Presenting concerts can be about a lot more than throwing someone onstage. Matt Smith manages Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which has been the central venue and fountain of support for 20 years—and is now the official presenter—for Boston’s Celtic Music Festival. For Matt, it’s all about creating opportunities for something special and unique to happen. Learn about where this little festival has been, and where it’s going, with or without your Mouse Pants!
Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters:
Elisabeth Carter, Mark Haynes, Michael Craine, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Lynn Hayes, Bob Suchor, Brian Benscoter, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, Chris Murphy, and the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast
Episode 68-20 Years of BCMFest
Cuppa Tea chat with Passim’s Matt Smith about Boston’s Celtic Music Festival
This Irish Music Stories episode aired January 10, 2023
Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories
>> Matt Smith: Managing director of Club Passim
>> Laura Cortese: San Francisco-born, Belgium-based singer, songwriter, and fiddle player with a Scottish fiddle background who spent years in Boston.
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton, and this is Irish music stories. The show about traditional music and the bigger stories behind it.
[ Music: “The Golden Ticket,” from The Western Star
Artist/Composer: Eric Merrill ]
Like how presenting a concert can be about a lot more than throwing someone onstage:
>> Matt: Anyone can book a room like seven nights a week and just throw whoever onstage. But, like, how do you create opportunities for something special and unique to happen?
>> Shannon: Matt Smith books the room at Club Passim, a cozy 110 seater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is one of the central venues for Boston’s Celtic Music Festival, which will celebrate its 20th year this week. Which is amazing. And it’s gonna be epic.
[ music swells ]
From the start, BCMFest was about bringing different Celtic traditions together, in one space
[ Music: “Grupai Ceol Memories,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
Unlike a lot of festivals who book headliners with pre-formed bands and slick websites, BCMFest has simply required musicians to be connected to the Boston scene, and be excellent. From there, exploration and experimentation was fair game.
Like that opening track, from Eric Merrill. That was his Western Star project, which was an early BCMFest collaboration to weave together Irish and Appalachian fiddle, banjo, and singing styles. Amazing. And since then, other amazing bands have formed and recorded after making connections at BCMFest.
But a lot of Boston’s Celtic Music Festival has really just been just a series of cool moments. Ephemeral. Live.
Like a lot of other music that Matt presents at the Club.
>> Matt Smith: Any kind of an event where it is a gathering, you’re creating an opportunity. And that’s the reason for it. You’re creating the chance for something to happen. And that’s a special thing to be able to do.
>> Shannon: Now, through the year at Passim, you WILL hear Celtic acts… and also lots of songwriters, bluegrass and old time bands, world and jazz acts—a lot of different music plays at 47 Palmer Street in Harvard Square. But that wasn’t the case when Matt first started working with the Club in 1995.
There had been a little bit of Irish folk song dabbling in the 60s, back when the place was called Club 47. But trad wasn’t really on the menu when they restructured the place, right around the time Matt joined the team.
>> Matt: Back when I started working at the club in ’95, there really wasn’t much of a Celtic scene that was part of Passim. You know, even Bluegrass and Old Time there wasn’t a whole lot of. It was predominantly songwriters. And when we reopened as a non profit organization (that’s when I started working there)
[ Music: “Mountain Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: Not a lot of trad music?
>> Matt: Not a lot of trad music. There had been more of that back in the ’60s, back when it was the Club 47, the original iteration of the club, which was a little bit wider in its scope of what folk music look like, because of the folk revival. You know, people were digging into old Irish ballads and all of that. But then in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was more the urban singer songwriter….
>> Shannon: Which is still a mainstay at the Club, with great performers like Rose Cousins here.
[ Music: “Go First,” from We Have Made A Spark
Artist/composer: Rose Cousins ]
Like many Passim regulars, she plays to the informality of the space. But she’s still giving a SHOW. And that’s not always the goal of, say, a group of Irish fiddle players.
>> Matt: The trad scene is more of a group mentality, versus I’m going to go into my writer’s hovel and, you know, weep my tears and scroll my story onto something. And then come out fully emerged with a story to tell you all.
[ Music: “Bb intro,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
I mean, the nature of tune playing is in, in more cases than not, you are playing them with other people. And the audience is the background, as opposed to the music being the background. And it’s less—it can be less performative in that way.
>> Shannon:Yeah, with traditional music and dance, there can be a really different kind of emphasis on gathering WITH music and maybe dance… it’s woven around the hang. It’s about socializing with the other participants (with the players—and with and punters, people who just like to be around traditional music.) Maybe there are enough people to dance a half set.
