Whycocomagh Gathering
at Whycocomagh Education Centre,
Whycocomagh, Cape Breton
(7 October 2012)

The music started even before the show began, with visiting accordion player Samantha Harvey from Ventura, Calif., and local harper Alexandria Samson providing tunes in the lobby of the Whycocomagh Education Centre.

After a yummy Thanksgiving dinner at the Telegraph House in Baddeck, my wife and hurried south for the 16th annual Whycocomagh Gathering. A popular tradition at Celtic Colours since the festival began, Whycocomagh always promises a startlingly good lineup of entertainment.

Tonight was no different, beginning with the pairing of artist-in-residence John Doyle, on loan to Cape Breton from Ireland, and New Yorker Bruce Molsky, the 2011 artist-in-residence back for an encore.

Doyle got things going with "Who's Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone," featuring a folky voice and a phenomenally nuanced guitar. Molsky provided harmony vocals and fiddle before leading into his own fiddle set and song, "Diamond Joe," which Doyle sat out. Molsky then ripped into a faster tune set -- to my eye, Doyle didn't seem to know it was coming, but he gamely joined in all the same ... and it sounded perfectly rehearsed as these two talents shared their skills. The two played with their heads tucked in close by the other, listening; Molsky said afterwards, "I knew there was going to be a second tune, I just didn't know what it would be." He made a choice on the fly, unsure even if Doyle would have a properly tuned guitar for the selection. He did.

Molsky then switched to banjo for a song "of death and destruction," a familiar story of a cabin boy who does great service to poor reward. Known by many names and sung in numerous variations, the version here was called "Golden Willow Tree." Doyle then switched things up with a solo rendition of "Wild Rover," but instead of the raucous version more commonly known, he went with a mournful take, more reflective and cautionary than the norm.

Both men tuned for a while, then closed their portion of the evening with "Don't Get Much Better," building to a rocket's pace as Doyle gave artful support to Molsky's fiddle. It was a mighty jam that could have been the headliner right there, but no, it was just the first act of four for the evening.

The Dardanelles, a five-piece band across the strait from Newfoundland, were next. Featuring fiddle, accordion, bouzuouki, guitar and bodhran, the band offers powerful sets from their island home.

The band blasted through a few instrumental sets, then gave the spotlight to Matthew Byrne for "The Old Smythe," a woe song of gales and reefs. They closed their set -- and the first half of the Gathering -- with another danceable tune set, tight and lively, all hands on deck.

The second half opened with a couple of local favorites, fiddler Howie MacDonald and pianist Allan Dewar -- according to Howie, "the finest piano player on the stage." Then it was time for the tunes, giving "Silver Wells" a slow, lyrical start before leading, as it inevitably must, into a faster and faster set.

MacDonald played a jig set, with tunes learned from Jerry Holland, Sean Maguire and Buddy MacMaster, and then -- after a couple of groan-worthy jokes -- another tune he learned from Brendan Mulvihill. Because, in Howie's world, it doesn't matter what it's called so much as who shared it with him first.

Jokester though he be, MacDonald is entirely focused on his fiddle while playing, and Dewar matched him handily every step of the way.

When MacDonald introduced his closing set -- a march, some strathspeys and reels -- a woman seated behind me loudly huffed, "I don't much care for strathspeys," as if they were known for moving into nice neighborhoods and bringing down the property values. I'm not sure what her problem is with these lovely little melodies, but whatever type of tune he plays, Howie MacDonald has a masterful touch with fiddle and bow, yet another sample of the island's hearty crop of homegrown talent, and the crowd just loved him.

And then it was time for the closer of the evening, Fiddlers' Bid, who brought it Shetland style.

The band is fiddle-driven, mostly en masse, although individual fiddlers got their moments in the sun. Featuring four fiddlers, a harp-and-keyboard player, guitarist and bassist, the band offers up a string-heavy wall of sound that is impressive in its ferocity.

Of particular note in the set was "Midnight," a tune that begins and ends with delicate pizzicato -- an unusual sound in this style, but it was entirely lovely and quite riveting in its execution here. Although I'd heard the band do the tune at the previous night's Festival Club in St. Ann's, the crowd there masked the subtle sounds with the din of conversation. Here in Whycocomagh, there was an awed hush in the crowd that allowed the music to flow and shape in the still air.

I think they're really funny storytellers, too, although my lack of mastery of their thick Shetland accents leaves me unsure what they were saying much of the time. I also must mention that fiddler Chris Stout must single-handedly keep the bow-hair industry afloat, the way he shears off huge hanks of hair at a time with his vigorous bowing.

Fiddlers' Bid closed their set with "All Dressed in Yellow," nearly a quarter-hour long, which builds and swoops in diverse and unexpected patterns. Sometimes, it's more about artistry and pure musicality rather than mere melody -- the band was creating lush landscapes that swept the audience along.

It was a crowded stage for the finale, which began with a Dardanelles song, "Big Bow Wow," leading into an instrumental blast that built into an all-inclusive full-contact sport, with enough musicians up there, it seemed, to field an entire football league. It was apparent everyone on stage -- and in the crowd -- was having fun, and that's one of the joys of Celtic Colours.

review by
Tom Knapp

27 October 2012

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