On Saturday I was in Washington, DC for Shamrock Fest, “America’s Largest St. Paddy’s Day Celebration.” A celtic music festival held at RFK Stadium in Washington DC annually right around St. Patrick’s Day, Shamrock Fest is something I’ve attended annually for the last five years (see write-ups on 2011, 2012, and 2013), and it’s something that I have come to look forward to each spring.
After this year’s, I may have to reevaluate attending. Shamrock Fest, you are on double super secret probation.
I’m being slightly facetious here. I had an enjoyable experience, but it was also a somewhat boring experience.
I’ve described Shamrock Fest as a county fair with Celtic music in the past, but this year’s Shamrock Fest lost the county fair feel. There weren’t as many music stages (three instead of five), food options were limited, vendors were fewer, and there were no carnival rides, no kiosks for things like the Nationals. In other words, Shamrock Fest this year was just music and drinking, and since there wasn’t music all the time and the beer was priced at 8 dollars a plastic up there were long periods where I had nothing to do.
Shamrock Fest was under new management this year, and in some ways it seemed to me that the festival was pulled together much later than in the past. (Tickets, for instance, went on sale two months after their normally did.) One obvious problem that I noticed was that bands didn’t have merchandise tables; there wasn’t any allowance made for that.
Now, for what I saw at Shamrock Fest.
One interesting thing I noticed was that the Game of Thrones theme seems to have entered the Celtic rock repetoire; both Turtle Recall and Kilmaine Saints played it, and both did a very nice job with it and the crowd was totally into it. However, hearing it live also highlighted the piece’s main problem — there’s the riff, and that’s about it. It’s a good cello riff, and it was nice to hear it done on a fiddle in both cases (the television series uses a synthetic cello), but then the piece just fizzles out and stops.
I also saw Albannach, a Scottish pipes and drums band.
Then, at 7:15, Carbon Leaf took the stage. This was the band that I went to Shamrock Fest to see, and whatever boredom I suffered to that point was a small price to pay.
They put on a tight show, beginning with “Shine” and ending with “Mary Mac.” The setlist was geared toward their Celtic-influenced material (namedly, the Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle album), but they also played fan-favorites like “Desperation Song,” “Life Less Ordinary,” and “The Boxer.” They also played “The War Was in Color,” an emotionally powerful song about the cost and reality of war on those who wear the uniform.
The crowd was lively and there was moshing, but not anywhere near me, thankfully. (Last year, I got taken out by a mosher who went careening through the crowd.) Not a lot of crowd surfing, either. To think, when I saw Carbon Leaf at the University of Richmond years ago, I would never have thought their fans would ever mosh or crowd surf.
Carbon Leaf did set up a make-shift merchandise table, and I bought the USB stick they sell with a recording of that night’s show. Unfortunately, they had technical difficulties, and instead they gave out a USB stick with the previous night’s show at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina. Honestly, I was perfectly fine with the substitution. Nothing against the set at Shamrock Fest, but they played a 2-hour set at Cat’s Cradle. 🙂
As for the rest of the festival, there’s not much to say. I stayed until about 9 o’clock. Reel Big Fish had taken the stage, and I heard a few songs, but I didn’t see many reasons to stay for them or Blues Traveler. I found one of the VIP commemorative plastic cups on the ground and snatched it up (as I usually do).
I bought a rugby shirt from one of the vendors on my way out of the festival grounds and a bootleg Shamrock Fest shirt from a street vendor who was trying to unload them. I also bought Celtic Pink Ribbon III, a compilation album with proceeds that go toward breast cancer research.
Was Shamrock Fest fun? It could have been. Mainly, it was boring. The new management put on something that was very polished in comparison to previous fests, but they polished it at the cost of the soul of the festival. There wasn’t anything to do other than drink and watch a band.
Hopefully, the new management listens to the complaints and makes some changes for next year. (the Shamrock Fest Facebook page has been filled with complaints since Saturday.) More vendors, more food options, a more streamined beer system (like a return to the Beer Tickets system of previous years) would be my immediate thoughts. I would also recommend opening the gates earlier (1 o’clock, maybe?) and conclusing earlier (9 o’clock, maybe?).
So, this year was growing pains. But, Shamrock Fest is on double super secret probation and, if next year isn’t better, that may be the end of Shamrock Fest for me. When there are other Celtic festivals, like the Annapolis Irish Festival, that are more fun and with more to do, Shamrock Fest has its work cut out for it.
More photos on Facebook.