- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2005

The key word in music this Saturday night is fun, as zydeco pumps up LakeFest in Columbia, Md., and the raucous energy of a national Celtic favorite storms into NiteFest at the Potomac Celtic Festival in Leesburg, Va. The only real question is which one to choose.

“Zydeco music has a strong positive energy,” says lead singer and accordion player Terrance Simien of the Mallet Playboys. “You hear it for the first time and automatically you have a smile on your face.”

A blend of electric and acoustic instruments, the music centers on the accordion, the fiddle and the primary rhythm-setter, the rub board, a musical variation on the old-time washboard. This is music written for dancing. The rhythm and beat make it infectious.

“Zydeco is the music of the Creoles,” Mr. Simien says. “The Creoles are a multi-cultural, multi-racial group of people, and you know it comes out in the music.”

French, African, Spanish, American Indian and German are all part of Mr. Simien’s background — a pretty typical mix for an eighth-generation Creole in Southern Louisiana.

“In zydeco music you got a little influence from all these different ethnic backgrounds. Anybody can feel it,” Mr. Simien says.

Mr. Simien has spread the news of zydeco for more than 20 years. Along with his own international tours, his band has toured as the opener for Los Lobos, Robert Palmer and most recently Dave Matthews.

Mr. Matthews made a point of introducing him each night and urging his fans to take notice of his friends from Louisiana. Later he and Mr. Simien would sing a duet.

“The most traditional thing about our style of music, zydeco, is that the artists create their own style and do their own thing with it,” Mr. Simien says.

True to his words, Mr. Simien’s zydeco music keeps the zydeco instrumentation but interjects different keys and different beats, including reggae grooves, New Orleans funk, “second line” marches and wonderful Sam Cooke ballad renditions.

“I’m selfish,” Mr. Simien concludes. “I do songs that I like.”

It doesn’t take long to appreciate the Gaelic Storm approach to Celtic music. Usually, lead singer Pat Murphy offers up a rollicking tale that features a catchy chorus with strong three-part harmony. Underneath the lyrics is a driving rhythm section of acoustic guitar, bodhran (hand-held drum), and percussion. The sound is relentless and infectious. People tap their feet, clap their hands and some get up to dance.

Behind and around this overwhelming sound are the enticing strains of a fiddle. Sometimes haunting, sometimes alluring, sometimes whimsical, fiddler Ellery Klein (with the band since July 2003) fills the spaces with sweet notes, like the cherry on the top of the hot-fudge sundae.

Guitarist Steve Twigger says Miss Klein makes the current lineup a perfect mix.

“We’ve been through a lot of fiddle players,” Mr. Twigger says. “And she’s absolutely brilliant in the studio, too.”

Miss Klein returns the compliment.

“They’re just out to have a good time, which isn’t always true of bands,” she says. “Especially in traditional music, a lot of people are so super stuffy.”

Gaelic Storm mixes danceable high-energy songs, a boisterous, self-deprecating sense of humor, and the ability to make the audience feel like it’s Saturday night down at the pub.

The formula has worked since 1996, when Mr. Twigger, Mr. Murphy, bodhran player Steve Wehmeyer and percussionist Shep Lonsdale started the band as a casual, fun excuse to get together, sing songs and drink beer on Sunday night at a Los Angeles Irish pub.

Soon they had a following and a Hollywood storyline. A casting director for the movie “Titanic” came looking for a group to be the band for the steerage party scene. Gaelic Storm’s rowdy, jubilant and slightly sloppy style was just what he wanted.

When the movie hit blockbuster status, Gaelic Storm began a wonderful ride that hasn’t stopped. They’ve toured widely and continuously ever since.

Their five albums have all hit the top 10 on Billboard’s World Music charts.

The additions of Miss Klein, piper Tom Brown and young percussionist Ryan Lacey (who took over for Mr. Lonsdale) has expanded the musical depth, appeal and even the fun of the group. Gaelic Storm will also perform Wednesday at Centennial Park in Columbia.

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