Raising Eire

The Southern Illinois Festival of Irish Music and Dance beckons to lovers of the Emerald Isle

At the moment, there are two sorts of people willing to drive all the way to Carbondale this weekend to absorb the Southern Illinois Festival of Irish Music and Dance:

There are those who are still drunk from the music of this past weekend's Mississippi River Celtic Music Festival, which brought traditional Irish sessions and concerts to a variety of local venues. These old tunes have a hypnotic quality, and they induce an intoxication that demands more rounds of tunes to keep the buzz fresh. Plenty of folks who heard the final note ring at the St. Louis Brewery and Tap Room session that concluded last weekend's festival will be in Carbondale this Friday night when Mick Moloney gets things going.

And then there are those who had to miss the local fest -- or, God forbid, are only hearing about it now. They will be racing down I-64 with the anxiety of revelers who have missed half the party.

Should you fall into either group, or you merely relish the idea of a musical getaway to some pretty country that bears a resemblance to the rolling hills of Ireland, then you are in for some treats. Besides Moloney, one of the great popularizers of this music, the festival will feature fiddler Liz Carroll, accordionist Billy McComiskey, flutist Laurence Nugent and singer Connie Dover, all of whom qualify as virtuosos and keepers of the flame.

Saturday night's concert will also feature something of a rarity in the field of Irish trad -- a genuine working band. This is a genre dominated by jam sessions and duos, but Chulrua ("Red Back," the name of a hunting hound from Celtic myth) has a set, stable lineup: accordionist Paddy O'Brien (one of the music's most important archivists), uilleann piper Tim Britton (who has recorded with the likes of Béla Fleck) and guitarist/singer Pat Egan.

The RFT named Egan St. Louis' Best Irish Songster last year, though, with the release of Barefoot on the Altar, Chulrua's beautiful CD, and the band's tireless touring schedule, our river city has become little more than a pit stop for this songster. We did catch up with him recently between tour dates. Confronted with a list of the performers sharing the festival stage with Chulrua this weekend, he resorts to a musician's barroom superlatives ("That's a really nice fucking lineup"; "I mean, fucking hell") in trying to convey his admiration for the other performers.

He also speaks in general terms about the appeal of Irish traditional music: "There's this whole feeling behind it," he says, "that just sucks you in. It becomes a personal thing." That's the very feeling that will be driving people down I-64 to Carbondale this weekend.

When they get there, they will find more than music. There will also be dance performances and, on Sunday, a Celtic Fair in Carbondale's town square that will feature musical workshops, cultural presentations, arts and crafts, and strolling characters from the Society for Creative Anachronism.