Irishfest in Milwaukee this last August was one of the most satisfying gigs I've done in a long time. The challenge alone of pulling it off gave the date a tall and terrorizing prominence in my calendar. You see, I don't really know or play Irish music. "Drowsy Maggie" and a half-dozen others of that ilk form the extent of my Irish repertoire. That was the first hurdle for me. The next was that I was to accompany Liz Carroll at this popular event, and Liz is a legend and master of the genre. Her being an old friend didn't take the edge off, much, though it undoubtedly would have made it worse if Liz was all uptight and belligerent, instead of cheery and open-to-anything, as she is. Liz's usual guitar accompanist is John Doyle, and his are shoes that no dilettante with a brain would willingly slide into.
Another squeeze on Robbie's terror spring was that Irishfest this year was to celebrate the allegedly deep connection between Irish and bluegrass, and that meant that among the people listening to me flounder away at the post-lobotomy-John Doyle style of playing would be, potentially, Ronnie McCoury, or Tim O'Brien, or Bryan Sutton, or Bruce Molsky, or any of the other instrumentalists playing at the festival who were free to wander the grounds. The final setback was that Liz, as I gradually came to discover, is not the type of leader to say what she wants to happen onstage much in advance, if at all. "Sometimes," one of her previous accompanists confided to me, "she'll show you a song she wants to do as you're literally walking from the wings to the stage. Don't expect that she'll worry too much about preparation."
So, to summarize: playing un- or little-rehearsed songs, in an idiom unknown to me, in the biggest gathering of musical Hibernians in the country, before an audience likely to include some of my most esteemed colleagues and even mentors.
To make a self-centered story short, none of the disasters I had conjured unfolded at the show. I selected a lot of the songs we did myself, from Liz's records, which allowed me to make sure the music didn't go completely over my head and gave me a chance to work at it a couple weeks ahead, including at the Hideout show Liz and I did earlier in the week. I bought a guitar with an extra smooth-riding fretboard, so I could at least allude to some of the snaps and flligree hammer-pulls and 32nd trills that are endemic in Irish guitar renditions of reels and fast tunes. (I needed to own such a guitar anyway.) The onstage sound situation, and I assume the audience sound situation, wasn't the best, which made it rougher going than I would have liked; but all in all, nothing happened that kept me awake chewing the sheets that night. (Too much rye, besides.)
What I really wanted to write about was the broader Irishfest experience, which was altogether uplifting. On the hotel shuttle to the festival grounds, I sat alongside a guy who was there to play with some band whose name I forget, and who was in real life a distinguished engineer. He talked rapid-fire about marine explorations, coming efficiencies in airport security, and doing government advisory work right after 9/11 -- a crazy quilt of fascinating and high-stakes projects interlaced with chem-nerd details and remarks like, "If you think musicians have ego problems, you need to meet some of these young M.I.T. assholes."
Once at the grounds, the amiably chatty van driver told us he or another driver would be on hand to ferry any of us back any time of the day or evening. Liz, her husband Charles, two adult children, brother Tom, and the three accompanists (Jim DeWan, Cormac McCarthy, and me) made our way to the back of our stage, as people in our path parted, smiling and all but bowing -- the Carroll family -- true Irish royalty. We set up in a room and strung up and talked over our set. Other musicians hung around gabbing in the hall. Jim introduced me to a guy from Gaelic Storm, who talked about Austin, where he was living. Liz's brother Tom beamingly presented me with a big bottle of the aforementioned rye. I had said a few days earlier in jest that in order to appear at Irishfest, I would need, besides monetary stimulation, a large bottle of fancy rye, and there it was.
After performing I wanted to walk around with Jim DeWan and see some performers. There was a "lock-up" trailer where players could leave their stuff. I use the quotes because, though it was literally locked, it wasn't exactly secure. The obstacle to getting in was running down the lady who had the key. You were given the name "Debbie" and then invited to hunt around and ask passersby if they knew or had seen her. When I did find her and she opened the trailer, it was full of whistles and guitars and briefcases and violins and accordions, and, there in the doorway, me and Debbie, two people who had known each other on a first-name basis since 30 seconds ago and bore no ID's whatsoever. Irishfest was unique in my festival experience in that there were no plastic tags or wristbands or booths with welcome packets. You just wandered around among the thousands and, when you wished to be admitted to a non-public area, nodded and smiled and walked in. The lock-up trailer is my Chekhovian act-one loaded gun, so hold that thought.
