The Barra MacNeils,
20th Anniversary Collection
(Universal Music Canada, 2007)

Few groups in the Celtic music world can boast the kind of storied career that Cape Breton's world famous family group, the Barra MacNeils, can. Six siblings of almost preternatural skill on all manner of Celtic instruments, with strong, beautiful voices that blend as only sibling voices can, the MacNeils present an award-winning breadth of music, both original and traditional, that is unmatched elsewhere within Celtic music.

In 2007, they decided to release a 20th Anniversary Collection of their music, drawn both from their many albums over the years as well as some new recordings. This is a collection for every celtophile's library. This handsome two-disc set is tastefully packaged, but even more delicious are the riches within. If you are a lover of traditional jigs and reels, then instrumental pieces like "The Clumsy Lover Set" or "Our Highland Queen/Sweeps Hornpipe" will suit you perfectly. While many, many Celtic bands might record jigs and reels, it is important to note here the absolute instrumental virtuosity that this remarkable band demonstrates. Lucy and Kyle play their dueting violins so seamlessly that there is no daylight between bowstrokes, while Boyd's clean, rhythmic bouzouki is backed by Sheumas's piano stylings so indicative of the Cape Breton approach to Celtic music. Despite their direct nod to traditional stylings, the MacNeils understand the original purpose of this music: dancing!

But their music has so much more breadth than mere instrumental virtuosity. As you move to the second track of the first CD, a whole new soundscape opens up as the plaintive Robert Burns song, "My Heart's in the Highland," sweeps you away with an emotion and nuance that leaves you breathless. Many bands have recorded Andy M. Stewart's "Queen of Argyle," but the interpretation you'll find on disc two of this collection is nothing short of stunning. This has become a standard and many groups such as Silly Wizard, Hunting McLeod, Greenwich Meantime, Coyote Run and others have taken admirable swing at it. This rendition easily lives among the very best.

There are so many, many riches here, one could wax poetic on virtually every track. This is a virtually flawless collection by master musicians at the height of their craft. Standout tracks include, "Coaltown Road," "Caledonia" and "The Longest Day."

One can read more about the band, and this remarkable album on their website. If you are a newcomer to this remarkable group, this is the album to pick up -- an absolute "best of."

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
David Connor

31 January 2009

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