Festival Club
at the Gaelic College of Arts & Crafts,
St. Ann's, Cape Breton
(11 October 2012)

There was no beating the Festival Club tonight.

There were the usual highlights -- for instance, I finally got to see Vishten, from Prince Edward Island, and The Once, from Newfoundland -- both bands that had eluded me so far this week.

But for those of us lucky enough to be at the Gaelic College this evening, there was one moment, one production that made the whole night worthwhile.

Few were unaware by this point in the week that John Ferguson -- a storied veteran of local music, whose 40-year career included solo work, numerous recordings and tours with the band McGinty and a recurring partnership with local singer-songwriter Buddy MacDonald -- had died unexpectedly just as the Celtic Colours festival got underway. His loss was felt throughout the week, although musicians who knew and loved John soldiered on with the kind of professionalism he certainly would have understood.

On Thursday, it all came to a head when Buddy and a group of friends collaborated to sing in John's honor. The "Celtic rat pack," as Buddy called it, sang old favorites, a cappella, in a style and form that John always loved.

Joining Buddy on stage for this stirring tribute were Roger Stone, Bruce Guthro, Allie Bennett, Doug Sampson, Cyril MacPhee and Max MacDonald. The center mic stood empty, for John.

There was little time for preparation. The gang of singers came together backstage and warmed up quickly. And yet, with amazing power and an excellent ear for harmonies, this impromptu vocal band sang just a few songs -- familiar ones, the sort John and his friends would often perform to great acclaim. And, as would be expected, voices throughout the Hall of the Clans were lifted to sing along.

The brief performance started with "Coal Town Road," Stan Rogers' classic "Northwest Passage" and "The Chemical Workers' Song." There was a moment of silence for John -- I never could have dreamed such a hush could fall over so packed a room -- before the tribute concluded with the Cape Breton theme song, "Rock in the Stream."

It was a great show of talent, camaraderie and shared emotions on stage, and one wondered that they could all sing so beautifully without their voices cracking. But they did. By the end, there were many moist eyes in the crowd, deservedly so.

It was a grand tribute to a pillar of the local music community, and there could have been nothing more fitting.

Nothing was topping that performance. But the Festival Club wasn't ready to close down by any stretch. Additional highlights this evening included sets featuring Darren McMullen and Dave MacIsaac.

McMullen, widely referred to this week as the "Swiss army knife" of music, was a musician I'd already seen quite a lot this week, usually in a supporting role for someone else. It was refreshing to see him take lead, a role he obviously relished, with Ben Furey on guitar, Zach Smith on percussion and Rachel Davis -- with whom McMullen seemed to be flirting -- on fiddle.

McMullen snapped a string in the first set but managed to tune on the fly and kept chugging along. Equally versed with mandolin, guitar and banjo, he put on an impressive display.

To wrap up the night, I heard Dave MacIsaac was going up. It was no lone guitar, though -- the local legend was joined on stage by no less than four fiddles, keyboards, a mandolin, accordion and bass. It was, of course, a great close for the evening's music.

music review by
Tom Knapp

22 December 2012

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