It wasn't quite Irish Idol. It was something better.
While David Cook and his "American Idol" colleagues crooned at the Sprint Center about 10 blocks north on Grand Boulevard, the Kansas City Irish Festival hosted thousands on its opening night.
Greatly assisted by a cool breeze, the festival offered a captivatingcelebration of Irish food, art, culture and music. The event continues Saturday and Sunday.
The night's most memorable music was provided by Millish, a relatively unheralded instrumental act from Ann Arbor, Michigan. From their base in Celtic music, Millish quickly strays into the progressive acoustic bluegrass associated with Nickel Creek and the zany world music explorations of Brave Combo.
Rather than a mongrelized mess, however, Millish achieved magical heights with several of their extended improvisations. They were so remarkable that even a cover of "Stairway To Heaven," with a bagpipe in the place of Jimmy Page's guitar, sounded entirely fresh.
A fan employing hippie dance moves had the right idea; Millish would knock 'em dead at the Wakarusa Festival. (Millish is also scheduled to perform Saturday and Sunday.)
Bad Haggis, led by acclaimed piper Eric Rigler, also offered an unconventional twist to traditional music. Their set opened with a gorgeous sampling of Rigler's contribution to the Braveheart soundtrack but was dominated by technical prog-rock and jazz-rock fusion in the vein of King Crimson and Weather Report.
The Kelihans preceded Bad Haggis with a spirited set of Irish-flavored pub rock. The Kansas City band is rowdy, raw and entirely ingratiating. (The Kelihans are also scheduled to perform Saturday.)
Billed as "the world's second best U2 show," 2U provided cheap thrills. Festival goers enjoying offerings from beverage vendors might have been convinced that the U2 cover band was "even better than the real thing." Cynics might suggest that the only thing more annoying than Bono is a Bono imitator.
Friday night's most popular band was Los Angeles' Gaelic Storm. Not unlike beloved Kansas City band the Elders, Gaelic Storm blends meat-and-potatoes American rock with traditional Celtic music. The formula works. Gaelic Storm's new release, "What's the Rumpus?", cracked Billboard's Top 200 album chart last month. The audience was told that a song from that album, "The Mechanical Bull," was inspired by an incident at Kansas City's Beaumont Club "after drinking Guinness all night long." (Gaelic Storm is also scheduled to perform Saturday; the Elders will perform Sunday.)
Lest fans of unadulterated Irish music feel entirely alienated, a small alcove in the middle of the spacious festival grounds offered a refuge for traditional musicians. The button accordion of local stalwart Mike Dugger was its anchor Friday.
The Heritage Stage offers lectures, demonstrations and readings. Irish poet Gearoid Mac Lochlainn mused on the "f-word" Friday. "Can I say that on the Heritage Stage?" he asked. "It's part of our heritage." Rebellious poets aside, there was little call for cursing Friday. It was a glorious start to a promising weekend.
| Bill Brownlee, Special to The Star