The 2007 Boston Celtic Music Fest is known as a setting for unique and thought provoking collaborations among area musicians in the Celtic genres. Among the surprises in store this year are two featured bands, each boasting some of the area’s more prominent Celtic performers making their debuts within hours of each other this Saturday, 13 January, at the festival’s Sanctuary stage, located in the historic First Parish Church of Harvard. The hook? One is all men, and the other band is all women.

Appearing at 3:30 p.m. will be Four Horsemen, with a line-up of: Eric Merrill (fiddle, banjo), renowned for his Irish/Appalachian crossover; singer-raconteur Brian O’Donovan, host of WGBH-FM’s “A Celtic Sojourn”; Michael Boyle, an acclaimed Irish step-dancer who has toured extensively with the group Cherish the Ladies; Patrick Murray, a talented practitioner and maker of the Uilleann pipes; Ted Davis (flute, banjo) and Martin Langer (bouzouki, banjo), two of the most popular and sought-after musicians in the local session and band scene.
Rounding out the group is guitarist Matt Heaton, who along with his wife Shannon comprises one of Boston’s best-loved Celtic music duos.

Shannon Heaton (flute, whistle), meanwhile, will be part of the other “super group,” The Deadly Sins, who will take the Sanctuary stage at 2:15 p.m. Her fellow Sinners include a phalanx of fine fiddlers: Laura Cortese, who is equally celebrated for her vocal and step-dancing excellence; Hanneke Cassel, also an accomplished pianist; Lissa Schneckenburger, a skilled contra dance musician who is at home performing in folk clubs and concert halls; and Tina Lech, a mainstay of Greater Boston sessions.

The Deadly Sins also will trot out an exceptional dancer of their own in Kieran Jordan, whose unique approach marries deep-rooted traditions with contemporary innovations. Natalie Haass and Emma Beaton, regarded as two of the foremost Celtic-style cellists around, complete the roster.

Members of the two groups joke about the “boys versus girls” dynamic represented by these alliances, but for them the pleasure is not the implied competition; it’s the all-too-rare opportunity to build on musical and personal friendships. Fortunately, they point out, BCMFest is a perfect enabler for such an enterprise. “BCMFest offers a chance for new collaborations .. projects you’ve always wanted to try, but never had the gig for it,” Shannon Heaton said. “Since musicians are chosen for BCMFest based on performing abilities, rather than the packaging used to sell the act, it means the door is open for musicians who don’t already have a CD and press kit. That creates all kinds of possibilities.”
Heaton cites several examples of how BCMFest has become “a testing ground and a launching pad for new projects.” One past BCMFest collaboration, Eric Merrill and The Western Star (which will appear at this year’s festival), took on a life of its own and has become a regularly performing entity, she points out.

Incorporating individual members’ schedule constraints can be tricky when it comes to working out ideas and arrangements, but the two bands are anticipating their BCMFest moments. “We’ve got fiddles, flutes, piano, guitar, voices and great choreography at our disposal, and we aim to pack our 45-minute set with a wide variety of combinations and sounds,” Heaton said. “Earlier this fall, we already had some new compositions in the works, which we’ll debut at BCMFest.”

Merrill said, “We’ve played with each other in various combinations before, but certainly never before as one big band. There’s something about BCMFest that encourages this ‘anything-can-happen’ atmosphere. At this point, we’re still working out exactly what it is , but I’m sure it’ll be an experience we all remember.”

Kerry Dexter writes about music, the arts, and creative practice at Music Road

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