Winston's Home,
Celtic Colours 2001
at Octagon Arts Centre,
Dingwall, Cape Breton, NS
(11 October 2001)

The concerts in the Celtic Colours series aren't just about the music.

To use a hackneyed expression, half the fun is getting there. The drive up from Baddeck to Dingwall followed the eastern leg of Cape Breton's famed Cabot Trail and, while autumn colors were not yet at their peak in the south, the Highlands were in full glory. The rugged coastline is an amazing spectacle, and the scenery on both the land and sea sides of the highway was beyond stunning.

Dingwall itself seemed a picturesque fishing town well worth expending a roll or two of film, but I'd spent too much time playing fiddle tunes on the rocky promontory at Lakie's Head -- by the time I got to Dingwall, the light was gone and the camera useless. No matter. It was nearly time to get inside the Octagon for a night of fiddle music at Winston's Home. The night's entertainment was a tribute to Winston "Scotty" Fitzgerald, a legendary Cape Breton fiddler who died 1987.

The eight-sided auditorium, wood-paneled and filled to capacity, was a perfect venue for the show, which featured five Cape Breton fiddlers and two pianists invoking the memory and legacy of Fitzgerald.

I arrived 30 minutes before the show to find one of the performers, Jerry Holland, propped on a bench outside the door, full of yawns and ready for a nap. All signs of fatigue had vanished by the time Holland and the rest of the Octagon's musical complement had their turns on stage.

All of the musicians knew and played with Fitzgerald, and each took a few minutes in the show to reminisce about their association. The renowned fiddler's sisters, Margaret and Willena, and his nephew, also named Winston, were in the front row for the performance.

Paul Cranford -- lighthouse keeper, publisher and fiddler -- began the night with little fanfare, launching into a set of pipe tunes after a brief, soft-spoken introduction. Cranford, accompanied by pianist Doug MacPhee, gave a solid interpretation of the tunes, some of which were written by Fitzgerald, nearly all of which were played, recorded and kept alive by the influential musician.

Cranford maintained a rock-steady beat with the heel of his left foot. Of course, in Cape Breton it would be unthinkable for a fiddler to keep time alone, and the majority of feet in the audience were tapping along.

After his set, Cranford assumed the role of emcee, introducing Dingwall fiddler Stanley MacKinnon for another set of tunes. "Winston wasn't only a great musician," MacKinnon said. He also had an exceptional talent for selecting tunes and "putting them together so they blended in just such a way."

After MacKinnon's set, the spotlight switched to MacPhee for a piano solo. Then Mary MacIntyre took over the keyboard as fiddler Don Brown took the stage. "In my opinion, he (Fitzgerald) was the greatest," Brown said. "That settles it."

To be honest, not every note in the first half of Winston's Home was perfect. The program was designed in part to showcase local talent and give a chance for those who knew Fitzgerald to share a few of their memories. To that end, it was an enjoyable program, even though some of the music was a little rough.

All of the roughness vanished in the second half of the show.

Following a brief intermission, the stage was handed to Inverness, Cape Breton native Sandy MacIntyre, who moved to Toronto in the 1950s. "We always talk about Winston in the present because his music goes on forever," MacIntyre said. He remembered a time he played a few tunes for Fitzgerald while doing his best to imitate Fitzgerald's style. Fitzgerald chastised him for the effort, MacIntyre said. "If I wanted to hear Winston play, I'd play myself," Fitzgerald told him, he recalled. "Develop your own style. Have a lot of fun with it. And always be yourself, because there's no one better suited."

After a final blast of reels, MacIntyre left the stage and his sister, Mary, yielded the piano back to MacPhee, who treated the audience to a long and lively piano solo. Then it was time for Jerry Holland to bring the show to a close.

If MacIntyre was well polished, Holland was buffed to a perfect shine. Holland has long been one of my favorite Cape Breton fiddlers, and he demonstrated his qualifications as a master of the instrument during a series of flawless sets. With a gentle hand on the bow and fingers flying lightly and precisely along the fingerboard, Holland played surely and sweetly, never even marginally out of place. MacPhee matched him note for note.

At 10:30, as if a silent alarm signalled a townwide bed-time, there was a mass exodus of spectators from the building. But Holland didn't take the growing number of empty seats personally, and he treated those who stayed to a great blast of tunes. Several members of the audience, including Sandy MacIntyre (fiddle in hand) and two young community volunteers, showed their appreciation by stepdancing for the crowd.

The performance ended with all five fiddlers and both pianists on stage for a finale of tunes. The symphony of fiddles marked a great cap to the evening, closing a fond remembrance to one of Cape Breton's favorite sons.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 24 November 2001