Get your Irish up at festival

Music, Matt Nelligan says, is one of the cornerstones of Irish culture.

Visit any pub in Ireland and you'll find people joining their voices in song, he says. The country's story has been told through countless tunes.

A proud Irish-American, Nelligan and other members of local Ancient Order of Hibernian groups thought an Irish musical festival would be a fun way to showcase their heritage. They launched the festival in 1997 at Heritage Park in Colonie, drawing more than 2,000 people.

The festival has only grown since then, moving to the Saratoga County Fairgrounds in Ballston Spa last year. It returns to the fairgrounds this weekend, offering music and other entertainment on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 17 and 18.

Back when Nelligan and co-founder Jim Shaughnessy were dreaming up the festival, Irish music was starting to change, Nelligan said. Instead of just traditional Celtic songs, the scene was becoming populated with bands that were fusing Irish music with modern rock. It was a sound Nelligan liked, and one he thought might help broaden Irish music's appeal.

The Dropkick Murphys pack their shows with young people, he said, referring to the Massachusetts-based band whose music is described as Celtic punk/hardcore.

So, from the outset, Irish Fest 2000 has aspired to bring both traditional and modern acts to town. There's no shortage of musicians hoping to play the festival " Nelligan said organizers typically get about 100 applicants per year.

For the most part, though, they book acts themselves. Nelligan estimated about 90 percent of the performers are solicited by people associated with the festival.

"Then we save a slot or two for kind of a wildcard band," he said.

Since the festival expanded to a two-day format in 2007, organizers have tried to have a traditional headliner on Friday and a rock headliner on Saturday. This year, though, California-based Gaelic Storm had a scheduling conflict and couldn't appear Saturday, so it will headline Friday's entertainment schedule.

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