Familiarity has a lot to do with its place in the commercial panoply: Much American folk music is based on Irish songs and tunes (as well as English and Scottish -- yes, there's a difference), and those essential forms have in turn stealthily infused themselves into the work of contemporary singer-songwriters, country artists and others. Irish music just doesn't seem all that foreign, certainly stacked up against Nigerian polyrhythms or Middle Eastern exotica.
But as this year's edition of the Houston International Festival (April 21-29) amply demonstrates, Irish music has been boiling away the past few years in one of the world's more creative cauldrons. The results both advance those familiar sounds a light-year or two and forge some entirely new alloys.
Of all the festival's Irish entries, accordionist Sharon Shannon has been flying highest above the radar. A former member of the Waterboys, Shannon has played with Texans Nanci Griffith and Steve Earle and otherwise has made an impression this side of the Atlantic. Hailing from one of those musical families where everyone played several instruments, Shannon cut her teeth on the tin whistle before picking up the accordion -- at age 11. After absorbing various regional styles, she co-founded the traditional band Arcady but soon found the music too confining; striking out on her own, Shannon formed a series of bands that balanced the upper registers of fiddle, flute and strings with double bass (from longtime collaborator Trevor Hutchinson) and drums.
Her next leap was stylistic: She began borrowing freely from other cultures, first those with close musical ties to the Shamrock Shore (Scandinavia, French Canada), then further afield, dabbling in reggae and rock and whatever else she absorbed during her extensive travels. While others have overlaid disparate elements onto an Irish foundation, their combinations have too often been incompatible. But Shannon, a consummate player, manages to pull them together without a clash. (Sunday, April 22, at 3:30 p.m. on the MoneyGram World Music Stage; and at 5:45 p.m. on the Bailey's Irish Pub Stage.)
While Shannon rearranges existing music to build her repertory, the Dublin-based band Kila draws from similar sources but writes all-original material. The results, as evidenced on its two U.S. releases, are astonishingly fresh and distinct. Like many of the new Irish bands, Kila opts for a big sound (seven members), made even bigger by virtue of each playing three or more instruments. Such versatility allows the band to seamlessly wind gypsy, African or Eastern European melodies around whatever Celtic root they choose, giving the whole a pulsating, cellular feel (unsatisfyingly lumped into the category "Celtic fusion"). The Gaelic vocals reinforce the band's fierce identity. Two sets of brothers anchor Kila, whose ten years together with the same personnel create unspoken understandings that only time can produce. Kila is perhaps the most electrifying and unexpected of the Irish bands coming to Houston. (Saturday, April 28, at 3 p.m. on the Irish Pub Stage; and at 5 p.m. on the World Music Stage. On Sunday, April 29, at 1:45 p.m. on the World Music Stage; and at 5:45 p.m. on the Irish Pub Stage.)
Though initially slowed by the departure of two key members, especially vocalist Karan Casey, Solas has rebounded well to vie for top dog among the new Irish acoustic wave. More refined than either Shannon or Kila, Solas still puts a twist on its traditional approach, though the material tends to originate closer to home. The band's recent show at the Mucky Duck spotlighted the multi-instrumental talents of its American founder, Seamus Egan, whose playing from his corner post continually drew attention away from center stage. Where Kila's throbby jumble overpowers with its cumulative force, Solas attacks with crisp, clear solos and point-counterpoint duets atop sturdy melodic legs. Lead singer Deirdre Scanlon has as keen a knack for the ballad as her predecessor. (Sunday, April 29, at 6:45 p.m. on the World Music Stage.)
The most youthful of the Irish bands appearing at the International Festival, Danú is also the torchbearer. The latest in a string of virtuoso bands that invigorate traditional material with complex and inventive (yet straight) arrangements, Danú descends in spirit from a line that includes Planxty, the Bothy Band and DeDanaan. Seven pieces (including all the key components: flute, guitar, pipes, fiddle, accordion, bouzouki and bodhran) make for dynamic jigs and reels, complemented by an occasional velvet vocal from Ciaran O'Gealbhain. Since its 1995 debut, Danú has jelled into a true force on the scene. (Saturday, April 21, at 1 p.m. on the World Music Stage; and at 6 p.m. on the Irish Pub Stage. On Sunday, April 22, at 1 p.m. and 4:15 p.m., on the Irish Pub Stage.)