Gaelic Roots,
Celtic Colours 2001
at Strathspey Place, Mabou,
Cape Breton, NS
(6 October 2001)

After so grand an opening night, music fans attending the Celtic Colours festival eagerly approached the first night of regular festival performances, challenged only by the task of choosing which show, scattered across Cape Breton Island in various local venues, to attend. My travels took me to Mabou for Gaelic Roots, a three-pronged concert celebrating Cape Breton's strong ties to Scotland.

Celtic Colours is probably one of the few events in North America that can open events with bilingual announcements in English and Gaelic. Many of the locals are fluent in Gaelic -- for some, English is a second language -- so the English translations were more for the benefit of us outsiders.

The show took place in the elegantly named, newly opened Strathspey Place, a wonderful new venue in Mabou. Allan MacDonald, an award-winning bagpiper and member of Scotland's MacDonald Brothers, began the show with a 15-minute set of piping for an appreciative audience ... despite a few minutes of painful on-stage tuning.

Beolach, a new Cape Breton instrumental sextet, took the energy level up several notches for an exciting series of sets following a lightning-paced hello.

The band features fiddlers Mairi Rankin and Wendy MacIsaac, pianist Mac Morin, uilleann piper Ryan MacNeil, guitarist Patrick Gillis and drummer Matt Foulds.

"Have a good time, and for God's sake tap your feet," exclaimed MacIsaac, launching a high-adrenaline series of tunes. The audience willingly complied as the band rolled through sets including "Bovaglie's Plaid," "Rector" and more. Everything went off without a hitch, despite Rankin's mysterious duct-tape incident midway through the show.

Cape Bretoners, I've noticed, take a great deal of pride in the accomplishments of their homegrown musicians, and certainly the audience was thrilled with the performance of this young island band. "If your bum needs to move, move your bum," Foulds exhorted as Beolach headed into its final set, making it through without stumbling when Gillis broke a string or when Rankin's socks (apparently lack duct-tape support) fell down.

Scottish band Cliar, rightly called a "Gaelic supergroup," headlined the Mabou show with its award-winning lineup of performers. The band features Gaelic singers Arthur Cormack, Mary Ann Kennedy and Maggie MacDonald, pianist Ingrid Henderson, fiddler Bruce MacGregor (who appeared at Celtic Colours in 2000 with the Scottish band Blazin' Fiddles) and guitarist Chaz Stewart. Kennedy and Henderson also shared time on the clarsach (Scottish harp).

The Cliar performance began with an a cappella example of puirt-a-beul, or mouth music, featuring the three singers who participated in Friday's opening ceremonies. The number expanded to include all six voices before moving on to a Scottish waulking song, which added piano and fiddle to the background. The song resolved into an instrumental blast as the harp and guitar joined the mix.

Despite the band's impressive instrumental lineup, Cliar is first and foremost a vocal band, and its three lead singers all have an expressive mastery of the Gaelic tongue. Fortunately for us non-Cape Bretoners, the band often gave English translations of their songs -- not word for word, of course, but enough of a summary that we knew what was going on: who was falling in love, who was cheating on whom, who was dying and so on. So good are these singers, however, I would have been quite content even without that concession to the non-Gaelic speaking portion of the crowd. A literal translation didn't really seem necessary when their singing conveyed the tone and general meeting so well.

Admittedly, the band's playlist included an unusual number of Scottish love songs with happy endings. For two songs, the band taught the audience the chorus so everyone could sing along. It was stirring to hear all of those voices raised in Gaelic -- but they never did tell us just what we were saying....

The three instrumentalists (plus Kennedy sometimes on harp) did an excellent job providing a framework and ornamentation for the songs. At a few points in the show, the instrumentalists were given free rein to present some tune sets, and they definitely showed that they have the chops to stand on their own. On one occasion, Henderson stepped out from behind her piano (and out of her shoes) for a wonderful harp solo.

It was, admittedly, a bit surprising to see MacGregor with the band. After witnessing firsthand his fiddle wizardry with Blazin' Fiddles last year, one might not expect him to be content in a supporting role. However, he handled the slower fiddle harmonies and embellishments with characteristic skill, and he made the most of every chance to let loose.

The singing of Cliar transported me back to Scotland, evoking memories of that gloriously rugged, heather-covered landscape in a way not even a bagpipe or bagpipe band has ever done. This was the best performance I've seen yet of this great Scottish vocal tradition, and it earned Cliar a well-deserved standing ovation.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 21 October 2001