As those of you who are long time participants of the Spanish Peaks Celtic Festival already know, this festival had its birth after first existing for five years in little, out-of-the-way Gardner as a casual summer afternoon ceilidh. The ceilidhs happened when our harpist daughter Heather and our Scottish musician friends would come across to visit Jack and me and lend a hand in building our house – the one Jack designed. At that time we were living in a small wooden shack Jack had built in advance of our coming – one side for his tools and the other side for our bed, a little wood stove, two chairs and a small desk all of which we shared with our four cats who traveled with us from Scotland. In fact we were still living in that shed when we started the festival in 2005. Through four summers of ceilidhs, local musicians, and others too, were starting to show a real interest in Scottish and Irish music as more and more locals and their friends and relatives just happened to turn up at the sound of the ceilidh music.
So with local encouragement, in 2005, literally on a hope and a pray and nary two pennies to rub together, beloved Scottish singers Margaret Bennett, Alison Bell, Ed Miller and Patsy Seddon, also a harper; Scottish/Irish harper/whistle player, Billy Jackson; renowned Paraguayan harpist, Alfredo Ortiz, and jazz harpist Park Stickney – all highly sought after performers – agreed to fly to Colorado to help start a festival. And, they came at their own expense and with no fee! Something I will never forget. Note all the harp players; no surprise that Jack is a harp maker.
That first festival was fabulous, a fun and spontaneous two-day affair. It was not very well organized; in fact often chaotic – but everyone, and that included the participants and local citizens, pitched in to iron out the rough edges and in the end it was deemed a grand success. We were even able to pay our generous artists a modest fee. I might add, to their surprise and ours!
It was during the planning of our third festival that Pat McCullough took us under his talented and knowledgeable wings. He approved of our European style of festival where artists and participants and even local audience members mingled together sharing music, songs and stories and dancing up a storm, and where teaching, learning and entertainment went hand in hand always reinforcing each other. Pat’s vision took the festival an important step forward. He encouraged us to think of the festival as a “Retreat Gathering” where Celtic musicians, singers and general music lovers could gather for four days and just live and breathe an all encompassing Gaelic atmosphere – in the theatres, in home spun classrooms, community centers, libraries, galleries, church halls, pubs and wine bar, camp grounds, delis and bistros, patios and park. In other words aim to create an Irish Willie Clancy Week right here in Huerfano County. Now that really is shooting high!
Where I knew the Scottish music scene in a personal way and could bring such talent to the table, Pat was equally at home with Irish musicians, and indeed he had an even wider net of artists at his disposal. So we formed a working team and it is thanks to Pat that we have been able to perform such great talents as Liz Carol, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Robbie O’Connell, and John Doyle, just to name a few. And it was Pat who has encouraged us to bring in great young up and coming talent like FullSet, and like Sean McComiskey, and the delightful MacDonald sisters, Cassie and Maggie.
Today we still operate on a hope and a prayer and we still have our chaotic times when things don’t always go as they should, and, we still have a great festival every year! So here we are in 2014 and we pinch ourselves to think the festival has reached its 10th anniversary. A truly special birthday year.
In truth, we actually started our birthday celebrations in a most spectacular way. On Sunday, August 10th, Carlos Nunez, perhaps the world’s greatest and most versatile piper, and three of his band members, Pancho Àlvarez, Xùrxo Nuñez, and Stepanie Cadman, gave a spectacular concert for us at our favorite venue – the dance hall and tavern at Up Top Ghost Town on Old La Veta Pass. Pancho produced such impossibly beautiful, soulful sounds from his guitar; Xùrxo created unbelievable rhythms with just two sticks and a stool; and finally, the beautiful and amazing fiddle player and dancer Stephanie Cadman, who left us breathless, her strings and feet dancing in accord. The room was packed. Carlos overwhelmed us with his brilliant musicianship and equally that of his band members. They had the audience dancing in the aisles, and Carlos with them, and everyone was laughing, crying, shouting, not wanting to stop, not letting him stop. I’m sure the tavern ghosts were dancing too. It was an experience none of us who were there will ever forget. On the band’s part, they were charmed by Up Top and delighted to have a two-night stay in a ‘ghost town’, their first such experience, before going on to their next gig. Carlos told Deb and her sister Sam who turned their wee cottage over to them, that they loved Up Top and want to come back to record there because they found the sound so pure. All I can say is I hope indeed they will come back as part of one of our festivals so those of you who couldn’t make their concert will get a chance to meet these wonderful warm hearted, hot blooded and totally exciting musicians and hear them perform and actually play music with them.
In the meantime we have this year’s festival coming up in just a few weeks, and you are all coming, aren’t you? To help us celebrate our birthday, of course.
Returning are old favorites from our first year – Margaret Bennett, Ed Miller, and Alison Bell. Along with them are our regulars also from very early on – Arlene Patterson and John Crumlin. And among our more recent specials we have invited FullSet back because so many of you have asked for their return and they are so much fun to have at a party. Also returning we have Sean McComiskey, Adam Agee, Jon Sousa and Mairtin de Cogain with his true tales of ‘almost disbelief’! New on hand is the outstanding fiddler Jessie Burns who retired from performing solo with the super band Gaelic Storm when she was pregnant with her little daughter, and with Jessie comes her talented husband Eric Thorin whose stand-up bass has graced many a well known band. Lastly, replacing Jerry O’Sullivan, who sadly had to cancel his return to the festival, we have a new young and very talented Border piper Jerry sent us in his place, Will Woodson.
And so I started my ramblings by describing the festival’s beginnings. I will now end by letting you in on a secret. Another birthday! September is my 80th
year. Jack who is a young 77 and 1/2, can only shake his head and tell me, “I never thought I’d see the day when I was married to an 80 year auld wifey!” What can I say? Poor wee manny. Anyway it’s a good time for this auld wifey to step down from running the festival and pass on the torch to another. Those of you who love the festival and want to see it continue, grow and strengthen will welcome the new leader, whoever that turns out to be. I hope you will be ready to volunteer your support. All of us who work for the festival are volunteers; none of us can do it alone.
Thank you for all your help, advice and encouragement throughout the past 10 years, and may I wish you a great 2014 Festival Retreat.
See you on the 25th!