Songs of Sea & Shore
at St. Matthew-Wesley United Church,
North Sydney, Cape Breton
(8 October 2012)

St. Matthew-Wesley United Church in North Sydney is a beautiful place, all white walls and dark wood. On this Monday evening, it was solidly packed with folks who'd waited outside in a long and patient line in the chilly October air, their view of the massive Newfoundland ferry obscured by an oil truck across the way.

It was Thanksgiving in Canada, and we marked ours with a delicious dinner at the Lobster Galley in St. Ann's before making our way over Kelly's Mountain to North Sydney for Songs of Sea & Shore. Cyril MacPhee, a local mainstay from the St. Peter's region, and John Doyle, artist-in-residence from Ireland, got things going by starting the show with "The Years Roll By," a song entirely disconnected from the evening's theme. Bruce Molsky was next, picking up a banjo to sing "The Golden Willow Tree," a song of naval betrayal. Then Norah Rendell, taking a night off from her multinational band, the Outside Track, joined Molsky, who traded banjo for fiddle, to sing "Willie Taylor," about a different kind of betrayal entirely.

The swap-on, swap-off of performers continued. Molsky took his seat so Rendell and Kathleen MacInnes could sing an Irish song in Scots Gaelic. Then Rendell sat down and J.P. Cormier strode on stage, clutching his instruments. "What are we doing?" he asked. MacInnes asked his assistance for "Oran na Cloiche," a song from South Uist about the Stone of Destiny.

The musicians were obviously having all kinds of fun up there on stage, a fun that translated immediately to the crowd. Doyle returned next for "Liberty's Sweet Shore," a sing-along song about the Irish famine. Then it was Cormier's turn for a solo, "Noise," which he described as both a love song and "a note to God." He followed it up with a guitar piece, no title given, which he played reverently, worshipfully and with intricate skill. When he rolled the tune set into the ever-popular "Tullochgorum," he earned a standing ovation from the crowd.

When MacPhee and Molsky joined Cormier on stage for the next song, Molsky remarked that Cormier "just played more notes than I played in the last week." Smiling, Cormier switched to banjo so he could, as he put it, "Scruggs it up." MacInnes returned next for an a cappella fisherman's song from Skye. The first half of the show ended with everyone on stage for "The Boatman," with an instrumental jam featuring Rendell on pennywhistle.

The rotating buffet of musical excellence continued in the second half. MacPhee led things off, first with a song called "Harbourtown," then with a Cormier song titled "The Molly May." Unfortunately, Cormier missed his cue on that one, so MacPhee soldiered through alone.

Rendell, a British Columbia native who was performing admirably this week despite the burden of advanced pregnancy, was up next with the sad, despairing "The Lowlands of Holland." She was then joined by Doyle, MacPhee and Molsky for "The Pinery Boy," a tale from a midwestern river that evolved from a British sailor song. Molsky then shared a shipwreck yarn.

Next, North River's own Carmel Mikol took a seat at the piano for "Home," a song about the farm where she grew up. Doyle then joined her onstage for the next one, "I'll Never Find You" -- during her introduction, Mikol noted that it's "a very Canadian thing to sing about the landscape." "Every Bird" next got the audience singing along with Mikol's "We gotta love somebody" chorus.

The remainder of the show was given over to Sister Rita Clare and the Cape Breton Chorale, a far-ranging singing group led by Clare for some 40 years and featuring the sweet, full sound of many voices joined together.

The gang of singers got right to work, rolling through traditional and contemporary songs including "The Cabbage Boiled Dry," Jimmy Rankin's "Fare Thee Well, Love," "I'se the B'y" and Alasdair MacGillivray's "Away from the Roll of the Sea." The chorale then paid tribute to the late, great Stan Rogers with renditions of "Make & Break Harbour," "Fogarty's Cove" and "Mary Ellen Carter," making a joyful noise of the latter's "rise again" chorus and earning the chorale a standing ovation.

The evening's finale brought everyone back on stage with the chorale for a rousing, inspiring version of the Barra MacNeils' "Rock in the Stream."

The only disappointment this evening was that the performers didn't adhere very closely to the stated theme of the show. Pretty much any song was fair game, although there was at least a majority of songs about the sea and shore. The quality of the performances, across the board, made any sense of disappointment fleeting, however.

review by
Tom Knapp

17 November 2012

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