Jim and I ambled over to hear Mick Moloney, Jimmy Keane, and Robbie O'Connell play, then Del McCoury and the gang, and Tim O'Brien and Bryan Sutton (my first time seeing Bryan in the flesh, and trying to follow his brain around the fretboard was intense fun). In between we also caught a bit of Pauline Conneely and Chicago Reel. I hadn't seen Pauline, whom I love, in some years and it was good to catch up with her and her unbelievably filthy jokes and wild-ass banjo playing. Jim told me about the traditional music we saw as we wandered, offering some historical and ethno-musical context to help me hear it as more than a baffling torrent of spastic cadences. Chicago Reel, and I think a few other groups we saw, contained family members across generations. I thought of how, in my family, we all relied on our own homing instincts to guide us to some section in the great cafeteria of music. Me to country, my brother to modern classical, one of my sons to rock and one to old-school jazz. Nice, in a way, not to have the choice; to have, at an age where you have more impressions than information, a specific gauntlet of skills laid before you to try to master. To have a bedrock of heritage beneath you. To have your siblings and parents there playing alongside you, if you can stand it.
Irishfest as a whole was much more familial than I'm used to at large gatherings. People stopped you as you walked around and said hello, and there were kids everywhere. By nightfall I'm sure that many of the revellers were drunk, but it was a keep-face-in-front-of-the-kids drunk and not a let's-break-the-mayor's-teeth drunk. I couldn't stop thinking about the range of non-hassles and well-socialized behaviors I had encountered over the day. Friendly and competent volunteer workers, a way of getting simple tasks done that relied on cooperative trust and avoided form and process, musicians intimately engaged with reality beyond music-making, an emphasis on family ties, people holding their drink, collegiality among artists. It was like visiting one of those happy little places in Europe and thinking -- wait, this is a possibility, as a way of living? If so, what's to keep everywhere from being like this? The average multi-genre music festival (I haven't played a ton of them, I speak on the basis of having played about 200) isn't by any means a hive of dysfunction, but there's the shuttle you can't find, the hotel room that wasn't booked, the menacingly overzealous backstage security guy, the payer that disappears to somewhere at payment time, the music fan who doesn't adhere to accepted social boundaries or other norms, the promoter who has taken every detail of the event into careful account except for the fact that musicians are carbon-based life forms with their usual array of metabolic needs, the singer who treats you like garbage because he's billed higher than you -- all those little snags that adults have to deal with and do. Except at Irishfest, where they don't.
That so many in the crowd were components of a family and not atomized individuals made a difference, I think. I also couldn't help but theorize that, when there's a near-zero chance for fame, people behave a lot better. I think that Gaelic Storm and the other big acts in the field have reached a popularity proportionate to the eminences of Americana music, and yet no one I met at Irishfest was weighed down with hair-dye and sunglasses and earrings and was getting a neck rub from a nervous woman while rumbling in a low gravelly voice about the ghosts of San Francisco and twelve other kinds of bullshit, you know? I don't think the difference is based as much on data -- the number of dollars in the bank or customers in the room -- as delusion -- I mean, what continuum of art and tradition you believe you're inside, what path you think you're on and what peaks lay before you. Thinking that your career success depends much on your projected monumentality in offstage situations; working in a field in which Grammy awards, national TV appearances and press attention, and substantial royalties from synchronization uses and mechanicals are within somewhat realistic reach; inhabiting an imaginary "next-Dylan" mental landscape -- these add up to trouble. I'm sure there's nothing genetically unique about Irish musicians -- or bluegrassers, or free-jazz guys, or others far from the stream -- such that, if you offered them the blandishments and attentions that hang before rock musicians, they wouldn't throw you right under the bus and run to the closest hair-dye outlet. It's that removing that stuff from the picture makes people act so much more peopley.
I found Debbie and got my guitar and bag from the lock-up and hopped on the shuttle. Spirits were high on the short trip. The driver was a UPS guy and after I mentioned that my dad once drove for them we talked about a range of things. I was in the shot-gun, and people in the benches behind me were real amped-up, almost yelling in their happiness. Some of the talk was getting salty. My ears are bad and I have trouble zeroing in on voices in a crowd, but I did catch this limerick, from the lips of a riotous Irishwoman:
When Fergie was in the Azores
Her cunt was all covered with sores
The dogs in the street
Would lap the green meat
That hung like festoons from her drawers.
Strong talk from a powerless people!
Back at the hotel bar, Jimmy Keane was singing and there were accordions and bouzoukis going. Some hippie woman feverishly broke out a giant dulcimer and Pauline pelleted her with scornful insults, but she banged along with the masters anyway. I drank a little and talked to Liz's husband Charles for a while, about tomatoes -- he had given me a couple from his garden -- and carpentry and poker...then to Pauline about love and marriage and other calamities...and then I was on the road home. When I walked in my living room back in Wilmette, a little over an hour later, I reached right away for the bottle of rye in my case, but it wasn't there. A bunch of strange percussion instruments were there instead, all undrinkable. I had taken the wrong bag -- it was almost identical to mine from the outside -- from the lock-up, at evening's end in the unlit interior of the trailer. In the morning I found a set list in the bag and googled the titles until I had them connected to a band name and percussionist. I texted her at the hotel, and shortly after drove back up to Milwaukee to exchange the bags. I was still in the afterglow of Irishfest and didn't mind at all.