The first weekend in June poses a dilemma for residents of the Washington, DC area, for while it's often the beginning of beastly regional summer weather, it's also a multiple-fair-and-festival weekend, offering a variety of culinary and musical pleasures. Thus Celebrate Fairfax 2002 and the nine-year-old Potomac Celtic Festival had to compete with the Wheaton International Festival and the Alexandria Waterfront Festival, plus free admission to the Pope-Leighey House in Mount Vernon in honor of Frank Lloyd Wright's birthday. Moreover, it was nearly 90 degrees both Saturday and Sunday, and there were warnings about poison ivy and snakes being unusually prevalent in this post-drought season. But that didn't seem to dampen anybody's enthusiasm.
We headed to Celebrate Fairfax on Saturday because our children voted for the carnival rides. Ironically, we didn't end up going on a single one. The lines were long, the roller coasters went upside down too many times for my kids' stomachs, and besides, there was too much else to do -- a science expo with lots of kid-friendly projects, an arts and crafts market with Appalachian pottery, nighttime fireworks, and at any given moment, seven different performances on the stages scattered throughout the fairgrounds.
The Kennedys and Deanna Bogart unfortunately wouldn't perform until Sunday, and I had a moment of crisis when I realized that bohemian babe Bree Sharp was scheduled to appear in the main venue at the same time the uppity blues women of Saffire were playing on the Birchmere Stage. Bree Sharp won out, partly because my son Daniel and I once wrote a song to the tune of "A Cheap and Evil Girl" called "A Big and Yellow Cat" and Daniel was adamant that we had to go try to sing it to Bree (fortunately he lost his nerve in the autograph line). Anyway, I figured I couldn't truly enjoy Saffire's raunchy blues while having to explain the lyrics to my children -- I tend not to sing "Give Me A Young Young Man" when my kids are in the car. I have been known to belt out "David Duchovny (Why Won't You Love Me)," but at Celebrate Fairfax, my whole family was singing along with Bree without giving the lyrics much thought.
The main musical draws on Saturday were Sister Hazel and Pat Benatar -- though I can't name a single song by the former, the latter still truly rocks. Still, there were many other choices: the Cravin' Dogs and Carey Colvin Band's folk rock, Anne Rabson's blues, several a cappella groups, an Acoustic Café with rounds of family-friendly "Bathtub Karaoke" in between the musicians. The organizers went to some effort to represent diverse musical styles, though hip-hop and R&B were largely absent. Thus Noche Latina and the zydeco Dixie Power Trio appeared on the same stage as Gonzo's Nose. The Gin Blossoms were the main act on Friday night. Cheap Trick closed the festival. The food covered a more broad cultural range; I had an excellent grilled Thai chicken skewer while one son had a vegetarian corn dog, the other a slice of pepperoni pizza.
With promises of archery demonstrations and possible leprechauns, I convinced my family to forego the waterfront activities the next day and attend the Potomac Celtic Festival. My sons are eight and five, so Celtic music itself rarely tempts them -- not even music played by men in kilts. This year's theme for the festival was Scotland, the nation of origin for the headliner Battlefield Band as well as excellent shortbread and stunning jewelry craftspersons. For me the local DC group IONA was a major draw, though I am delighted that their appearance began later than scheduled, allowing me to discover the great Spanish-Celtic fusion band Brenga Astur.
The festival was held at an equestrian center with two large natural amphitheaters and a wooded glade. From the Maryland side of the Potomac, it's accessible by White's Ferry, which launches right near old C&O Canal ruins worth exploring on their own. Visitors to Morven Park were greeted with warning signs about poison ivy, and festival organizers apparently decided to relocate one of the small storytelling stages to avoid itchy bottoms later.
With three main musical stages, a dance stage, four smaller venues and a parade field filled with pipes and drums, one could hear music from anywhere at the festival, including the excellent craft market and the wooded trail between rows of activity booths. Since I was there with my children, IONA was the only group I actually got to listen to for an entire set, while my husband took the kids to mock-fencing lessons where they stayed busy trying to hit a bag of garlic with the tip of a foil. I caught glimpses of dancers Renee Camus and Liberty Dawne in between being dragged to a booth selling shortbread and listening to my younger son explain why I should buy him a grounding stone decorated with an elaborate triskele.
The massed bands provided pipes for much of the afternoon, which we heard quite a bit because the blacksmith and archery demonstrations were right nearby. We also heard pieces of sets by the excellent guitar-and-fiddle duo Sian Phillips and Danny Kilbride, traditional Irish band Teada and storyteller Margaret Chatham, who had a variety of props to tell Celtic tales. Unfortunately, with so many craft demonstrations around, my kids had little patience for the Andurina Galician dancers and Cape Cod-based Gaelic duo Ru-Ra, but they liked Paris-based group Tornaod.
The dress code was a fascinating mix of traditional tartans, flowery Renaissance fair garb and sweaty t-shirts. By the time the folk in Victorian costume were taking mock-high tea in the English officers' tents, everyone was melting under the sun. Yet the bands -- particularly high-energy Brenga Astur and IONA's brave dancer Susan Walmsley -- kept up enthusiastically. This is a great family festival, traditional rather than New Age in flavor, not too crowded and very friendly even to non-Celts like me.
Next year's schedules will be made available on the event Web sites: Potomac Celtic Festival and Celebrate Fairfax.
Green Man Reviews