Celtic musicians warming up for March festival

Durango is about to get another music festival.

Not that our town is ready to rival Telluride with weekend after weekend of nonstop music, but the addition of a day or two dedicated to a particular type of music certainly can’t be a bad thing for the local culture or the bank accounts of local businesses.

The Durango Celtic Festival is set for early March. Like any upstart event – or business, nonprofit or family vacation – money is needed to get the project off the ground. And this being Durango, what better way to kick off a festival of music that’s akin to American bluegrass than to hold a fundraiser? Saturday’s pass-the-hat concert will feature Celtic band The Knockabouts, from Flagstaff, Ariz., and local band Patrick Crossing. The latter band is a regular at the Irish Embassy Pub for the weekly Celtic jams; it also plays feature gigs.

Celtic music is a fan favorite – even a guilty pleasure. Anyone who has traveled to Ireland or Scotland and sat down to a pint or six of Guinness or Scotch Ales and a taste or two of whiskey can agree. It’s a sound rich in history and tradition. The songs tell stories that are at times folky and dramatic, other times rowdy and as familiar as that drunken red-nosed uncle slurring along to the classics. Its similarities to old-time and bluegrass run deeper than just song structure, instrumentation and a sharing of history through song.

The Knockabouts are a great example of the crossover. Their formation is as familiar a story as the formation of many bluegrass bands. What began as informal picking sessions in whistle-player John McGregor’s kitchen eventually grew into a band. The classically trained tuba player eventually was joined by Jacquie, who is now his wife, and as musicians came and went, a band slowly formed. The McGregors are now joined by Ron Barton on guitar and vocals, his daughter Kari on fiddle and the female McGregor sister Julianne Layton on bodhran and djembe. Two families, one band. They’ve released five albums in the decade that they have been around, the latest being 2012’s “Sheep for Sale.”

Americans need to understand that Celtic music is much more than what revelers traditionally crank every March 17 and then forget about for another year. It’s rich and diverse enough that even the casual fan can find something likeable, as it covers a wide emotional range.

“It’s tribal, it’s rhythmic and it’s danceable,” McGregor said from his Flagstaff home. “Like all folk music, it appeals to people on a base level. We can relate to it rhythmically and melodically. It appeals to us at a fundamental level.”

As tight as Celtic music’s bond is with American bluegrass, it is almost impossible to disassociate the music from the booze – and organizers aren’t even trying. Before Saturday’s show, Flagstaff’s Ray Pearson, a whiskey educator, collector and connoisseur of single-malt scotch, will host a tasting and workshop on the liquor that likely has inspired many of the songs that will be heard later in the evening.

Liggett_b@fortlewis.edu. Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager.