Gaelic Airs,
Celtic Colours 2001
at St. Ann's United Church,
Cape Breton, NS
(8 October 2001)

Popular singer-songwriter Buddy MacDonald, who emcees the nightly Festival Club at the Gaelic College during Celtic Colours week, hosted a Monday evening concert at the United Church. The small, packed sanctuary along the North Shore region played host to Gaelic Airs, a varied offering in the festival lineup.

Buddy began the night with a few of his own songs, accompanying himself on guitar on "We Remember You Well," a sentimental appreciation to the people who influenced his life, and "Play It Again," a tribute to his music. Then Buddy turned the microphone over to Scotland's Tony McManus, whom he described as "one of the finest acoustic guitar players in the world."

Tony began his portion of the show by joking that Cape Breton is just like Scotland, "but everybody is happy." Noting the conclusion of Canada's Thanksgiving weekend, he added, "They tried to introduce Thanksgiving to Scotland. We all said 'What for?'" He certainly showed the extent of his digital dexterity, running through a lovely guitar air, "The Clan of Ulster," then the air and reel set, "Hector the Hero/The Girls of Martinfield."

Buddy introduced the next performer as a "wonderful ambassador for Cape Breton Island" who is "spreading the Gaelic gospel." Mary Jane Lamond served up a pair of songs with her grand vocal style and presentation, starting off with a song of unrequited love (the standard sort of love song in the Gaelic tradition). Mary Jane sang without accompaniment beyond the slow, steady rhythm of dozens of feet tapping on the church floor. Other Gaelic singers waiting behind her on the stage joined her softly on the choruses, as did many of the Gaelic-speaking people in the audience. Her too-brief portion of the show ended with a North Shore milling song, for which Mary Jane was joined at the microphone by the "doo-wop Gaelic girls," local trio Boireannaic nan Oran.

Boireannaic nan Oran, which translates to "The Women of Song," have performed with Mary Jane on all four of her albums. They were up next, beginning with one of their favorite Gaelic songs (I won't embarrass myself by trying to spell the title) that had most of the people in the church singing along. That led into "Chi Mi Na Morbheanna," a Gaelic translation of "Mist Cover'd Mountains."

Next up was Scottish singer Ishbel MacAskill, who urged the "all-Gaelic Spice Girls" behind her to sing along on her songs. Ishbel began her program with a song on the realities of war, a song chosen because of the day's news about the U.S. war in Afghanistan. While I didn't understand a word of the song, I could fully understand why so many eyes seemed moist by its end. Ishbel instructed the audience in enough Gaelic to handle the chorus on the next song, another of Scotland's many doleful love songs.

The cozy church setting was unique for Ishbel, who said neither music nor candles are typically found in Scottish churches. Since lightning hadn't struck her yet, she said, she would glady proceed with the show.

Scottish piper Iain MacDonald, formerly with the WolfeTones and the Battlefield Band, closed the first half of the program with a bagpipe air and a rousing set of strathspeys and reels. Soon, the church was shaking with the vibrations of many pounding feet.

Everyone had a second go at the microphone in the second half of the show. Buddy led off with "A Song Not a Rifle," a touching song set in Northern Ireland; the lyrics were, given current events in Afghanistan, all too timely. Then Tony jammed through a series of pipe tunes adapted for guitar.

Mary Jane followed with "the saddest Gaelic song I know," telling the tale of a couple who elope and are pursued by the young woman's father and brothers. In the ensuing scuffle, the young man kills his new bride; the song is his lament from prison where he awaits his execution. Boireannaic nan Oran and Ishbel both performed additional Gaelic songs; Ishbel thanked the audience "for being so attentive, considering most of you haven't understood a word." Ishbel's song was a beautiful lament on the timelessness of the ocean. Iain, swapping his pipes for a flute, ended the program with a set of reels with Tony's accompaniment.

Gaelic Airs wasn't as lively as some other programs in the Celtic Colours series, but the high level of musical quality remained high, and the easy humor and interaction among the performers made the time pass very quickly. It was a great evening of music in the United Church, another coup for Celtic Colours.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 10 November 2001