Richard Zimler, Moonfire
by Michelle Erica Green

Moonfire, Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland, USA, July 14, 2002
Moonfire, Present, Past and Future (Orchard, 2001)

I discovered Washington, DC-based Moonfire on the schedule at the Potomac Celtic Festival, though I did not get to see them there because my family insisted on attending an archery demonstration halfway across the grounds. So I went home, looked up their Web site, and learned to my delight that they would be playing a month later in the beautiful Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, which has a nice little collection of American landscape paintings and a gallery with excellent acoustics for concerts.

Moonfire consists of three women who play a mixture of traditional and eclectic Celtic-inspired music. Elise Kress, whose voice can be sweet or keening depending on the song, was a founding member of The New St. George and plays a variety of flutes, whistles and guitar in addition to singing. Jody Marshall, who plays the hammered dulcimer and piano, has a charming sense of humor and provides vocal harmonies. And it's hard to tear your eyes from Cathy Palmer, the award-winning violinist whose tall, elegant form sways with her fiddling. For this outing they were dressed in flowing jewel-tone skirts and glass jewelry they had made themselves, which they sell at some concerts along with their award-winning CD, Present, Past, and Future.

The group offered a mix of classics and more recent compositions, but all the music had a fresh, bright energy regardless of its vintage. This was an all-acoustic performance, though Moonfire uses electric fiddles and keyboards on the recording. The group played several lively jigs that got the audience clapping, even if some folk appeared uncertain about whether foot-stomping was acceptable in an art museum -- not a problem for the performers, whose feet beat out percussion in place of drums.

But in concert and on Present, Past, and Future, Moonfire's real strength lies in their haunting ballads. The lovely "Sweet Is the Melody" shows off Kress and Marshall's well-paired voices and is followed by a waltz composed by Palmer. Kress does a lush, passionate interpretation of Dave Swarbrick's "White Dress," and the group closes with an elegant yet upbeat rendition of "The Parting Glass" before returning for another reel. Kress and Marshall also did a superb job keeping in sync zipping through increasingly speedy renditions of a couple of sprightly tunes.

All three women offer original compositions on the CD and their interpretations of older music are newly vibrant. In performance I preferred the melodic airs and slow dances, though Palmer's fiery fiddling during the faster pieces was great fun to experience. The pennywhistle was often drowned out by the fiddle and dulcimer, and Kress seems more comfortable playing the guitar than the wind instruments; perhaps that's because it's easier to maintain eye contact with an audience while singing and strumming. My children, who generally get restless after twenty minutes of this type of music, sat still throughout and were bouncing along with the jig at the end.

Moonfire may be a bit too refined for fans of the faster, harder, louder style of Celtic music -- the reels that Palmer identifies as "rowdy" hardly qualify by the standards of groups that travel with multiple fiddles and drums. Yet for fans of precision instrumentation and lyrical harmonies, both the CD and the live shows have much to recommend them.

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