Ceilidh at the Big Fiddle
in Sydney, Cape Breton
(11 October 2008)

My first concert experience of Celtic Colours 2008 was at one of the larger venues of the festival. It was at the Sydney Marine Terminal, where as many know, they have a very large fiddle overlooking the water -- hence the name of the show, "Ceilidh at the Big Fiddle."

To begin the show, Gaiteros de La Habana, a group of pipers from Cuba, marched to the front of the room playing in a style that sounded very much like Galician piping, while a group festival volunteers stood in front of the stage. This led into a bit of an educational lecture about the immigration of Celts to Cape Breton and other parts of the world, as well as some "thank yous" to the volunteers and sponsors of the festival.

Then, Mairi Smith was introduced to the stage. She is a Gaelic singer from the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. All of her songs were a cappella, pure and strong. Having her sing after the talk about immigration of Scots to Cape Breton was quite fitting.

After a couple of songs, emcees Iain MacNeil and Laurel Monroe brought Genticorm, a Quebecois group, to the stage. They began with a very unique type of tune called a "brandy." For all of you Celtic musician buffs, a brandy is a 3-beat reel. It has a driving sound, which was emphasized by the fiddle player's feet as percussion. Also included in the mix of instruments was guitar and flute. It was amazing how much sound this group got out of so few instruments. I saw them play at the festival in 2007, but I really believe they stepped up their game this year. Not only were their arrangements of tunes nice, but their songs were really great as well. The first one they sang was a love song that "also talks about cooking rodents in a stew," as the band put it. "We like to cover multiple subjects," the explained. They also sang one in three-part harmony, with only foot percussion as accompaniment. The last set of their performance included two beautiful step dancers from the Forrester Dancers group.

Next to take the stage was a female super group, Grace, Hewat & Polwart. This group has the most amazing arrangements of songs, which include two- and three-part harmonies at times. They are also quite accomplished on the instruments they use to accompany the songs, including harp (Hewat), guitar and Shruti box (Polwart) and whistle (Grace). The first song began with harmonics on the harp and only Polwart singing, but it quickly led into beautiful three-part harmonies. Then, they did a medley of lullabies, which was a great example of how each individual voice sounds, as well as how their voices blend so beautifully. They ended with a medley of "milling frolics," which was done completely a cappella. While there were no instruments accompanying on this one, it sometimes sounded as if there were. The backing vocals almost sounded like flutes at times! Overall, this group really amazed me. All of their songs were very calming; yet, I don't think I could ever fall asleep to it because their arrangements were so interesting. Their choice of harmonies were perfect -- especially the dissonances and resolution of those dissonances.

The master Cape Breton fiddler himself, took the stage next. Jerry Holland came out to share some tunes, with Marion Dewar on piano. They began with his composition, "Lonesome Eyes," an air, which he wrote for his son. It was beautifully choreographed by the Forrester Dancers. There were three girls doing some graceful highland steps behind Jerry and Marion and it looked really neat because the dancers had long white dresses that captured the color of the multi-colored stage lights really well. It all fit together really nicely. This was followed by a rousing set of jigs, which got the audience's hands clapping and feet tapping from the first note. After explosive applause, Jerry prepared for his last set by tuning and explaining that "the stage lights heat everything up and it makes the fiddle go wonky." He then played a traditional set that his "heroes" played, "including my father," he said. As he played the marches, strathspeys and reels, he looked like he was in deep concentration, with eyes closed and a slight grin. It seemed like he was really enjoying playing for this audience.

After some extremely cheesy, scripted banter between the emcees and a brief intermission, the Brock McGuire band came out to show their stuff. They kicked things off with a lively set of jigs and reels and then explained that they got into Cape Breton during the wee hours of the morning that day, so the tunes were "hot from Ireland." Had they not explained this, one would have never known the circumstances, because their performance did not show it at all. They were as tight as ever. Their next set included a wonderful rendition of the reel, "The Mason's Apron," which was played in E-flat, rather than the typical key of A (Manus had his fiddle tuned up)! This was followed by a ragtime sounding set of hornpipes, which they explained, "James Morrison recorded them in the 1920s." Then, they did a Percy French song into "Turkey in the Straw," which got some much-deserved "whoops!" and clapping from the audience. The band concluded their portion of the show with a set that included a slide from Ireland, two old time American tunes, and an Irish reel called "Miss Monaghan," "to keep things well rounded," as they put it.

After the applause ended, Mairi Smith took the stage, again. This time, she sang a song that "makes fun of what's happening in life." This type of song was written when people used to travel on boats between Ireland and Scotland. It was their way of keeping themselves entertained during the stressful time on the boat and at work. The song had a lively, bouncy rhythm and showed her skills in Gaelic song really well.

The last act of the night was the local super group, Beolach. Joining them, in place of Mac Morin, was Tracey Dares on the piano. The group immediately got the audience clapping, with a set of reels. They followed this with "The Schooner Lane Set," which is a new set of reels that they have been working on. It included some fancy footwork by both Wendy MacIsaac and Mairi Rankin. To catch their breath, the band slowed things down a bit with a tune called "Toss the Fiddles," by Liz Knowles (another fantastic fiddler from the States), which led into the lively reel, "Toss the Feathers." While the audience was tapping their toes to the tunes, Wendy must not have thought it was enough, because she asked, "You're awfully quiet tonight. Didn't you have a drink before you came?" To get a good response, she asked how many people in the audience were from Cape Breton and how many were from away, to see which group could be the loudest. This got the audience riled up for their last couple of numbers. The last set included another special guest, Wendy's cousin, Ashley MacIsaac. He came out to join the band on a foot-stomping set of Cape Breton tunes. Ashley, jokingly, began by playing a fancy slow tune to start the set, which quickly turned into jigs, and then strathspeys and reels. After some more steps by Wendy, Mairi and Ashley, the set ended with thunderous applause.

This show had a fantastic mix of artists and styles that left me wanting to hear more, so onto Festival Club I went!

review by
Kaitlin Hahn

8 November 2008

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