[ Music: “Jimmy Neary’s/Walls of Liscarroll,” from Ignorance Is Bliss
Artist: Dan Gurney ]
Maybe an old singer shows up and is asked to share a song. There’s spontaneity, iwhich is different from, say, a singer songwriter sharing personal stories and philosophies.
Also in the trad world, a lot of the currency is the SHARED repertoire—the music you learn from and play with other people. Everybody’s kind of ‘in’ on the story. And I think even when it’s up on a stage, presented with a professional ‘sheen’ traditional music is still usually about relationships between the players. And on the connection with the music via other players. And then there are practices that are a little bit different from one scene to the next.
>> Matt: When I first started hearing about the Celtic scene, all I knew was Irish songs and tunes. And I didn’t know any. It took me a long time to start to realize like, okay, there’s the Scottish Tunes, there’s the Irish Tunes, there’s the Cape Breton tunes, there’s the Brittany Tunes. And then it took years after that for me to differentiate them. And to start to hear the difference in any of them.
>> Shannon: Matt gradually learned more about the music. And he got into the scene when he met Scottish fiddle player Hanneke Cassel. He’d gone to a pub with some friends.
>> Matt: And that’s when I met Hanneke Cassel.
[ Music: “Ron Burgundy Tribute: The Glass Case of Emotion/Sweet Grandmother’s Spatula,” from Silver
Artist/Composer: Hanneke Cassel ]
I went to see a session that she was part of down at McGann’s in Boston, back when there was still the expressway overhead, darkening all of that area of Boston.
So I met Hanneke. And then through Hanneke met Laura Cortese and Lissa Schneckenburger. Those folks all had—you know, they were in their young twenties and had a lot of people that would come to see them, or who wanted to see them, that were young teens and couldn’t go to see things at bars and things like that. And we were in all ages club. And so… when did you move to town?
>> Shannon: Well, we moved to town 2001
>> Matt: We’ve been friends for a long time.
Shannon: We really have. And then of course, in 2003, Laura and I came to you and said, we have this idea. And we pulled together BCM Fest.
>> Matt: Absolutely. Yeah. We’ve been a host venue since day one.
[ Music: “Sabai Sabai,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: Matt took a big leap of faith that day when we told him our idea. That a lot of the Scottish players, and Irish players, and Cape Breton players, and dancers, and singers don’t always all get together. But when we do we have a good time. So what would happen if we took EVERYBODY, and we put them all together on one weekend?
What bands would play, Matt asked? Who knows. It’s gonna be all local players (cuz like, we travel around around the country—around the world to play venues and festivals). Nut this would be about Boston music, all together,. It’s gonna be great. And it has been great. And in fact, here’s Laura with a special message going into this year’s festival.
[ Music: “Hielen’ Laddie,” from Laura Cortese
Artist: Laura Cortese ]
>> Laura: This is Laura Cortese, coming’ in from Brussels International Airport. Wow. BCMFest, the 20th time. It’s been an amazing journey, and I can’t believe we’re here. It’s going to be an amazing celebration. And I wish I was gonna be there with all of you. Have fun!
>> Shannon: No matter who’s there, it’s a good time. We kinda knew it would be, when we first pitched the idea to Matt at Passim. And to Tommy and Louise at the Burren. But then we had to scramble to find a handful of other venues around town.
>> Shannon: When we began, it was ‘this is our vibrant community—we need to find homes for it.’ And we had tons of ideas. And we’ve always had more ideas than we have space for. But it’s finding weird little places for it.
>> Matt: And the interesting thing is that this year we’re bringing a piece of it back to Davis Square. The Friday night Urban Ceilidh is gonna be at the Crystal Ballroom in Somerville, which is a new venue. And much more of a space that is meant for an event. Versus what we have been using for the past 10 years, where, you know, it’s the atrium in this office building <laugh>. And it is a functioning space. But it’s, you know, not ideal for what we’ve been doing.
>> Shannon: It has worked everywhere and anywhere.
>> Matt: Right, cuz it’s been all over over the place.
>> Shannon: It’s always worked, because there’s always been the community.
>> Matt: It it is bigger than the space. Yes. It is bigger than where it is.
>> Shannon: Boston’s Celtic Music Fest is really an extension of what’s happening throughout the year—about the Irish, Scottish, and Canadian diasporas, and how they can overlap socially and musically. It’s like hearing this tune, written by an Irish fiddle player (James Kelly), played by Boston-based Cape Breton fiddle player Katie McNally and Neil Pearlman on piano.
