By Ian S. Port
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By Ian S. Port
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During summertime in the sea-swept portion of Ireland known as the West, musical sessions at public houses like Linnane's in County Clare don't start earlier than 10 at night. But you never notice the clock: There's still blue-gray daylight from over the water washing in through the large windows, and the crowd's energy is audibly high, further fueled by pints of Guinness and late servings of oysters.
Then there's the music itself, the conspiracy of reed, string, and blown instruments in the corner of the pub, led by button accordion and tin whistle virtuoso Charlie Piggott. The musicians call themselves the Lonely Stranded Band, but the volume and spirit of their sound not only keep these scores of locals and visiting Yanks cheering but have helped to revive and maintain traditions, sunk for centuries in this soil and now spreading throughout Ireland and as far afield as this weekend's Celtic Music & Arts Festival at Fort Mason.
A few hours before yet another session, Piggott contemplates the Celtic muse while cooking up a stew in his thatch-roofed home just across the county line in Galway. "It's a compulsion to play the stuff," he sighs. Raised in the city of Cork to the south, the urge first entered his life on his fourth birthday, when his father bought him a single-row melodeon, a bellows-driven "box" related to the accordion. He attended college during the "exciting sort of time" when groups like Sweeney's Men, the Dubliners, and the Chieftains were helping to bolster Irish pride. He accepted a fellowship to do research in biochemistry but chose the West as his site of study to be nearer the music.
"I thought about the number of highly respected accordion players who had come out of East Galway, people like Joe Cooley and Joe Burke, and the clutter of incredible fiddle players from East Clare," he notes. "And the western part of Clare was concertina country."
A few years after relocating to Galway in 1973, Piggott's musical obligations to the seminal group De Dannan overtook his study of digestive enzymes. He was successful enough to purchase his present homestead in 1981. "It was an old ruin, but the stonework was pretty good, and when I found out it had been thatched, I jumped at it. It may have had something to do with the fact that I was aware, even subconsciously, that a lot of stuff that was happening in modern society was not for the good. So it tied in with the whole thing of oyster fishing using traditional techniques and playing traditional music."
As Ireland continued to trade instruments with other parts of the world and rock rhythms and electric instrumentation began taking root in the old sod, Piggott and some like-minded veterans felt uncomfortable. "There's quite a lot of confusion here at the moment over what traditional Irish music is, definition-wise," Piggott admits. "There's all sorts of crossover stuff happening, and they're beginning to use the term 'trad' which is like a hip way of saying 'traditional' and gives you license to use plenty that's not traditional."
As always, this year's festival showcases orthodox Irish musicians like Piggott and Joe Burke alongside other Celtic representatives like Cusan Tan (Wales) and the Old Blind Dogs (Scotland), eclectic groups like Arcady, and rock-oriented youngsters like Ashely MacIsaac, not to mention arts exhibits, a St. Patrick's Day block party at the Embarcadero Center, a film fleadh, and a theatrical tribute to martyr James Connolly at New College.
During visits to other festivals, Piggott says, his musical mission was reaffirmed in stories about the late Galway accordionist Joe Cooley, who'd preceded him to San Francisco in the 1950s. "There was an old black bar somewhere in your city, and no white person seemingly ever went in there in those days," Piggott recounts. "There was a black band playing onstage and Cooley said, 'I want to get the band a drink.' This was the way he broke the ice. Well, apparently there was a button accordion, and he was asked up to play. And he took the house by storm ever after! That was just the effect he had on people with his music."
The Fifth Annual Celtic Music & Arts Festival happens Sat-Sun, March 9-10; call 392-4400 for complete schedule info.
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