Girl Power
at Marion Bridge Recreation Centre, Marion Bridge, Cape Breton
(7 October 2007)

"Girl Power" was definitely the right name to pick for the Celtic Colours concert at the Marion Bridge Recreation Centre. It included extremely talented women from Cape Breton, Ireland and the United States, all of whom have traveled all over the world to share their skills with unsuspecting audiences who probably had no idea about the treat they were in for.

Opening the concert was a Cape Breton supergroup of talent, which included Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond, Wendy MacIsaac (one of the artists in residence for the festival this year) on fiddle and Tracey Dares on piano. Lamond began with a lament that she learned from Rod C. MacNeil; it was about a woman who was mourning the drowning of her brother and father. While the lyrics were sad, the song had a beautiful, haunting melody and it happens to be one of my favorites that Lamond sings.

The next song was much more lively and was kicked off by MacIsaac with a reel she wrote while in the process of recording the song for Lamond's album. It was referred to as the "quitting your job song" because it was about a man who fixed part of a ship and the part broke again. When the captain told him it was broken, the man told him he was not fixing it again. The song had a great, driving rhythm and overall, had an energetic arrangement.

Next, Lamond told the audience that she was "going to cheer things up with a song that nobody dies in." She proceeded to sing an unrequited love song.

To change things up a bit, Lamond left the stage for MacIsaac and Dares to share some tunes. Before playing, Dares told a cute story about how her youngest daughter became an escape artist the night before the concert. She climbed out of her crib, then got the door of the bedroom open and came running down the hallway to excitedly announce to her father (piper Paul MacNeil) that she got out. While Dares may not get much sleep lately, she plays beautifully. She performed one of her own compositions called "A Mira Melody," a lilting air her father used to make her play all the time because of its beauty.

Then it was MacIsaac's turn to wow the audience. She played a lively, traditional Cape Breton set, which started with a march she wrote. There were a lot of toes tapping in the audience, especially when she got to the driving reels. Her arrangement of the tunes and tempo were dead on and the set was performed flawlessly.

Following this, Lamond joined them again for some mouth music, which MacIsaac showed her steps to. The music and stories of this group were a brilliant start to the concert. They had fantastic stage presence and talent.

Next to take the stage was a duo of multi-talented Cape Breton musicians, Kimberley Fraser and Brenda Stubbert. The very chatty emcee, Blanch, explained how it is so great to see the two of them switch back and forth, effortlessly, between the fiddle and piano, and first to share some tunes was the very bright (as Blanch put it, many times) Fraser.

She kicked off her set with set of toe-tapping jigs, which sounded difficult, but she made them look effortless. Then, she slowed things down with a lovely air by Jerry Holland called "My Cape Breton Home." Fraser explained this tune was appropriate for this concert on a couple of levels: one being that Holland is going through a tough time, health-wise, right now and the other being that Fraser, who is studying at Berklee School of Music in Boston, is home after being away for six weeks. The set didn't stay slow and calm for long, though. It escalated into virtuosic strathspeys and reels, including the infamous "Tullochgorum" and "The Mason's Apron," which included variations of variations that I hadn't heard when Fraser played the tune last year. For this, there was applause in the middle of tunes and a standing ovation by the entire audience at the end of the set.

When the audience took their seats, Fraser and Stubbert switched places. Stubbert began her set by dedicating her performance to her father who, like Holland, is in poor health. She, too, started with some lively jigs. Then, after a bit of wit and humor, Stubbert played some marches and strathspeys for Blanch (when the emcee introduced Stubbert, she said that she LOVED to hear her marches and strathspeys). She ended the set with a wonderful crisp and clean rendition of the "Fairy Dance" reel. Once again, the audience was on their feet, applauding.

The emcee came out to talk the performers off the stage, but they interrupted her to tell the audience that they weren't finished, yet. They had a surprise set, which ended up being the highlight of the show. They picked up their fiddles, stood face to face and did what they called the "Siamese Twins" fiddle duet. Each fingered her own fiddle, but bowed the other's for a few reels that were done so well and so in sync that it actually did sound as if only one fiddle was playing at times. The audience went crazy over the performance (with yet another standing ovation) and it was the perfect way to end the first half of the show.

After intermission, it was Ireland's Karan Casey's turn to take the stage. Joining her were some wonderful musicians, including Caoimhin Vallely on keyboard, Liz Knowles (of the U.S.) on fiddle and Robbie Overson on guitar. Together, Casey and her band gave new life to some old songs, as well as dazzling the audience with some more contemporary ones, including a beautiful rendition of "Distant Shore," which happens to be the title track of one of her albums. She sang everything from a lament to an anti-war song to give variety to her set. Knowles, who is a recent addition to the band, added even more variety by entertaining the audience with a set of tunes, beginning with a beautiful composition of her own, called "Toss the Fiddles."

While Casey's songs were performed beautifully, her banter between them was less than thrilling ... even offensive at times. From insulting a group she played with the night before to embarrassing her driver and then slamming the president of the U.S., she definitely put some unwanted tension in the room. It would have been much better if she just talked more about the songs she was performing.

All of this was eased by the finale of the show, which began with a familiar Gaelic song by Lamond, who taught the chorus and told the audience it was OK to mumble the part that everyone usually messes up on. Then, Casey sang "Here's a Health to the Company," which the audience joined in on the chorus. To end the concert, Knowles, Fraser and Stubbert played a blast of reels, to which Stubbert's daughter, Tracey, came out and showed her steps, followed by the emcee, then by Fraser (in high heels, no less!) and then Stubbert, herself.

The concert left a definite buzz of excitement in the air and suited Celtic Colours really well. Here's to more concerts like this one in the future of the festival.

review by
Kaitlin Hahn

3 November 2007

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