[ Music: “Touching Cloth,” (from the set ‘Bhanais Ainmeil’ The Famous Wedding)
Composer: James Kelly
Artist: Katie McNally and Neil Pearlman (with Fàrsan)]
The festival—and the community it celebrates—is a lot bigger and stronger than any one venue, or any one person. But still, mounting BCMFest every year has taken effort and care from just a handful of people.
[ Music: “Petronella,” from Dance
Artist: Lissa Schneckenburger ]
Right from the start, Matt Smith was in. And right from the start, local producer Brian O’Donovan helped us strategize. He helped us get the word out. And he and Lindsay O’Donovan hosted the after parties for many years. Tommy McCarthy and Louise Costello at the Burren have always offered support. Lannie MacQuarrie built stages for BCMFest. Lissa Schneckenburger sewed banners. And every year, the operating committee has put in a lot of unpaid hours to build the festival. It’s been a rotating cast of musicians and community members, including Emily Luce, Ellery Klein, Michael Boyle, Susie Petrov, Sean Smith, Leanne McNally, Jackie O’Riley, and Laura and me.
Then things became more official with Passim, with the help of Dan Hogan, Darlington Howland, Jess Phaneuf (Fan-if), Adam Klein, Jim Wooster, Abby Altman,… and more recently Summer MacCall. Summer is the central manager for the 20th annual festival. And she’s been a champion for newer acts and fusion projects, while still keeping a focus on traditional music, and on the ‘B’ part of BCMFest. On the celebration of local music and dance in Boston.
Throughout it all, Matt Smith has been an anchor. For 20 years he’s helped shape and support the festival. Well before BCMFest became an official program of Passim, Matt was the (well-dressed) auctioneer at a fundraiser we ran one year… he hosted after parties… he helped dream up really stupid collaborations to get people laughing (like Celtic Power Ballads, BCMFest Olympics, and Squeeze Me Blow Me… hmm… actually, I think that was my concept for accordions and flutes in the round. And I think that one got shot down. But there was always this culture with the group that we were safe to share our weirdest brainstorms (like, everybody with a BCMFest tattoo gets free admission for life, or whatever). We could say whatever! Because there was also this professional understanding that through all the fun and silliness, there would always be excellence, and commitment to traditional music, and variety.
>> Matt: I love it. I absolutely love it. And, and what I love to do is try to cross pollinate.
[ Music: “Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
And so these new relationships form. Even within your friend group, saying like check this out. And it’s such a great thing to see!
>> Shannon: At this point Matt has a pretty deep appreciation of the different traditions, and how they can intersect. And he’s taken his presenter worldview to educate Passim audiences of new possibilities. He’s opened a lot of ears.
>> Matt: What I’ve always loved to do is take those trad players and, and put them on that pedestal, if you will. And let people know, like, this is beautiful music to listen to, to focus on. You know, it, it doesn’t have to be the thing in the background as you have your beer. You could sit and listen to this as a concert.
[ Music: “The Luachrachan’s Jig / Haridam’s Fancy (Jigs),” from From Tulla To Boston: Live At The Burren
Artist: Trad Youth Exchange ]
I’ve loved to do that before with bands that are traditionally dance bands. You know, Club Passim is definitely not a place where you dance. There’s tables and chairs. And there’s no room to dance. But to take bands that play brilliantly and beautifully, and give it a listening experience, and see what that does for people.
>> Shannon: At BCMFest, everybody is part of the conversation. The performers. And the listeners. Partly because of the nature of traditional music. And also because the venues are more intimate. And the programming is a thoughtful, guided experience, with room for spontaneity. It’s different from sitting at home listening to an album in your pajamas. And it’s different from a slick stadium or theatre show.
>> Matt: You take people that are deeply rooted in their traditions and put them with other people who are deeply rooted in their own, perhaps separate traditions. There is a commonality to the way you think about things. It’s not necessarily about the tunes themselves, but the reason for why those tunes and songs speak to you. You end up with a bunch of passionate people. Passionate, creative people. And there is a commonality of language there that opens a door to the opportunity to do other kinds of things.
