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Finding Celtic tradition at the Crossroads

Music IndustryArtColleges and UniversitiesGenresAretha Franklin

When Celtic Crossroads performs at the Columbia Festival of the Arts on June 24, the seven-member band of Irish musicians will sound off with a more modern take on the traditional music of their homeland.

Call it non-traditional Irish music.

When Celtic Crossroads performs at the Columbia Festival of the Arts on June 24, the seven-member band of Irish musicians will sound off with a more modern take on the traditional music of their homeland.

Granted, the group's stage show includes fiddles, flutes and a harp. But it also features a banjo and some modern-sounding singers.

The sum of all these parts adds up to something that's definitely not your Irish granddad's music. And that's just the way group co-founder Kevin Crosby wants it.

The 28-year-old, who serves as the group's producer, grew up in the town of Straffan, Ireland. So when he moved to the United States to attend business school in Illinois, he took up residence in a hotel called the Irish Cottage, located in the town of Galina.

There he got to hear lots of Irish musicians ply their trade — and didn't much like it.

"I saw a very artificial Irish music scene over there," he laments. "People thought Irish music was just ballads and very depressing kinds of things. It wasn't very true to what I knew when I went to college in Galway."

Crosby recalls walking down streets and hearing a more varied and vibrant strain of sounds coming from the local pubs.

"I really wanted to bring a show to the international stage that represented the young talent that's here in Ireland."

Crosby set about auditioning musicians by quietly slipping in and watching them in action.

"You see people coming and bringing a guitar in, or a cousin or a friend with flute or a whistle. And over the course of the evening they might play numerous different instruments."

After assembling his group of musicians, Crosby and his two partners in the company had them perform as a "street group," a move that forced them to please crowds of regular folks, not just Irish music purists.

Thus was born the group's approach, in which evergreens like "Danny Boy" aren't featured, but modern songs like U2's "With or Without You" are recast as new Irish standards.

"We're redefining how Irish music is played."

When the group brings its World Fusion Tour to the Columbia Festival of the Arts, Crosby says it will be a long way from the ragtag street presentations it used to present. Since its inception, the group has polished up its presentation, toured multiple times, and appeared on a PBS-TV special.

"The arrangements and the stage presence of the show evolved through the music," says Crosby. "And we add in what are world genres – gypsy music, jazz, bluegrass, classical. Irish music has given birth to what are world genres of music. Appalachian music would be another one that's represented in the show that evolved closer to the mid-Atlantic area."

The group's ascent onto the international stage is part of the everlasting appeal of Irish music, Crosby notes.

"When you hear traditional Irish you can't help but tap your foot and get into it or get a feel for it," he says. "I think that's because of the energy it gives off.

"People used to gather at the crossroads at neighboring towns and villages back in the day when Irish instruments were outlawed. So from our take on that, the 'crossroads' is a place of celebration and a place of community."

Celtic Crossroads can be heard Friday, June 24, 8 p.m., in the Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts at Wilde Lake high School. Tickets run $35-$50. Call 410-715-3044 or go to http://www.columbiafestival.com.

Bettye LaVette never had the high-profile chart successes of soul legends like Aretha Franklin or Etta James. In fact, as mainstream pop success goes, she doesn't even appear in the Billboard Book of top-100 Hits, having only ranked on the R&B and Bubbling Under charts, with her 1960s single "My Man – He's A Lovin' Man" arguably her best-known early song.

Instead, the Detroit-bred singer achieved large-scale success in a different way. After spending decades as a dependable but under-the-radar soul act, she surprised everyone by hooking up with rock producer Joe Henry and recording the 2005 comeback album "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" for the independent ANTI label.

The album, made up of covers by female songwriters ranging from Joan Armatrading to Sinéad O'Connor to Dolly Parton, received widespread accolades in publications like The New York Times, which posited that LaVette "now rivals Aretha Franklin as her generation's most vital soul singer."

LaVette has continued her upward career trajectory, releasing several follow-up albums, performing at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors, and singing a duet with Jon Bon Jovi at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration.

Her newest CD, "Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook," scored a 2010 Grammy Award nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

Expect to hear LaVette singing songs from all aspects of her career when she performs live at this year's Columbia Festival of the Arts in a performance presented in Partnership with Howard Community College.

Bettye LaVette can be heard Tuesday, June 21, 8 p.m., in the Smith Theatre at Howard Community College. Tickets run $25-$35. Call 410-715-3044 or go to http://www.columbiafestival.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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