Switchback Unites Irish Sisterhood at Festival
By Brenda Winslow
They all met through the music of Switchback. The Michigan Irish Music Festival has become an annual event for this group of women, where Switchback has been the official house band for seven years. They gathered again in Muskegon the weekend of Sept. 15-17, 2006, for an incredible three days of Irish music, food and laughter. They get together to celebrate life, music and their heritage. Eight of them came this year.
Some of the women are related to each other and some are bound by friendship. They are all united by what they call the “Switchhead Sisterhood,” which is printed on their bright green shirts.
“We’ve all become a big extended family through Switchback,” said Chris Knapp. The shirts also say “American Roots, Celtic Soul” and that’s how they feel. I think you could have spotted them without the shirts, though – their big smiles and continuous laughter said it all.
Switchback opened the festival Friday evening, playing to a record opening crowd of 2,300 people. The Irish duo is known for their incredible energy on stage. Marty McCormack sings Irish tenor and plays bass guitar, while Brian FitzGerald has a soulful voice and plays mandolin and guitar. Their music is a blend of traditional and original contemporary Irish and folk music.
“You can associate their music with something in your life,” said Ann Knapp, another member of the Switchback Sisterhood. “They send a message.”
Switchback’s latest contemporary Irish album, Bolinree, is a beautiful example of that. The title cut touches on the emotions McCormack felt when he visited his cousins at the family farm in County Mayo, Ireland, for the first time. (Switchback has released 10 albums to date.)
The Michigan Irish Music Festival draws top-notch national and international entertainers. In addition to Switchback playing again twice on Saturday, the line-up also included “Cherish the Ladies,” “The Prodigals,” “Tempest,” and “Blackthorn” to name a few. Another festival favorite is the hilarious musician Seamus Kennedy.
“They put a lot of work into selecting the bands,” said Marty McCormack, “Chris Zahrt and the festival organizers do a great job. They’re genuine people.”
Saturday’s attendance was expected to peak at close to 7,000. McCormack said, “We feel really strong about this festival and are thrilled to see it grow.” According to festival workers, this year’s attendance broke all previous records. “We play a lot of festivals and this is one of our favorites,” he said.
The festival is full of non-stop Irish fun. Nearly 1,000 colorful Irish dancers competed on Saturday at the LC Walker Arena. Scotland natives Bob and Terri Wright offered dance lessons to all who were daring. They are an incredible dance couple to watch. Marty McCormack is also known to dance a fine jig, too!
The Pub Tent was full of – you guessed it – all types of liquid Irish spirits to delight the devil in every soul. There was almost every kind of Irish food imaginable and some of the best corned beef to be found this far across the sea. There were rows of vendors, too, selling beautiful Celtic jewelry and clothing, as well as everything with an Irish theme imaginable. Booths were set up to help teach Irish culture and history, too.
There was even a little train full of wee ones that chugged across the festival grounds all day. Two special five year-old boys enjoyed the Switchback concerts along with their parents. Isaac Wilson of Valparaiso, Ind., calls Switchback is his favorite band, and testified to the fact by having memorized “Drunken Sailor” in its entirety (something his teacher also called home about recently!). He even sang it for me! Some kids pretend to be super heroes when they grow up. Andrew Ireland, the other little boy, pretends to be Switchback - he just can’t decide if he wants to be Brian or Marty!
On Sunday, the Switchhead Sisterhood gathered one last time. Hundreds attended the outdoor Catholic Mass on the festival grounds, for which Switchback provided music. The beautiful sounds floated across the water. Marty’s Mom would have been proud. The Sisterhood hugged their farewells after another wondrous weekend. But, those female Irish bonds are strong – they’ll be back for sure next year!