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.

Bands started playing at 2:45, though the gates didn’t open until 3. I caught parts of sets from Turtle Recall (a local DC band) and The Gobshites (a Celtic rock band from Boston).

Turtle Recall

Then I caught part of the sets from the Kilmaine Saints (a Celtic rock band from Harrisburg) and Gaelic Mishap (a Celtic rock band from Baltimore).

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.

Kilmaine Saints

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.

Carbon Leaf

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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.

My Shamrock Fest Haul

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.

2 thoughts on “Shamrock Fest 2015

  1. Shamrock Fest made a post on Facebook about this year’s festival. They know this year wasn’t the best, and they want feedback on how to make it better.

    Here’s what I wrote:

    Here’s my quick thoughts on Saturday’s event.

    I had a General Admission ticket (in my five years attending, I’ve never bought a VIP ticket), and I generally had a nice time. That said, this was perhaps my least enjoyable of the five Shamrock Fests I’ve attended because, to be frank, I was bored out of my mind when there wasn’t a band on stage that I wanted to see.

    In years past, there were things you could do that didn’t involve music or drinking. There were carnival rides. There were food trucks. There were kiosks and the Natsmobile. There were more vendors with more wares to sell. And I’m willing to cut the festival slack on these things because, at least from an outsider’s perspective, this year’s festival seemed to be put together more last-minute than previous years, just based on when the tickets went on sale and when the bands were announced. My expectation is that next year will be better in that regard. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Now, as for specific issues I noticed, the big one was the merchandise tables for the bands, specifically the lack thereof. There was a table in the vendor area that Gaelic Mishap, Albannach, and Celtica used, Carbon Leaf set up their own makeshift table, but other bands, who could have sold t-shirts and CDs, were definitely disadvantaged financially because the festival didn’t have merchandise tables for their use behind the control tents like in years past. Bands make money on the merchandise; without a place to sell it, this year could have been an unexpected financial hit for them.

    Previous years had a five stage set-up. I might recommend that for next year. Two main stages paired with adjacent side stages so that one band can tear down or set up on one stage in the pair while a band plays to the same audience on the other stage. Put mainstream/alternative acts on one of those stage pairs, Celtic acts on the other stage pair, and then other Celtic acts on the fifth stage. This way there’s always music going and people don’t have to leave one stage to go in search of music on another.

    I’d also suggest bringing back the food trucks for the variety.

    I have no comments on the alcohol, except that I think the “beer ticket” system used in previous years could have sped things up in terms of service.

    There definitely should be a table where you can pick up a festival schedule. I was definitely glad I brought the printout I made from Facebook, as I’d thought about leaving it at home!

    Not to end on a critical note, I thought the festival was very polished this year. I liked the consistent branding in the various areas so that, from a distance, you could see what was up. The tables were a nice (and welcome) touch. The portapotty situation this year was the best it’s ever been at Shamrock Fest. It was a lovely day, and I generally had a nice time. I’ll chalk up this year’s issues to first-timer growing pains, and I’d expect that next year’s will be better. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Shamrock Fest sent out a survey on Tuesday. It was a web form, and when it asked for more thoughts that didn’t fit the buttons and such, I posted in most of the comment I left on Facebook.

    This morning, they sent out this e-mail:

    Here’s hoping for next year! ๐Ÿ™‚

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