The Riverside Club Brings the ‘Irish Invasion of Americana’ to Cantigny
‘I-Grass’ Band JigJam, and Chicago’s Own Miles Over Mountains to Take Center Stage at the 7th Annual Riverside Folk Fest
By Monta Monaco Hernon
Wheaton, IL–Cantigny Park, which is home to the First Division Museum, is no stranger to foreign invasion. But when the 7th Annual Riverside Folk Fest comes rolling in on June 10th, the focus will not be on the more than one dozen tanks lined up on Cantigny’s front lawn.
Direct from Ireland, JigJam will hit the bandstand armed with their myriad stringed instruments, and a brand of music they call I-Grass (Irish Bluegrass). This style puts these guys equally at ease in Dublin and Doolin, at a folk festival here in the States or on the hallowed stage of the Grand Ole Opry, where they made their debut earlier this year.
“It’s always been a bucket list gig for us and to finally get the opportunity to play on country music’s biggest stage was incredible. It’s definitely a career highlight for us and something we’ll never forget,” Jamie McKeogh, lead singer and guitar player, said.
The JigJam guys–McKeogh and Daithi Melia, five-string banjo and dobro, from Offaly; Gavin Strappe, mandolin and tenor banjo from Tipperary; Danny Hunter, fiddle, from Glasgow, grew up playing traditional Irish music; they actually met competing in the Fleadh Cheoils. So how did the bluegrass fusion come about?
“It was a natural transition,” McKeogh said, noting that the fact that Melia’s five-string banjo made their music sound “bluegrassy” already. “Irish music heavily influenced the development of bluegrass music from the Irish immigrants settling over in the states. Many of the songs and tunes are very similar so it makes sense to attack that crossover.”
JigJam’s introduction to bluegrass, however, was somewhat “backwards,” McKeogh said. What he means by this is that they started listening to new age younger bands, like Punch Brothers and the Yonder Mountain String Band, before cycling backward to greats like Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs.
While these musicians have influenced JigJam’s music, McKeogh said he might not be where he is today without a much more personal connection. Not only is his mother a music teacher who taught his sister and him guitar and piano at an early age, but she also had music playing constantly around the house.
“When you’re younger sometimes there can be a stigma about playing music that it’s not ‘cool’, but I think from the positive influence from my Mam, I was lucky enough to persevere with playing music and growing to love it,” McKeogh said.
This is actually a big part of what the host of the Folk Fest, the Riverside Club for Adventure and Imagination, aims to do: help young people connect their creative gifts to an endeavor that both inspires and enlivens them.
“This endeavor will open up to (them) the richness of life…and you will have given (them) something enchanting that (they) will remember for the rest of (their) life,” Peter Searby, founder and director of Riverside said.
The proceeds of the Folk Fest go towards scholarships that help families with tuition for Riverside’s programming, which targets kids ages 8-14. The unique offerings encourage kids to get out and explore nature, make things with their hands, and discover the art of storytelling and music.
While Searby’s genre is mostly folk, like JigJam, he sees the connection with traditional Irish, which he greatly respects. In fact, a number of kids who have participated in Riverside’s programs play Irish music and have actually gone to Ireland a number of times to compete in the Fleadh Cheoil.
“Irish sessions are a good example of an informal and familial way to pass on the great traditions of (tunes) to the younger generations. Sessions…exemplify in a way the Riverside approach to teaching…the young can sit side by side with more experienced musicians and learn from them in a joyful atmosphere of song, fellowship and good cheer,” Searby said.
Searby’s band Basil and the Wrath Bones, which he says takes inspiration from the likes of the Clancy Brothers, will open Folk Fest this year. Illustrating Riverside’s goal of helping young people discover and develop their creative gift, Searby has tapped a button-accordion playing journeyman (graduate of Riverside) to play with the band.
JigJam and Basil will be joined at Folk Fest by Miles Over Mountains, a high-energy progressive bluegrass band hailing from McHenry, IL. Performing and making records since 2014, the band just released a new album this year, Burn the Ships.
Families are welcome to bring chairs, blankets, and picnic lunches to Folk Fest, but there also will be food trucks on site. Breaks between bands will be filled with a drum circle and plenty of activities for kids. Purchase tickets in advance at www.rside.org/folkfest or at the gate.
Riverside Folk Fest
June 10, 2023
1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Cantigny Park, Wheaton Ill.
1 S, 151 Winfield Rd, Wheaton, IL 60189
Adults: $15.00; Youth (8-14) $10.00; Under 8 Free
Tickets at www.rside.org/folkfest
Cantigny charges an additional $15.00 fee per car for entry into the park. This is payable on site.