Pipers' Ceilidh
at the Gaelic College, St. Ann's, Cape Breton
(7 October 2007)

At Celtic Colours, there are a lot of late nights of tunes and partying, which makes it difficult for people to get out of bed before noon. This is why it is always surprising to me that the matinee shows at the festival are often packed -- sold out, even. The Piper's Ceilidh was no different. After walking into the Hall of the Clans and seeing there wasn't a seat open in the house, a friend and I decided it would be better for us to stand upstairs.

I had the opportunity to see this particular show last year and loved it, so I was really excited to be back. Even more exciting was the stellar lineup again this year. It included multi-talented Glenn Coolen, who played uilleann pipes for this show, Cape Bretoners Jamie MacInnis, Paul K. MacNeil and Tracey Dares, and Scotland's Calum Alex MacMillan.

First up was Coolen, who blew me away, as did his accompanist, Seph Peters on guitar. It was really exciting to watch them because they played a lot of great Irish tunes and their arrangements were really nice. They began with a beautiful slow air and followed it with a lilting waltz, which happened to be a planxty. Then, they sped things up a bit with some lively jigs.

After this, Coolen explained that he gets a workout when he plays the uilleann pipes. The instrument makes the musician use his body in more ways than what the audience might think. He showed how he moves his fingers to make the notes, he uses his arms to lift the chanter off of his knee to change octaves, he squeezes air into the bag with his elbow by moving his shoulder back and forth, and he taps his toes while playing. Coolen also explained that it could be even more complex if he had regulators to make different chords. "Every limb is needed," he said.

After this lesson, he put his pipes down and picked up his low whistle for some tunes. For this, he told the audience the low whistle is a fairly new instrument and it "looks like a whistle, but sounds like a flute." He showed this by playing a set of slow Irish jigs and then some reels, with great style and interpretation of the tunes.

Next, Peters started a set of jigs with some fancy finger picking work on the guitar and was joined by Coolen on the pipes. This set really portrayed the duo's talent in blending their instruments and sensitivity to each other's styles. This was followed by a set of "march reels," as Coolen put it, including "Craig's Pipes" and "Lucy Campbell's."

They ended with a set of jigs, which included the "Humours of Ballylaughlin." Coolen said, "This is about the time where the instrument starts heating up from body heat, so Irish people stop playing and go get a pint." With Peters on the banjo, they left the audience ready for more.

Next to take the stage was MacInnes, of Big Pond, Cape Breton. He was accompanied by John Ferguson. The combination of Highland pipes and bouzouki was one I had never heard before, but it sounded really good. They started their set with some marches, strathspeys and reels, a typical lively Cape Breton set.

After tuning again -- to "B-flat sharp," as Ferguson put it -- they played some jigs and slow hornpipes. For this set, the pipes kicked things off, then Ferguson showed his stuff, and then they went back to the first tune and played together to end the set. They ended with another rousing set of jigs, which included Dares on the piano and a bit of audience participation (clapping and tapping).

Then, the emcee came up for a set on his border pipes. He said he never had the opportunity to play with Dares before, so he wanted the chance while he had it. After his few minutes of fame, he introduced Isle of Lewis piper MacMillan, who also happened to be a brilliant singer.

MacMillan began with some lively 6/8 tunes on the Highland pipes and then played a set that started with an air (a Gaelic song) and escalated into toe-tapping strathspeys and reels. By this time, he seemed pretty warmed up!

He shared a story that every musician dreads. MacMillan said he came to Cape Breton on Thursday. He left the airport with no suitcase or pipes! They had not arrived on the same flight that he had. The next day, still no suitcase or pipes. Saturday morning came; nothing. Finally on Saturday evening, his precious belongings arrived.

After the scary story, he calmed things down with a beautiful Gaelic song about a young man who loses his sweetheart. His voice was mesmerizing and the song really added variety to his set.

To get the audience going for the end of his set, MacMillan took out his small pipes and played a tune by his father, which he followed with a medley of hornpipes and jigs.

Last to take the stage was a duo of fantastic musicians, who not only are married but also have the perfect marriage of styles on stage. MacNeil and Dares, on Highland pipes and piano, began their set with a beautiful air. The combination of the lilting tune on the pipes with the sometimes-jazzy chords on the piano was perfect.

After following the air with some jigs, marches and reels, MacNeil gave a little tribute to Jerry Holland by playing some of his tunes in a lively Cape Breton set, which was accompanied by a lot of tapping toes in the audience.

After Dares tuned the keyboard to the pipes (gotta love technology), MacNeil played a composition of his own that he wrote for a friend who battled cancer. It was a waltz with a sweet-sounding melody.

He followed this with some more of his compositions (and a composition that he "wished was his," he said), including some jigs for his daughters. One was called "Piano Rides," which was written because his girls always sit on Dares' knee while she's playing the piano. He then ended with a lively Cape Breton set.

Once again, this was a really great concert. With the exception of MacMillan, the only solo artist for this show, the concert could have been called "Perfect Pairs," because the duos of musicians were very well put together and some that I would love to see again.

review by
Kaitlin Hahn

8 December 2007

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