Reeling through the years: Boston Celtic Music Festival turns 15

From left: Conor Hearn, Maura Scanlin, and Aidan Scrimgeour of BCM Fest act Pumpkin Bread.
Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe
From left: Conor Hearn, Maura Scanlin, and Aidan Scrimgeour of BCM Fest act Pumpkin Bread.

CAMBRIDGE — At the Boston Celtic Music Festival, Irish airs square off with rollicking Cape Breton fiddle tunes. You might hear a snappy Scottish strathspey in one room, and driving Quebecois foot percussion in another. Since 2003, the festival has gathered musicians from all the traditions that fit under the wide umbrella of “Celtic” for a homegrown weekend of concerts, dances, and sessions.

“It’s to pull together all our trad music and dance people, just because we can,” says BCMFest cofounder Shannon Heaton over the phone. “We need to be lifted up in the middle of the winter, when it’s really desperate and gray and dark. That’s the only reason to do it. It’s a nice side benefit then, that people come out and they find us. But even if nobody came to listen other than the musicians themselves, it would be a huge successful party.”

Heaton, who plays the Irish flute and sings, speaks with a spark in her voice. But that’s no surprise for a musician who moved to Boston in 2001 and two years later was neck deep in a festival that included over 100 participants at several venues across multiple towns. In founding it with singer and Scottish fiddle player Laura Cortese, the mission was “to have one weekend where we bring all the Irish and Cape Breton and Scottish players together, from young to old,” Heaton says. “We could give everybody a platform to strut their stuff and try new collaboration.”


Now, as the festival celebrates its 15th anniversary Thursday through Sunday, there’s even more room for those players to strut. For the first time, the festival will include four days of programming instead of two, allowing for many more hours of music, dancing, and community building.

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Club Passim in Harvard Square is the festival’s programming hub as well as its presenter, and nearby, the Sinclair will also host events for the first time. Some of the events are festival mainstays, like the locally focused Roots and Branches concert, informal performer-led sessions where anyone can join in on traditional tunes, and the Urban Ceilidh, a no-experience-necessary social dance at the Atrium with live music and dances from numerous Celtic traditions. There are also a handful of new features, such as an emerging artist showcase, a second full docket of daytime shows, and the “Festival Club” late-night concert, a cozy show for impromptu collaborations between performers.

Cortese and Heaton had been regular performers at Passim since before the festival’s inception, says Passim managing director Matt Smith, and their cohort of musicians injected a vigorous and young strain of Celtic music to the club’s atmosphere. “For the younger performers, it was great, because they were looking for a place to play that was all ages,” he says. “A lot of those performers, even in their young 20s, had a lot of students who wanted to come and see them, and they couldn’t come and see them at bars.”

Heaton observes that some of the children who came to the festival in its earliest years are now formidable musicians in their own right, including piper Torrin Ryan, fiddler Galen Fraser, and fiddler Katie McNally, who performs this year. “BCMFest is in some ways the way that people have performatively gotten into the game, and I think even more importantly socially, how they’ve become part of the community,” she says.

The younger generations’ syncretism of traditions brings a vital new energy to the scene, says Sean Smith (no relation to Matt), a multi-instrumentalist who has been involved in the festival since its second year. His participation in Boston’s Celtic music scene dates to the 1980s, he says. He took a hiatus to start his family, and when he returned, he found an influx of savvy younger multi-genre musicians filling up the scene. “One big factor has to be the Berklee College of Music,” Smith says. “You’ll be playing at a session, and you’ll be sitting next to this young woman who can really fire up into the reels and jigs, and you’ll find out that she plays bluegrass and jazz and fusion as well!”


The members of Boston-based band Pumpkin Bread didn’t go to Berklee, but they might fall into that category. The band’s 2017 self-titled album is pure progressive folk fusion. Three of the five players shared their stories in an interview at Passim. Guitarist Conor Hearn grew up playing Irish traditional music. Maura Scanlin was trained in classical violin from age 3, and learned Scottish fiddle mostly by listening to “a lot of CDs in the car with my parents,” with lessons here and there. Accordionist and pianist Aidan Scrimgeour was trained in jazz and classical, and his dive into the world of traditional music began in Boston.

“What I know about Celtic music is what I’ve learned from these two, and being in Boston, and just playing with people,” Scrimgeour says.

In Heaton’s view, playing with others is a vital component of any folk musician’s education. At the festival, you might hear anything from the muscular fiddle and uilleann pipe combination of band Copley Street, to dreamy modern balladeer Molly Pinto Madigan, to old-time clawhammer banjo player Allison de Groot’s set with percussive dancer Nic Gareiss. But if it’s going to be there, Heaton says, it’s going to have what she calls the “trad edge.”

“That trad edge comes when you have that dimension of playing with other people, with dancers, with feet. With people all moving with the music side by side, and really connecting with the music among other people. This real connection with a living tradition, with a social tradition, and truly having fun with it. So at the end of the day, if you took the stage away and the money away, you’d still be playing the same thing.”


At Club Passim and other venues, Cambridge, Jan. 18-21. Tickets: 617-492-7679,

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.