Ask Randy Labbe what Celtic music sounds like and you're likely to get a fair amount of hemming and hawing: "How do you explain something that goes from Seamus Connolly to the Pogues," he wonders aloud. "It's very difficult to put your finger on that. If you're attentive, you hear it, and you feel it. It's part of the magic of music. You either feel this music, or you don't."
Labbe is betting a lot of Mainers (and even folks from away) are feeling it, though, as he's getting ready to launch the Saltwater Celtic Music Festival, July 31, at the Thomas Point Beach Campground in Brunswick. He hopes to launch with a bang, too: In addition to 10-time Irish National Fiddle Champion Connolly (did you know he lives in Maine?), Labbe has rounded up international performers like Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul, Karan Casey and John Doyle, the Prodigals, the Dublin City Ramblers, and quite a few others.
Judging by the response to the Celtic portion of the original Saltwater music festivals, which ran in Brunswick from 2003 through 2005, and the popularity of the music through the Canadian Maritimes and Downeast, Labbe is confident this new festival can be a long-standing one. He's surprised, actually, considering the Celtic talent playing in Maine 52 weeks a year, that such a festival doesn't already exist.
There's even a joint in Carthage, the Skye Theatre, that puts on almost nothing but Celtic music (a festival kick-off event happens there July 26), and the Maine Highland Games and Maine Celtic Celebration, so you could even say there's a cult of Celtic here in the Pine Tree State.
In fact, Labbe says the festival, which also includes a number of run-up events, is a way to pull all of these various factions together, from Fisherman's Wharf in Boothbay to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath to Byrnes Irish Pub in Brunswick (see the full line-up at saltwaterfest.com
). "It's a good way to acknowledge that there are people doing this year-round," he reasons, "and get them involved in Saltwater at the same time."
Hey, he might even be riding a national wave. "It's kind of, in my mind, followed a similar curve to the one I watched blues follow in the late-'70s," Labbe says, "where there was a really loyal, if small, following, and then gained more and more acceptance in the mainstream. Just measured by TV and radio advertising, Celtic music seems to be coming more and more into the mainstream now, too. It's still a roots music, on the periphery of the music world for sure, but that's where the action is right now. That's where all the interesting things are happening."