way of rock and pop, the kind we hear from bands on independent labels over here.

The Young Folk, a band from Dublin that dabbles in melodic indie-rock and folk, was one of those bands. Their music straddles the sounds of Bright Eyes/Conor Oberst, the Low Anthem and the Lumineers and, now and then, Coldplay. When the trombone jumped in on a few songs, it added another fresh dimension to their sound.

Their set list included songs like “My Friends,” a folk-rock anthem off their “The Little Battle” album, and several tracks from “First Sign of Morning,” their brand-new album, including the title track, and the jaunty folk ballad “Hold on to Your Hat,” a song about hanging on during rough times.

Not long after the Young Folks’ set, the Dublin alt-folk/roots-rock band Tupelo took the other main stage. The band is essentially the work of James Cramer, a strapping and exuberant live performer. He was backed by an ensemble of musicians that featured a few local players, including Kian Byrne of the Elders, who played drums, and Julia Haile of the Buhs, who sang backup vocals.

Before a crowd that filled the pavilion and spilled well into the grass beyond, Tupelo put on a lively set. The band’s sound is folk at its roots but it gets soulful, too, in the way of bands like Hothouse Flowers. Cramer coaxed the big crowd into lots of handclapping and a couple of sing-alongs.

The breakup ballad “Yesterday’s News,” a duet between Cramer and Haile, was one of several highlights.

There was plenty of traditional Irish music from bands Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones. Warfield, 73, a founding member of the Wolfe Tones, has assembled a second-generation version of that legendary and very political Irish folk band. His set included “The Call of Erin,” a Labor Day tribute to James Connolly, an Irish socialist leader and labor activist who was executed for his role in the Easter Rising of 1916.

Solas and Gaelic Storm played coinciding sets on the main stages, drawing large crowds to each. Solas takes traditional Irish music into contemporary terrains, much like Alison Krauss and Union Station do with bluegrass.

Some of it gets a little too polished and refined for my tastes, but when they liven it up and let loose, it can be invigorating and appealing. The American Celtic-rock band Gaelic Storm, a festival stalwart and mainstay, played its popular blend of high-energy, modernized Irish music, arousing lots of dancing outside the pavilion.

We Banjo 3, a quartet from Galway, followed Solas on the other main stage, putting on their usual lively banjo-centric exhibition of Irish music blended with other genres, including bluegrass and old-time American music. They, too, drew a big crowd, proving what the festival organizers expected: There’s a demand for all flavors of Irish music.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

Sunday

The KC Irish Fest continues Sunday with music scheduled through 11 p.m. Go to kcirishfest.com for more information.

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