Seinn nam Fonn: Singing the Tunes
at North River Community Hall, North River, Cape Breton
(8 October 2007)

It was an easy drive from the Gaelic College, up a beautifully forested road (and some ill-timed roadway construction) through St. Ann's and Goose Cove to North River. Just after the North River Bridge, we hung a left on Oregon Road and past the Shape Shifter's pottery barn to the North River Community Hall, a cozy venue packed with more than 150 people, and where a host of local performers and visitors from away got their time to shine.

The evening began with Catriona Watt, a poised and sensitive young singer from the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides who was named Young Traditional Musician of Scotland this year and who greeted her audience in both Gaelic and English. She sang unaccompanied, with an expressive and emotional interpretation of timeless Gaelic lyrics.

Catriona's portion of the evening included songs about romance, waulking (beating tweed into shape; the locals, very familiar with their similar tradition known as a "milling frolic," immediately joined in with a steady foot-tap rhythm approximating the beat of the heavy cloth on a table) and mouth music, in which the voice takes the place of instruments for dancing. Catriona's tune grew quite fast by the end, and would easily have exhausted many a dancer.

Welsh singer and harper Gwenan Gibbard came next, accompanied by Huw Williams on guitar and a bit of Welsh dancing.

Gwenan pulled clear, bell-like tones from her harp with deft and lively fingers. She boasts an equally lively, sprightly voice that makes even the consonant-heavy and phlegmatic Welsh tongue sound delicate.

After a couple of love songs ("Gwenni Aeth I Ffair Pwillheli" and "Dod Dy Law") and a Welsh variation on "The Ashgrove," Gwenan demonstrated the ancient (but still thriving) national tradition of penillion, or setting poetry to harp music. The rules dictate that the poetry and music must have different melodies that provide a counterpoint to one another, beginning separately but ending together.

With the guitar neatly filling in the foundation, Gwenan burst any hidebound notions that the harp is a staid or somber instrument. Hers is the liveliest harp I can recall ever hearing. For the final tune set, Huw did a bit of dancing -- a loose-limbed Welsh style that looks like a cross between step and tap -- around a candle flame, which he extinguished at the end with a well-placed leap and heel click.

Otis Tomas concluded the first half of the show. A North River luthier, gardener and garlic lover, Otis emigrated to Cape Breton from his native Rhode Island.

Joined onstage by guitarist Paul MacDonald and bassist Ed Woodsworth, the bushily bearded Otis performed a number of his own fiddle compositions, including "The 100-Year Waltz," "Feet First," "This & That," "The April Fool," "Trevor's Fiddle," "Before the Storm," "Fernando's Gone" and "Gordon's Hook." There are a few in the bunch I'd like to learn myself, and even more I suspect will enter the ranks of Cape Breton's traditional tunebook.

Michael Black, a vocal dynamo from Ireland now residing in San Francisco, was back at Celtic Colours for a second visit. "I like to sing, and I like it when people sing with me," he announced at the start of his set. But, before they could sing, audience members first had to pass the "grunt" test with the song "Alabama John Cherokee."

That hurdle passed, Black progressed to "Fare Thee Well." ("Get the hanky out now, this is serious," he warned. "But you've still got to sing.") Then he traded his guitar for a banjo (and welcomed local guitarist Paul MacDonald to the stage) for the Dublin shanty "Billy O'Shea." After a love song in Gaelic about a man who's lost his dog, Black shared a joke about a priest and a donkey that I shan't repeat here, then sang the tale of "Tarry Flynn," who preferred poetry to good, honest toil.

Black concluded his set with "Don't Laugh at Me," a touching children's song that serves as a theme for the Up Respect program, and the sing-along delight "McGilligan's Youngest Daughter."

The show ended with a performance by local musicians Rocky Shore: fiddlers Paul Cranford, Otis Tomas and Sarah Beck, Dave Papazian on concertina and fiddle, guitarist Paul MacDonald and guitarist/singer Deanie Cox.

Their set began with a stately wedding march, followed by the song "Bedlam Boys," Cranford's compositions "Distant Bells" and "After the Storm," Cox's "I'm Easily Led," and more.

And it was time to call it a night. Or wait, no -- the Festival Club is waiting less than 20 minutes down the road. That's the ticket, more music!

review by
Tom Knapp

17 November 2007

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