This has been a year like no other and, with Monday’s announcement of a return to lockdown restrictions, most will be happy on New Year’s Eve to celebrate its end.
Music Niagara offers a joyous celebration that afternoon, with the return of the singing, fiddling and step-dancing Fitzgerald siblings.
The family group, consisting of Tom, Kerry and Julie Fitzgerald, last performed for the festival in July, 2017. That summer, the siblings fit the NOTL show into the middle of a tour of Ohio, just before heading off to the U.K. and Ireland, where their Celtic music and dancing have their roots.
When it came time to book a New Year’s show to conclude Music Niagara’s 2020 At Home Series, general manager Karen Lade says the Ottawa Valley-area family act was an obvious choice.
“We were looking for something to end the year on a celebratory note,” Lade tells The Local. “They were received so well last time, and their upbeat energy seemed perfect to keep the momentum we built this year going. We were elated they were available.”
Tom Fitzgerald remembers that 2017 outdoor show fondly. He says they jumped at the opportunity to return for this week’s online event, especially in light of how many of their scheduled appearances were cancelled this year due to COVID.
“We had a big year booked, probably our busiest yet,” says Tom. “We planned to play a lot of festivals in the U.S., and we had a tour booked in England.” His sister Kerry estimates that since March, at least 100 appearances were cancelled or postponed. Luckily, they have had a few chances to participate in livestream and recorded online events such as the At Home Series.
With all of those cancellations, the three of them took some time to work independently. “We kind of focused on other projects,” Tom explains. “Just solo things. I write a lot, and Kerry has her own electronic fiddle project. We all tried to keep busy with other things.”
Indeed, all three of the Fitzgeralds maintain their own websites. A visit to kerryfitzgerald.ca will lead to her 2018 album Fiddle Beatz, an experimental fusion of her original fiddle tunes with electronic music production. A three-song EP (extended play, or mini-album) of Tom’s original fiddle compositions is available to listen to at Tomfitzgeraldmusic.ca, while Julie offers online music and step dancing lessons to dancers of all skill levels through juliefitzgerald.ca.
Together, though, along with Alanna Jenish accompanying them on guitar, their act draws on a tradition with roots on the Emerald Isle, through the Maritimes, on to their Ottawa Valley home.
The Celtic connection came naturally to the Bancroft-raised siblings. “It’s what we know,” says Tom. “We grew up playing old-time music. Picture a square dance. We don’t necessarily play that in our show as much, but it’s our roots, what’s common between all of us. From there, Celtic music, east coast Maritime music, as well as American folk music, it’s kind of all translatable.”
“The music we grew up playing,” he continues, “Ottawa Valley fiddle and step, kind of originated in that small geographical area. Even outside of that, people ask ‘what is that?’ There’s a certain style about it that is very Ontario, though we often do play with a lot of friends from the Maritimes.”
All three Fitzgeralds, and Jenish as well, are accomplished and awarded musicians. Tom is a Canadian Grand Master Fiddle Champion and a Canadian Open Fiddle Champion, while Julie is a two-time Canadian Grand Master Fiddle Champion, as well as two-time Open Step Dance Champion. Kerry is an Ontario Open Step Dance Champion and Canadian Grand Master Fiddle Finalist, while Jenish has captured the Southwestern Ontario Open Fiddle Championship. All four play multiple instruments, as well.
Tom and Kerry both studied jazz at Humber College, while Julie holds a kinesiology degree from Western University. Jenish, meanwhile, graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Toronto. The Fitzgeralds have worked in the past with the likes of Natalie McMaster, the Leahys, Tommy Hunter and Wayne Rostad.
In their earlier days, the young Fitzgeralds were often accompanied by the other members of their family. “There used to be six of us,” Tom says of their family band. “My dad learned to play bass and my mom learned to play piano, just so they could accompany us. We’re obviously a fiddle-heavy group, so we needed some back-up. And we have an older brother who used to play drums with us. So it was a full family thing at one time.”
Their New Year’s online show is a high energy, exuberant performance, combining some familiar seasonal tunes, traditional Celtic and Bluegrass songs and original compositions. For the Fitzgeralds, Let it Snow becomes Let it Jig, and they play a haunting, wonderful rendition of Gustav Holst’s In the Bleak Midwinter. They take on the Bob Wills 1940s classic It’s All Your Fault as well.
Their set also includes a few songs written by the siblings. Fin honours their Irish idol Brian Finnegan while Ed in the Clouds reminisces on their time spent on an Irish folk cruise with English Celtic guitarist Ed Boyd. As well, days spent laughing, conspiring, bickering and performing at a restaurant near their hometown at Potash Lake inspired the wistful original The Lakehouse Jig, which segues directly into their take on the upbeat reel St. Andrews Flight. They cap things off with a nod to the Maritime influence with the rollicking PEI Set.
Through the entire performance, it’s a marvel to see three siblings playing, singing and dancing with so much joy and exuberance. They seem to feed off of each other’s energy, while Jenish anchors it all with her deft fretwork on acoustic guitar.
The show was filmed at the Welland Campus of Niagara College by the school’s Broadcasting – Radio, Television and Film students under the direction of their professors, continuing a relationship with Music Niagara that benefitted both parties throughout the pandemic.
A Celtic New Years Celebration with The Fitzgeralds hits the Music Niagara Festival website and YouTube channel at 4 p.m. on Dec. 31, and will continue to be available for viewing following its premiere.