The Barra MacNeils,
The Christmas Album
(Oasis/Barratone, 1999)

The Barra MacNeils invited us to share Christmas, and what a celebration it turned out to be! The Christmas Album begins with an intimate gathering, with a decidedly sacred feel to it, and then launches into a party as siblings Lucy, Stewart, Kyle and Sheumas MacNeil, along with a bunch of other MacNeils and sundry other fine musicians, get rolling.

For the first four tracks, it's easy to envision a cozy hearth in Cape Breton and the MacNeil family gathered with their extended family. The music begins with the English traditional "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," then glides into the snowy fantasy "Children's Winter, " featuring Lucy's sweet and gentle rendering. The brothers share the singing in a full-bodied Celtic-flavored "Carol of the Bells." Finally "Ann am Baile Ri'oghail Dhaibhidh (Once in Royal David's City)," an enchanting Gaelic song, drifts to a close and Tommy Makem takes the stage to tell us a story.

Tommy's "Singing in the Streets," with MacNeil accompaniment, really has an effect on the mood. Afterward, there's a definite "carpe diem" attitude to the brothers' "Christmas Comes But Once a Year," featuring an almost percussive chant along with the drumming, fiddling and whooping. "Christmas in Killarney," my favorite track, is a great song and really sounds like a fun place to be! "The Snowplow Set," featuring five snow-related tunes, showcases the MacNeils' music proficiency with wonderful arrangements that keep the party going all night long!

Midway through the CD, Lucy sings the hymn "O Holy Night" in memory of their uncle Charlie MacKenzie. It's profound and chilling, and a nice break if you've been dancing. The intricately arranged "Galician Carol" leads into the swelling harmonies of the a cappella "O Come Divine Messiah" and full hallelujahs of "Taladh Chriosda" with the siblings taking turns on the Gaelic verses.

And then back to the party, which they've aptly titled "Party in Washabuckt," beginning with a Gaelic song for New Year's Day, "A Challium," featuring the voices of Rod, Jamie, Maxi and Paul K. MacNeil, along with Joe Peter MacLean and Frances Forrest. Four guest fiddlers join the frolic for five diverse and delightful tunes. The Christmas Album bids farewell with "Auld Lang Syne" sung to Robert Burns original melody.

The four members of the Barra MacNeils each play so many instruments that I'm not going to guess who is playing what on which song. Lucy works in some Celtic harp and her own feet; Stewart's accordion, whistles and guitar shine; Kyle plays just about anything with strings; and Sheumas focuses on piano and keyboards. They're also joined by Jamie Gatti on electric and upright bass. Boyd MacNeil adds octave mandolin and Matthew Foulds sits in on drums and percussion. The result is a superb performance all around, but we expected no less from this family.

The Barra MacNeils are excellent and fun and excellent fun, and now we can share the holidays with them! Add this one to your collection.

[ by Julie Bowerman ]