Festival Club,
Celtic Colours 2001
at the Gaelic College,
St. Ann's, Cape Breton, NS

It's possible to enjoy the music and splendor of Celtic Colours without attending a single concert event.

Each night of the weeklong festival, just as the various concerts are rolling to a close, the Festival Club at the Gaelic College, outside St. Ann's, is just getting started. The club runs nightly from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. and is much less formal than the concert settings elsewhere on Cape Breton Island.

There's no predicting what might happen when the spotlight hits the Festival Club stage. Some musicians give encore performances from their usual set list. Others take the opportunity to explore different options, experimenting with different styles and joining forces with other musicians to form incredible pickup bands. Sometimes, silliness abounds.

Ask anyone who frequented the club during the 2001 season about Phil Cunningham's keyboard interpretation of "Danny Boy" -- a hysterical rendition he reprised on a second night because of heavy demand. Try to find someone who heard Brian McNeill's "Mason's Apron" set, a fiddle medley not available on any McNeill CD that explored a lot of possibilities up to and including "The Hall of the Mountain King." See who was there when Bruce MacGregor, a fiddler with Blazin' Fiddles and Cliar, stripped off his pants to inspire musicians on stage to new heights.

Members of the Irish band Danu gathered on stage with several Cape Breton musicians for a energetic improv set. Kimberley Fraser, a young Cape Breton fiddler, joined forces with Danish duo Haugaard & Hoirup for a grand blast of tunes -- despite little time to rehearse. And who can forget young fiddler Ian MacDougall's 40-plus-minute set, a continuous blast of energetic tunes that started with Buddy MacDonald and Mac Morin accompanying him on guitar and piano, and ended with more than a dozen musicians packed on the stage for the jam.

I became acquainted with the Festival Club in 2000 when my friend John and I arrived in Cape Breton too late to make it to one of that evening's Celtic Colours shows. So, after checking into our room in Baddeck, we headed up to the Gaelic College, stopping along the way for our first taste of island cuisine and a bit of sightseeing. We arrived at the club as it opened and, because we'd heard rumors of a session, we carried our instruments inside. Seeing my fiddle and John's guitar, the man at the door directed us to the green room -- mistakenly believing us to be official performers. That confusion was worked out backstage, but Barry, who was tallying performers as they arrived, asked us to play since none of the scheduled musicians had arrived yet.

So that was our introduction to Cape Breton, Celtic Colours and the Festival Club. Before we had a chance to see anyone else perform, we were on the stage doing a 30-minute set. What a welcome! Needless to say, the Festival Club became a nightly routine.

Local singer-songwriter Buddy MacDonald emcees the pub each night, performing alone or with a few friends to get things rolling, then introducing (and sometimes accompanying) other musicians throughout the night. And that's the magic of the Festival Club -- most of the musicians who perform in the Celtic Colours festival turn up at some point or another to give impromptu, casual shows for club patrons. Not only do you get fine performances from the various featured bands and musicians, you also get all sorts of mix-and-match jam bands as performers join forces to create new bands on the spot. And despite the improvisational nature of the sets -- sometimes it's more a session than a performance -- they always seem to come up with polished sets that demonstrate their easy familiarity with both the music and each other.

While all of the music is going on, you can count on hundreds of people turning up to listen, chatter and, sometimes, dance wildly in the college's Great Hall of the Clans. A small kitchen and a working bar serve to enhance the night's festivities.

Some musicians and numerous patrons make the Festival Club a nightly stop throughout the festival week, so you can imagine it's quite the social event.

In addition to the great music happening on stage, those with the proper credentials can spend time backstage in the green room, where you can often find musicians sitting around a small basket of potato chip fragments for additional jams -- it seems these people never grow tired of playing! Truth be told, I've heard some of the freshest, best music in that tiny room.

I certainly urge everyone in the vicinity of Cape Breton during Celtic Colours to take in as many of the featured performances as they can. However, the Festival Club is not to be missed, and everyone who can should turn their cars towards the Gaelic College on as many nights as possible. It's worth the drive.

[ by Tom Knapp ]