>> Shannon: It isn’t just ‘I’m on the stage, and the audience I can’t even see them cuz the lights are so bright and I’m distanced.’ I mean, it really is a gathering, an intimate gathering. And there’s a lot of two-way communication between the people who happen to be playing the music and the people who happen to be in that room sharing it with you
>> Matt: You can’t ignore the audience. You can’t just do your show to the void. The people that are there demand to be reckoned with—in some way or another. I mean, like, not in a hostile way. But just, they’re right there. They’re right there
>> Shannon: They’re right there. In Passim. Just down the street at the Sinclair. And folks are coming in from all over Harvard Square, which is a bustling
One year we even took the party onto the streets—when we were doing a Celtic circus thing, piper Elias Alexander had asked me if we needed any help that year. I told him to keep his stilts on (yes, actual stilts), and take his pipes over to where the bucket drummers were busking. It was a moment you wouldn’t have if you were still at home, in your pajamas.
[ Music: “Murray’s,” from Bywater
Artist: Elias Alexander & the Bywater Band ]
>> Matt: That live experience is different from a recorded album, because the audience is a part of an experience.
Shannon: Or maybe just cuz you’re wearing pants
Matt: Maybe cuz you’re wearing pants. Exactly. Uh, things touch you differently when you don’t have pants on <laugh>. Does that get edited out? <laugh>
Shannon: <laugh> No. Never.
>> Shannon: There is something special about being live and unedited. And there’s something very special about putting pants on. There will be plenty of pants—and collaboration and celebrating this week at BCMFest. But first I’ll ask my kid to take a break from the Stylophone to thank this month’s Irish Music Stories sponsors
>> Nigel: Thank you to Elisabeth Carter, Mark Haynes, Michael Craine, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Lynn Hayes, Bob Suchor, Brian Benscoter, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, Chris Murphy, and the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast.
[ Music: “The Blackbird,” from Life Is All Checkered
Artists: Nathan Gourley & Laura Feddersen ]
>> Shannon: You’ve got these traditional music and dance communities. You got your Irish gang, you’ve got your Scottish gang, you’ve got your Cape Breton gang. A lot of us know one another (Boston’s small). But also we don’t always overlap. But you’ve got these communities. They’re just fine without BCMFest, thank you very much. They were there before. They’re going to be fine without this annual event. And yet, what this annual event gives is this opportunities maybe TO intersect.
>> Matt; Yeah. A lot of times for gigging musicians, you know, you have your communities. But sometimes you don’t necessarily see each other as much, because, you know, everyone’s got their Thursday night gig, their Friday night gig, their Saturday night gig. And so they might not see each other as often. And, and so it pulls that all together.
But also gives people the impetus and opportunity to create new collaborations. And I think that’s something that BCMs has always done so well, is it opens the door to people to say, like, think outside of your normal box, your normal bubble, and do something that is special for this. And then see where that takes you. And it may just be a one off collaboration of some kind. Or it may turn into a project.
[ Music: “D Mutey Big Build,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: Like TradBot did. I first heard TradBOT at BCMfest. It was Patrick Murray on uilleann pipes, Corey DiMario on upright bass, there was really fun electronic programming, and breakdancing, and choreographed bows at the end. And they played gigs beyond BCmfest, too. Same with Eric Merrill and the Western Star, which led to a special album, extending well beyond the festival.
But there tons of great and hilarious one-off projects—like the time a bunch of us put together the Seven Deadly Sins. (There were actually eight of us, and we made a calendar, as a fundraiser for BCMFest.) And there was a competing band, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (there were of seven of them).
And then there was the time Matt Heaton and Flynn Cohen covered the landmark Paul Brady-Andy Irvine 1976 album in a set for BCMFest. And there were so many… well, 19 so far… artisanal Finale concerts, many of which weren’t even recorded. But they were awesome, ephemeral. And they helped build friendships and musical partnerships that took different forms later.
There were exciting collaborations during the last two BCMFests: some included performers from farther away. These were still musicians or dancers with ties to Boston, but who maybe weren’t living here (or were away during the pandemic). And this was more possible with the online format.
2022 was GONNA be in person. Until all the live events started to go away again last December…
>> Matt: By New Year’s we were shut down again for three weeks, including BCMFest. You know, we put it online again, because we were seeing the rise of Omicron. It just didn’t feel safe. It didn’t feel like the right decision to say to people, ‘Hey everybody, let’s get together in large numbers <laugh> and get in a room.’ And so we decided to put it online, and we did as we had the year before, and created something really special again.
When you put it online, you are creating new kinds of opportunities that you couldn’t do in person. And so it ended up feeling very, very special. We were introduced to a lot of new people that we wouldn’t have met otherwise, because of the platform.
