Whycocomagh Gathering,
Celtic Colours 2002
at Whycocomagh Education Centre,
Cape Breton, NS
(12 October 2002)

The first night of the Celtic Colours performance series found me at the Whycocomagh Education Centre, which was packed to the rafters with music fans for two young and talented homegrown bands and one of Ireland's hottest multi-instrumentalists.

Triskele, a 2-year-old Cape Breton band, got off to an energetic start with a mix of instrumental and vocal sets.

Vocally, Triskele has a strong edge with Colin Watson, who sings poirt a' beul, or Gaelic mouth music, with breathless intensity. Fiddler Melody Cameron accompanied one a cappella piece with equally tireless stepdancing, her foot percussion providing an excellent counterpoint to his voice.

Melody Cameron also plays a wild fiddle, as she demonstrated while the band's second fiddler, Blair MacDonald, took his turn at dancing. The cheers and applause increased with the tempo of the music and his flashing feet (and the red flush of his face). Derrick Cameron played guitar while Joel Chiasson provided keyboards.

Triskele finished up its 45-minute set with a Gaelic milling song and reel set. Cape Bretoners know milling songs (or waulking songs, as they're called in Scotland) and it wasn't long before voices started joining in from the crowd. Knowing the words wasn't necessary, however -- feet instantly began beating time to the evenly paced work song. The reel jam even had members of Beolach, the next band up, bouncing along the side wall.

The last set earned Triskele a standing ovation, and they were just the opener.

Beolach was next, and the local supergroup overcame two big obstacles to put on a phenomenal show.

Keyboardist Mac Morin fell ill shortly before the performance; fortunately, another of Cape Breton's top keyboardists, Joel Chiasson (a busy lad this evening), stepped in and filled the slot with practiced ease. Also, the band has worked without drummer Matt Foulds since he moved to Scotland nearly a year ago; Foulds' return visit for Celtic Colours was a seamless reunion, as if he was never away.

Beolach has a similar lineup to Triskele -- two fiddles (Wendy MacIsaac and Mairi Rankin), guitar (Patrick Gillis) and keyboards -- but adds bagpipes and whistles (Ryan J. MacNeil) as well as drums to the mix for an effective, powerful blast of sound.

"Shake your bums or something," Foulds exhorted the crowd. "There's not much room for dancing, but wiggling in your seats is still cool." The next set, "Three Mile Bridge," made it hard to keep still to the band's jigs, strathspeys and reels. The show continued with " Holly Bush," a slow and stately Irish reel with waltz-like flair. I suspect they slowed things down just to prove they could -- they immediately launched into a fast set of reels to bring things back to speed.

As the music continued through "Scott Skinner's," "Rector" and "Freddy's Set," both MacIsaac and Rankin gave brief samples of their own stepdancing talents. Their portion of the show ended with the "West Mabou Set" and another well-deserved standing ovation.

After two local favorites and a brief intermission, the crowd made welcome a special guest from "across the pond," Ireland's Sharon Shannon.

Shannon and her backup band -- Jim Murray on guitar and sister Mary Shannon on mandolin and banjo -- wasted no time in setting a high bar of excellence with sets like "The Bungee Jumpers" and a collection of tunes from Doolin's Miko Russell.

But Shannon wasn't content to prove herself one of the best accordion players in the business. She also demonstrated amazing prowess on the fiddle and whistle. Wow.

On two occasions, Shannon called young Dingle Peninsula singer Pauline Scanlon to the stage. She varied from the Celtic theme a bit, singing Cork songwriter John Spillane's "All the Ways You Wonder" and "Sally Free and Easy" on her first time up, Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" and Willie Nelson's "Valentine" on the second.

Though visibly nervous, rocking from foot to foot as she sang, Scanlon showed nothing but confidence as she shared a beautiful, haunting voice with the crowd -- and she literally glowed with glee as she left the stage.

This was my first encounter with Scanlon, but I predict I'll hear more from her in the future.

Shannon kept the music going, too. A mazurka by Tommy Peoples and subsequent set of reels inspired one local man in a Feis t-shirt to stepdance to one side of the stage. A waltz and jig set conjured a carnival atmosphere.

As if Shannon didn't satisfy the audience's craving for music, several members of Beolach joined her and her band on stage for a final blast of tunes. The rousing, wild and fierce jam -- enhanced by the dancing of two Triskele members -- gave every indication of a band that played together all the time. The cheers and standing ovation that followed were well-deserved.

It was the kind of night I've come to expect from Celtic Colours -- and the week had just begun!

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 26 October 2002