The Jacob's Ladder Winter Weekend is a pared down version of their more expansive Spring Weekend bash, but the 5th annual two-day winter affair, which kicks off at 4:45 p.m. today, has plenty to offer. The increasingly popular event, which takes place at the regular Nof Ginosar site next to the Kinneret, is a more intimate affair than its more veteran incarnation. But perennial organizers Yehudit and Menahem Vinegrad still manage to squeeze in a couple of foreign acts among the familiar local faces. This weekend's frontliner, Ben Sands, comes from a venerable Irish musical family. Both his parents were amateur musicians and three of his siblings are professional musicians. Brothers Tommy and Colum and sister Anne frequently join Sands on tours of the States and Europe. Tommy and Colum have also both graced the Jacob's Ladder stage in the past. Sands' life story is a classic one. "We grew up on a small farm outside Newry in County Down [Northern Ireland]," he recalls. "We walked 3 miles to primary school everyday, and we had no electricity, or running water in the house." They do say that necessity is the mother of invention and what the Sands family lacked in material comforts, they made up for with their own efforts. "We had a radio with a wet battery that ran out after a few days," Sands continues. "The bread man used to take the battery away on the Thursday, recharge it and return it on the Tuesday. In between we'd do our own thing." The latter involved the family members gathering with various musically inclined pals and relatives who would meet, play music and tell stories for hours on end. "Often, these things would just happen with no prior planning," Sands explains. "Someone would just come by and tell us something had happened, but as a story. There'd be no time limit on how long the story would go. Stories could go on all night. It was down to the storyteller's talents." While the absence of technological distractions left open the possibilities for hands-on entertainment back when Sands was growing up in the fifties and sixties, progress has since caught up with Northern Ireland and Eire in recent years. Economic advances tend to take their toll on time worn traditions. Ireland is no exception. "There used to be a lot of live music in pubs, but these days they all seem to have about seven or eight TV screens blaring MTV," Sands laments. Still, Sands sees a live music revival on the horizon. "I think people are getting a bit fed up with TV, and are looking to getting back to traditional homemade entertainment," he explains. Never one to lollygag, Sands has turned at least one aspect of the outside world's inroads on Irish culture to his advantage. "In the old days you couldn't find a cup of coffee anywhere in Newry. In fact, if you asked for one in a pub you'd stand a chance of being slung out. These days there are about 20 coffee shops in town," he says. The proliferation of local coffee establishments spawned Sands' "Cheesecake Song." Mind you, that has also resulted in something of a gastronomic problem. "When I play the song in some places in Germany there are some women who come to the concert with a cheesecake, and they invite me to eat it with them after the show. I've started putting on a bit of weight in the meantime. Maybe I should have written a song about steak and chips. At least then I'd have something tasty to eat," Sands says. Another powerhouse act from abroad on the Winter Weekend roster is American band Tempa and the Tantrums. No doubt they'll blow festivalgoers away with a high-energy blues bag. Elsewhere on the packed festival program you'll find the familiar faces and sounds of Galileean duo Ada & Diane, Shay Tochner and Lilac Sheer, Gaelic-inflected Evergreen and La Vache Qui Rit. Add to this musical mix workshops in Irish, square and folk dancing, tai chi, general jam sessions and fun and games for the kiddies it's not such a bad way to spend a couple of days by the lake. For more information visit jlfestival.com or call (04) 685-0403.