Barra MacNeils: 20 Years & Counting
at Sydney Marine Terminal, Sydney, Cape Breton
(13 October 2007)

When I arrived at the Marine Terminal, it was packed with people buzzing with excitement for this show. It was no wonder why, either. The Barra MacNeils is one of the most famous and talented bands to come out of Cape Breton. Their music is a great mix of songs and tunes, Cape Breton and Irish.

The show began with three fiddlers: Kyle, Boyd and Seamus, with Ryan on piano and Lucy skipping onto the stage later to show her steps to a traditional Cape Breton set. They had the audience engaged from the first note.

This was followed by one of my favorite Barra MacNeils sets, which includes the jig "Calliope House," morphs into reels and finishes with "The Clumsy Lover." It can be heard on the Traditional Album and their new 20th Anniversary Album. The set included the whole group of MacNeils.

Next, Stuart sang "By the Banks of the Roses" while playing accordion. This was followed by a tune called "Glasgow City Police," which was played by Lucy on harp.

Then, a new song was introduced. It was written by Stuart, Fred Lavery and Gordie Sampson for the 20th Anniversary Album and was called "Chasing the Sun." The song was beautifully performed by Lucy, with some nice instrumental breaks.

Lucy was also featured on a couple other great songs, including her most popular, "Caledonia." The song is by Scottish folk-singer Dougie MacLean, and Lucy sings it beautifully. I remember another show where I saw this group playing and there was a lady sitting next to me that kept asking when Lucy would sing "Caledonia." She was getting worried because it was getting closer to the end of the show and she hadn't heard the song yet, but then Lucy came through. It was the last song of that performance and the lady said, "Oh, this is my favorite." It is one of mine as well.

Another song that featured Lucy was "Mouth Music," which is exactly that. Lucy sings puirt-a-beul along to background instrumentals and vocals. It is lively and toe-tapping.

Being a fiddle player myself, my favorite set of the evening was one by Kyle and Seamus called "Highland Melody," which was on the Barra's first album. The set begins with an air, which is pretty virtuosic, with shifts up and down the neck of the fiddle, even though it's slow. Kyle made the tune seem effortless and had a really clean tone. The piano accompaniment was amazing as well. It was a perfect blend of styles and I can tell that these two are brothers that have been playing together for a long time, just from listening to them. This was even more evident on the tune that followed: "The Sweeps." The tune is a hornpipe that is full of triplets. The duo played it so well that it received massive applause.

Another highlight of the show was a medley of songs. Lucy said, "We've done so many songs and tunes in the last 20 years, we can't possibly do them all tonight, so we made a medley." It was really neat and there were applause after each clip and explosive clapping only two words into "We are an Island." There were a lot of people singing along to this one.

There were a few guests for this show. First to join the Barras was David Francey. He started with a song that he wrote for his mother after his father passed away. The song was called "The Gate," because his mother wanted his father's ashes to be spread by the gate where he first told her that he loved her.

Next, he sang "The Ballad of Bowser MacRae." Before singing it, he told the story behind it, which is so good that a lady sitting next to me called it "the best story, ever." Francey explained that his wife had worked it out for him to take a trip on a barge on the Great Lakes. He was so excited that he didn't fall asleep until really late during his first night on the barge, but the captain, MacRae, came knocking on his door for breakfast really early in the morning, anyway. Francey said MacRae was such a big, tough-looking guy that he filled every inch of the door to his room. After breakfast, the captain took Francey into a room and showed him a video of his farm and his family, which is when Francey realized that MacRae had a soft side. The captain called home everyday because he missed his family dearly. This is what inspired Francey to write the song.

Following this, the Barras joined Francey for his song "February Morning Drive." Kyle explained they chose this song because of the "great winter imagery." The group later performed Francey's song "1,000 Miles," with Lucy on lead vocals and Francey backing her up.

Another guest was piper Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, who received a standing ovation just for walking onto the stage. Along with Ryan MacNeil, he began with a set he called "Dueling Chanters." It started with some jigs by the two pipers, who were later joined by the rest of the band. Following the set, Ryan explained that he chose to play the pipes because by the time he came into the MacNeil family, there weren't many instruments left! This is why he, a Cape Bretoner, ended up playing Irish pipes.

While this show was fantastic, I have to admit I left a bit early because it was so packed that the terminal was so hot, I couldn't stand it anymore, so the last song I heard was one from the Chieftains album Fire in the Kitchen, which was recorded with a bunch of Maritime artists including the Barra MacNeils. The song was called "Rattlin' Roarin' Willie," a very lively song that included Moloney on the whistle. The song left me feeling excited about going to my last night of Festival Club for the year!

review by
Kaitlin Hahn

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