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

My wife and I ran down to Peggy's Cove on our long drive to Cape Breton. Although it was worth the extra drive -- Katie had never seen the beautiful lighthouse and village on Nova Scotia's southern shore, west of Halifax, and I had only been there once before -- it did delay our journey enough that we missed the first show on our schedule: Kelly's Dream, featuring Andrea Beaton, Kimberley Fraser, Troy MacGillivray, Lewis MacKinnon and the Dardanelles in Boularderie.

But regardless of that loss, we were greeted warmly after crossing the causeway and making our way across the island. After stopping briefly in Port Hood, where our pal Wendy was giving us a room for the week, and dining at the Lobster Galley by the Gaelic College, where our server, Kathy, and the owner, Jean, remembered us even though we hadn't been up since 2007, we made our way to the college itself, where Dave hooked us up with our press credentials and a nifty satchel/cooler stocked with, among other things, fudge and a cool little hat.

And then it was time for the Festival Club, and the music -- for us, at least -- began.

If you're unfamiliar with the Festival Club, let me take a moment to explain. Throughout the week at Celtic Colours, there are numerous concert experiences scheduled throughout Cape Breton. Each night, however, all roads lead to the college, on the Cabot Trail between Baddeck and St. Ann's, where the Festival Club begins at 11 p.m. and runs at least 'til 3 in the morning.

Most of the musicians who performed on the island that evening make their way to the club, and most perform -- sometimes in their usual lineups and configurations, sometimes in pickup bands that you'll never see perform together again. It's an incredible experience for the music lover, for sure.

And it always begins with master of ceremonies Buddy MacDonald. Buddy, from the North Shore, has been hosting the club for 16 years, and I for one cannot imagine it without him. He has a rich, warm voice, a friendly way of singing and impeccable taste in sneakers.

Tonight, he got things going with "Islanders," "Getting Dark Again" and "Hearts of Olden Glory" before yielding the stage to the first crew of performers.

Special kudos to Buddy on this night for his amazingly stoic performance, given that earlier in the day he'd received news that longtime friend and frequent singing partner John Ferguson had died suddenly. Buddy confided backstage that performing was hard, but consummate showman that he is, the audience never had a clue he was rattled.

Other performers this evening included Rocky Shore, a six-piece band featuring, among others, Paul Cranford and Sarah Beck on fiddles and Paul MacDonald on guitar. Donna-Marie DeWolfe, a 17-year-old fiddler from River Tillard, blasted through a series of tunes with Buddy MacDonald and Adam Young providing support, before Crowdis Bridge, joined for the evening by fiddler Colin Grant, provided a hearty dose of old-timey music. The Asham Stompers displayed their lively footwork, and Fiddlers' Bid, a rousing seven-piece band from Scotland, closed out the night.

Fiddlers' Bid includes Celtic Colours alums Chris Stout and Catriona MacKay, and their excellent musicianship is only enhanced in the larger setting. The band features four fiddles, a guitar and bass, and the lovely Catriona on keyboards and harp.

It was a shame about the drunk girl -- you know the one if you were there, she was out on the dance floor and really, really loaded -- but otherwise, wow. Chris Stout in particular was shredding his bow but, with horsehair a-flyin', he led the band through artistic constructions that devolved and resolved in unexpected directions, with odd tempo shifts that always, always worked and carried everyone along in his wake.

When the music finally ended, somewhere around 3:20 a.m., it was far too soon.

But there's always tomorrow.

review by
Tom Knapp

20 October 2012

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