Canadians Return to Pennsylvania’s Celtic Classic

Steel City Rovers - Celtic Classic

It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since Team GDW ventured out to our first annual Celtic Classic event in Bethlehem, PA.  Having enjoyed seeing so many great Canadian artists at this festival last year, we knew that a repeat visit would be on our concert-going calendar for this year.  Waiting patiently for the line-up to be announced, we only needed to see a few names of our favorite artists to make this show an official event on that calendar. With temperatures much more seasonal this year (compared to the heatwave last year), a weekend of great music was on offer once again in the historic town of Bethlehem, PA.

Arriving at the Grand Pavilion stage in the late morning, we caught up with The Steel City Rovers (SCR), whom we first encountered here last year, and whom have quickly become good friends.  Having the opportunity to see this Hamilton, ON based five-piece ‘Celtibilly’ band perform on this main stage, SCR’s infectious energy drew many people to the Grand Pavilion for some great original tunes and traditional jigs and reels.  We would be fortunate to catch up with the band during their evening set inside the Ice House, and a Sunday afternoon workshop too.  It is always a pleasure to hear their popular tracks, and of course, the new material that they have been sharing at their live shows this year.  Taking in “Sudden Sun Showers” one moment to a huge crowd around the Grand Pavilion; then “Moment Of Time” to a more intimate gathering, and finally, a stripped down rendition of “Guinness For Two” during the workshop, gave us some wonderful variations of these tunes that we’ve come to know and love.  Highlights for us included the loud and proud tribute to Ireland that is “Drop Of The Pure,” and of course, “Single Malt Of Knowledge.”  However, the memorable moment to take away here was in witnessing all five gentlemen set aside their instruments for a completely unplugged rendition of “Lay Me Down” courtesy of the acoustics offered by the Ice House.

With just one brief appearance on the Saturday, we made our way to the ‘Tavern in the Glen’ stage for our first taste of live music from The Fitzgeralds.  Hailing from the Ottawa Valley, these siblings (Julie, Kerry and Tom Fitzgerald), along with their good friend and guitarist Kyle Waymouth, would delight all with their up-tempo brand of music and dance.  Steeped in the rich tradition of their ancestral musical heritage, all four members of this ensemble proved to be incredibly gifted step dancers too.  Midway through their performance, sisters Julie and Kerry would even lay down the challenge of a dance-off; donning ‘super-hero’ shirts as they engaged with the crowd to earn their applause.  Okay, so even as a ‘staged’ sibling rivalry, both girls were outstanding with both their impeccable moves and banter.  Equally as impressive was the music, which saw the foursome mix up some traditional Celtic tunes with some bluegrass and even a little tribute to the music of Bob Wills.  Closing with a step dance routine featuring all four artists, The Fitzgeralds earned their generous applause, and with their announcement of a return to PA early next year, our calendars have already been circled.

Our next stop would be at The Ice House later that afternoon, for some live music from The Fretless, a Juno-award winning Canadian folk music group that we had never had the opportunity to see until now.  With the absence of Karrnnel Sawitsky (currently promoting some solo work), his bandmates Trent Freeman, Ben Plotnick and Eric Wright would invite the talented Hannah Read to fill in for Karrnnel on this part of their current tour.  Armed with three fiddles and a cello (hence ‘fretless’), these four musicians performed a mix of both instrumental and vocal pieces, dazzling all with their exceptional musicianship and mastery of their respective instruments.  Favorites such as “Bird’s Nest” and “Aphonzo McKenzie’s” were performed, along with a selection of tracks from their brand new “Live from the Art Farm” album.  Hannah Read would impress everybody, taking the vocal lead on an amazing traditional interpretation of the popular Radiohead hit, “Airbag,” which proved to be one of the highlights of their time in The Ice House.  We left the event craving much more from this talented group, and fortunately will only have to wait seven days to experience their music once more for a collaborative show with Newfoundland’s Matthew Byrne in Maryland.

It was just after the Celtic Classic last year that we stumbled across the Nova Scotia band Coig upon the release of their latest album “Rove.”  Seeing their name on the 2018 schedule in Bethlehem, PA this year, there was no way we planned to miss this festival.  With a set on Saturday in The Ice House, and an early afternoon slot on Sunday at the ‘Tavern in the Glen,’ we made sure to attend both shows and enjoyed hearing them perform here in PA.  Hailing from Cape Breton, the quartet of Darren McMullen (guitar, mandolin, banjo, bouzouki, vocals), Rachel Davis (fiddle, viola, vocals), Chrissy Crowley (fiddle, viola) and Jason Roach (piano) would mix traditional jigs and reels with modern contemporary compositions.  Performing instrumental pieces such as “D Jigs” (not actually played in ‘D’, explained Darren) and “The P.F.P. Set” (Chrissy would earn laughs with her tale of the title’s origins), Coig would also share vocal tracks such as “Down The Road,” and Rachels’ Gaelic tribute, “Nach Muladach Muladach Duine Leis Fhein.”  We would learn that Jason is a jazz trained pianist, whose skills were on display during each and every song, and both ladies would have the opportunity to thrill the audience with their synchronized step dances.  And for Darren, he would accompany with his broad selection of instruments, as well as leading with their traditional take on the Peter Gabriel hit, “Solsbury Hill.”  We enjoyed two great sets from Coig, and cannot wait for this band to return to PA in the future.

Another great Celtic Classic, and another great inclusion of Canadian talent.  We were unable to catch a set from The Glengarry Bhoys this time around, but know that they will be back next year, as shall we, should the event boast another fabulous line up of Canadian Celtic artists.  The annual Celtic Classic Highland Games and Music Festival is a well organized event that we strongly encourage folks to check out for themselves next time around.

Martin Noakes

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.