Fiddle Heaven,
Celtic Colours 2002
at North River Centre for the Performing Arts,
Cape Breton, NS
(13 October 2002)

I followed the Cabot Trail north from the Gaelic College and through Goose Cove ("You watch out for moose on that road," a grizzled local warned me in a Baddeck eatery earlier that day), down a gravelly road and up a treacherous, torchlit driveway to the North River Centre for the Performing Arts. It was Monday night, time for Fiddle Heaven.

The music was great. But there were sacrifices to be made.

"The church was built in 1926," explained Angelo, the evening's emcee. "When they had to go, they just went." That means the only restroom was a portable toilet in the parking lot -- although Angelo told the audience (the men, presumably), "I recommend just peeing in the woods. But don't pee on the church. That's bad luck."

OK, back to the music, which spotlighted fiddlers from Denmark, the United States and, of course, Cape Breton.

The introduction of Tove de Fries was a lesson in Scandinavian linguistics for the crowd, but once they mastered the difficult pronunciation (sort of), the Danish fiddler and her keyboard accompanist, Malene Beck, gave everyone a lesson in a different style of fiddling.

"This is the exotic portion of the festival," Tove said with a sly grin.

The duo began with a slow Danish tune, a regal piece whose fast and intricate ornamentals belied its stately pace. Next up was a pair of Danish polkas, spritely and oh so danceable. "You hear jigs and reels all the time, so we thought we'd play something else," Tove explained.

If the audience thought the tune names were hard to pronounce, they could take comfort in the universal rhythm of music. Cape Breton audiences don't clap along much -- they believe it interferes with music more than it enhances it -- but feet were certainly tapping throughout the room.

That was a lot of tapping; the pews were full, as were a few rows of extra seats in the back and three dozen or so people standing in the antechamber.

"I don't know if it's allowed to dance in churches in Cape Breton, but please feel free," Tove told the crowd. She then treated them to a laid-back mazurka, the title of which translates to "Feeling Lazy."

Tove finished her set for the appreciative crowd, then yielded the stage to impish Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll. Fortunately for the audience, her name is very easy to pronounce.

She got things started with a "Miss McLeod's" reel set, playing unaccompanied and employing some of the tiniest bow strokes I've ever seen. Tiny, maybe, but wow, what a sound! I started believing she could string hair on a toothbrush and still have more than enough room to play a jaw-dropping set of tunes.

Similarly, her legs barely seemed to move, but her feet were pounding out a wicked beat. On the other hand, she has an expressive pair of shoulders and her head bobs energetically in time to the music -- while she doesn't dance while playing like some "blond and thin" fiddlers from Cape Breton, Liz puts a lot of upper-body motion into her music.

After a couple solo sets, she brought Cape Breton pianist Tracey Dares (just two weeks past the birth of her second daughter) to the stage. Together, they played a pair of jigs, "Pat and Al" (for Liz's children) and "The Champaigne Jig Goes to Columbia." Then, Dares took the lead for a pair of piano tunes, with Liz jumping in at the end for a jig duet.

Liz then explained how, in her past, she had entirely too much fun with potatoes, boobytrapping doors, leaving spuds in people's mailboxes with a note, "In case of famine, peel" and, more pointedly, lobbing potatoes into the audience for participation in the lively "Potato on the Door" set. If the lucky recipients weren't really sure when to drop their potatoes on cue, at least they had plenty of starch for the lunch the next day.

"I'd like to thank the committee for inviting me up -- finally," Liz, a Senior All-Ireland Fiddle Champion, joked. She certainly gave plenty of evidence of being one of America's finest fiddlers during her set. Her standing ovation was well deserved.

After a brief intermission (and the announcement of the birth of Barra MacNeil's member Lucy MacNeil's new daughter just a few hours before), fiddler Kyle MacNeil and his brother, pianist Sheumas MacNeil took the stage. One thing you can always say about Cape Bretoners, they have a lot of enthusiasm for their local music heroes.

Beginning one set (a pipe march, strathspeys and reels), Kyle admitted he wasn't sure of the titles. One of the tunes, he said, might be a Liz Carroll composition; if so, he said, maybe she could tell him the title after the show.

Then Kyle rolled up his sleeves, stood up and got serious with "The Maids of Arrochar," a beautiful air the band arranged in a candlelit studio while recording The Traditional Album. The candlelit chamber in North River was a suitable setting to recapture the moment. Swaying slightly as he played, Kyle exhibited a delicate touch on the fingerboard, sweeping bow strokes and a look of utter peace on his face; the crowd, with the exception of an occasional cough or sniffle -- it was a cold and damp evening, after all -- responded with silence and rapt attention.

Sheumas, of course, knows every nuance of his brother's playing and he responded accordingly, providing the optimal piano accompaniment -- fortunately for both, since Kyle had no set list and made the show up as he went.

As much as Cape Bretoners love music from Scotland, Ireland and the rest of the world, their pulses are stirred and their hearts are touched most deeply by their local music and musicians, and their appreciation for the MacNeils filled the room.

For their closing set, which included the perennial favorite "Tullochgorum," it seemed like Kyle wouldn't be content until he ran through every reel in the local tradition. The set was endless, and sterling stuff throughout.

After the requisite standing ovation, accompanied by enthusiastic hoots and hollers, all three fiddlers returned to the stage for a finale, joined by local legend Jerry Holland as a special bonus. Each pianist took a turn as the four fiddlers showed their stuff -- halting at times, as the four tried to figure out where the others were going, but amazing stuff nonetheless.

Fiddle Heaven was a well-named event, and it certainly lived up to its label. Unfortunately, there were no moose to be seen on the drive home through Goose Cove.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 26 October 2002