AZTEC — If you're comfortable in a kilt or swoon to the sound of bagpipes, you'll want to convene your clan in Aztec.

The Aztec Highland Games and Celtic Music Festival kicks off its third year with a full weekend of ancient athletic competitions, dancing and marching and live music at the popular Four Corners celebration of Gaelic culture.

On Friday, the festival will give a hint of things to come during the Aztec Art Walk along Main Avenue. The evening opens fittingly with the sound of bagpipes led by Aztec resident piper John Cater. Celtic group Gypsyfire will also entertain in the courtyard next to Rubio's Restaurant.

On Saturday and Sunday, the festival marches down to Riverside and Hartman parks for two days of pipe bands, Celtic genealogy, kid-friendly activities, athletic feats, Viking fighting demonstrations and local food, beer and wine.

More than 60 athletes will compete throughout the weekend in events that date back to the early days of the Scottish clans. During various events, competitors will hurl 19-foot, 175-pound tree trunks, 25-pound stones and Scottish hammers.

But the real feat may be the event's featured musical act.

The band Celtica brews together highland bagpipes and pyrotechnics with hard rock intensity. Consisting of musicians -- one of them a fire juggler -- who hail from Scotland, Austria, California and Arizona, the band will perform Saturday night.

"We're a unique take on Celtic music with a heavy rock feel," said Duncan Knight, from Edinburgh, Scotland, who plays the Great Highland Bagpipes. "Easy to claim when the lead singer position is replaced with a piper. The sound goes really well together. The pipes are like a really powerful vocalist."

The band began four years ago and gathers together its members for practices in Vienna, Austria, when they aren't travelling to highlands festivals around the globe.

"It's a party on stage, and everyone's invited," Knight said of the band's high-energy concerts. "It's as much a stage show as a band performance that appeals to everybody, from young kids to grandparents."

The group likes to mix traditional Celtic sounds with rock favorites.

"A highlight is our medley of 'We, Scotland, the Brave' with (Deep Purple's) 'Smoke on the Water,' which is a crowd favorite," Knight said.

While other musical acts on tap for the festival will not likely have flamethrowers fused to their fiddles, they are all anchored in the Four Corners, most of them in San Juan County and Durango, Colo. They include Big'ns, Celtic Knot, Giant's Dance, Kitchen Jam Band, Mad Haggis and Patrick Crossing.

Another is Gypsyfire, a nearly 20-year-old Celtic roots band from Farmington.

Led by singer-songwriter Charlie Stacey, a scholar of Celtic musicology and a prolific songwriter of more than 200 original songs, the group includes his wife, Cynthia Whiddon Green, and guitarist Steven Sprague. The band will perform songs from its newest album. The album, "Innocuus sed perterbans," which translates to "Harmless yet alarming," is released Friday.

"Celtic music is all about storytelling," Stacey said. "To me, that's the essence of the music. It's a way of looking at the world. We have this diaspora of peoples from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Northern France, Brittany, who have brought their traditions with them. That resonates with so many people, even if we've never been to those places."

Stacey insists the popularity of Celtic music in the Four Corners is based on its accessibility and universal themes.

"The music can be sad or uplifting, but it's always engaging and fun to dance to," Stacey said. "The thing about the Celts is that they have the ability to assimilate, to go someplace without losing themselves, carrying their songs, penny whistles, guitars, fiddles -- simple, portable instruments -- to go anywhere in the world and add the sense of who they are to the place they were, through a song and story."


What: Aztec Highland Games and Celtic Music Festival

When and where: · Kickoff event from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at Art Walk in downtown Aztec

· Festivities from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at Riverside Park, 500 S. Light Plant Road, and Hartman Park, 500 Llano St.

Cost: Friday is free. Weekend passes for Saturday and Sunday are $20 or $15 per day. Military, students and seniors pay $15 for the weekend and $10 per day. Kids 12 and under are free.

More info: Go to or contact the Aztec Chamber of Commerce at 505-334-7646 or

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.