Will it go back to more what it looked like before? I think to some degree, certainly. But whether it be for Covid reasons or any other number of ripple effects, we—in a lot of ways, thankfully—are more cautious about things than we were. When we look at safety in a less personal way and a more community way, I think that’s a good thing that that has become more normalized. When you go back to several years ago, you would think about the performer or the audience member, like, “I’m gonna cough and sneeze and hack my way through this.” And now we know it’s better to not do that.
>> Shannon: Maybe we know. Maybe we’ve learned. Time will tell. And time marches on. Things are not the same as they were three years ago.
[ Music: “Jasmine Flower,” from Silver
Artist/Composer: Hanneke Cassel
>> Matt: There’s never gonna be the same, Covid or no Covid. The same is a very blurry shifting thing. And when you think of is the same, when you look at it over a ten year period, you go ‘that’s not the same!’ And, I mean, that’s the beauty of it: is that the norm is a shifting beast. That’s the fun of it. If it was the same every year, why would that get tired! It must be boring <laugh> And I’m excited to meet the new people who I haven’t gotten the chance to meet yet!
>>> Shannon: When BCMFest first started, there were kids performing, 20 years ago. 20 years later, they’re like in their 30s and we’re all friends, we’re colleagues.
>> Matt: And there’s people who weren’t born yet when it started that are playing it. So many of the new people from five years ago now are the old guard. They’re the ones that are out there trailblazing and inviting new people in. The incredible thing that you have done, that Hanneke has done, that Laura has done, that Lissa has done. You all became leaders of the scene 20 years ago or more. You’re still looking at new people and finding new people and engaging new people. And I get to be someone that gets to have a place where they can play. You know, I’m the one with the keys to the clubhouse.
>> Shannon: Well, all of us accidental leaders, it’s cuz we have keys to something, right? Oh, hey, I know these tunes. Let me show ’em to you. Hey, I got keys to this club where you can play. Exactly. And so it’s so cool that now they’re a bunch of Zoomers who have their own keys and are welcoming new people in. So it’ll be really exciting.
What are you most excited to see this year at BCMFest?
>> Matt: I never know. Like that’s the thing. I’m not excited to see anything in particular. I’m just excited to see. Yeah. To me that’s always the most fun—is just being there to meet the moment. Yeah. And and seeing what happens.
>> Shannon: Well and that’s why we always called it Boston’s Celtic Music Fest, because it’s like, there are no headliners. There’s no like one thing that’s better than the other. There are older players, there are newer players. There’s acts you never heard of. And there are collaborations that we’re gonna put together. And you’re gonna have to figure it out. And nobody knows how that’s gonna go. And let’s all just watch it unfold.
>> Matt: And that’s, I mean, that is one of the biggest joys in my job. It’s like, the doors are open, the mics are on, what are you gonna do? You know, what are you gonna bring to this? It’s like a pot of chili where you invite a bunch of people over, and everyone bring an ingredient. You don’t tell them what the other ones are bringing <laugh>. You know, you might end up with, you know, 600 people bringing an onion. But people are gonna bring little bits of everything. You’re gonna throw it in this pot. And then we’re all gonna eat it.
>> Shannon: Yeah. Even if it’s all onions.
>> Matt: Even if it’s all onions. You know, I like onions.
>> Shannon: I like onions too.
>> Shannon: Onions are also good for boosting the immune system. Onions, garlic, vaccines, hand washing, and face masks. There will be a lot of those at this year’s BCMFest. So you might plan your outfit (and your novelty headband) around your N95. Because there’s gonna be a lot of musicians—and music—in one space.
>> Matt: I’m thinking about putting together different artists. And kind of falling in love with their music. And then going like, all right, well what can I do to help this person? What can I do to help them reach more people? What tools do I have that can help grow that artist to another level?
>> Shannon: Mouse ears?
>> Matt: Absolutely. That’s, that’s really what it is.
>> Shannon: No pants?
>> Matt: Mouse pants?
>> Shannon: Mouse pants
>> Matt: Which is no pants, right?
>> Shannon: Yeah. Costuming!
[ Music: “Johnny Going to Ceilidh,” from demo
Artists: Flynn Cohen & Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: I do have an old Hallowe’en costume with mouse ears. No mouse pants. But still, this episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you Matt Heaton for the production music, and thank you, Nigel, for acknowledging this month’s sponsors. Thank you so much Matt Smith for chatting with me… and for putting on another edition of BCMFest — you can learn more about the festival at passim.org/bcmfest. And for Irish Music Stories playlists, transcripts, and to kick in to help make more Irish Music Stories, please visit IrishMusicStories.org
Episode guests in order of appearance